The Australian working class was once oppressed by big business. Today it suffers under the yoke of actors and actresses. Associate Professor David McKnight, from UNSW's Journalism and Media Research Centre, asks: "Is it just me, or have others noticed that the Liberal Party under Tony Abbott has become the party of class war, class envy and class hate?"
In an astounding rhetorical trick, Cate Blanchett is attacked as a symbol of wealth and power for speaking out on climate change. Yet dollar for dollar, she barely rates against genuinely wealthy Australians - such as mining heiress Gina Rinehart, who is a supporter of the climate sceptics.
When Abbott stands at the dispatch box and channels Vladimir Lenin - speaking passionately about Australia's ''working people'' and his plan to save them - the world has gone topsy-turvy.
Yet this is not new. Conservatives first discovered the working class in early 1980, when Ronald Reagan's campaign for the US presidency began in earnest.
Reagan's strategists found they could harvest the votes of ordinary Americans by attacking ''the elites'' and appealing to ''traditional values''. Low paid and unemployed Republican voters then became known as the ''Reagan Democrats''.
The US neo-conservatives developed a whole theory that blamed everything wrong in the US on ''the new class'' - a vague, contemptuous description of rival intellectuals who supported the welfare state and civil rights. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher's Tories attacked ''the chattering classes''.
When John Howard was opposition leader (as Abbott is now), he attacked ''powerful vested interests'' that crushed the battlers in Australia. ''The families battling to give their children a break, hard-working employees battling to get ahead, small business battling to survive, older Australians battling to preserve their dignity,'' he said.
Who were the vested interests who oppressed Howard's battlers? It was not greedy banks or ruthless employers. It was ''chardonnay sipping, inner-city elites'', shadowy, all-purpose targets of hate. The anti-elitist rhetoric that has swamped political discourse in Australia has been studied by a number of scholars.
Two academics, Sean Scalmer and Murray Goot of Macquarie University, examined several Australian newspapers, focusing especially on tabloid columnists such as The Daily Telegraph's Piers Akerman and the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.
Anti-elite culture warriors, they found, resorted to Australians' well-known sympathy for the underdog. This was the basis for a rhetorical trick that portrayed a distorted image of the liberal-left as an extraordinarily powerful and all conquering force. Its critics, often rich and right-wing, were painted as embattled and intimidated.
Apart from allowing powerful voices to play the victim, this populist discourse had a sinister side, they said. It debated issues with extreme and violent language. Those with different opinions were enemies, not adversaries in debate. Scalmer and Goot argued that ''the differences between adversaries are tactical; those that separate enemies are moral. Enemies â€¦ are evil. Unlike adversaries, they cannot be tolerated, only destroyed.''
Today, this political rhetoric is fostered by the US Tea Party and climate deniers worldwide.To those with a long memory, the seizure of anti-elite rhetoric by the right has a funny, familiar ring. Simply put, it is a distorted echo of old-style Labor rhetoric, which strongly identified with the underdog and challenged big business. The right's rhetoric is the result of a clever ideological smash-and-grab raid on the rhetoric of the left.
In her book, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, political analyst Judith Brett from La Trobe University argued that the genius of conservatives such as Howard was that they simultaneously advanced their policies in a way that challenged Labor's core identity.
This identity historically grew from the poor and the working class who railed against the power of money and privilege. The antidote was the collective power of ordinary Australians, expressed in trade unions or in progressive governments.
In recent years, Labor took this support for granted and desperately sought respectability. The price of respectability was that it dropped its so-called class war rhetoric. Abbott was happy to scoop up the bullets and fire them back at their original owner, now disarmed.
Today, the firepower of money and privilege still exists. It was exercised brutally in the mining industry's campaign against the mining tax. Yet Labor was paralysed rhetorically. It dared not use ''class war'' rhetoric, even against an industry that employs very few people and whose profits largely disappear overseas.
If Labor wants to stop being used as a punching bag, it could do worse than take off the gloves and start talking about the real consequences for ordinary people when climate change begins to hit. The rich will protect themselves against its effects and Labor's battlers will suffer the most.
Ordinary Australians oppressed by actors? That's the theatre of the absurd.
This piece was first published in The Age.
Media contact: Fran Strachan, UNSW Media Office | 02 9385 8732