The recent public outcry across the Australian community at large about the Abbott government’s budgetary decisions have revealed one of this nation’s core values – the belief in fairness and egalitarianism – which has been absent from the general zeitgeist for some time – most especially in the case of asylum seekers. The decisions of the Abbott Government to impose significant cuts on education, health and welfare have caused outrage, not simply because of the fact that these cuts constitute broken promises, nor because of the utter contempt and hypocrisy that have been revealed by their rhetoric that all must do the “heavy lifting” and that this is the “end of the age of entitlement” but because they so obviously target the disadvantaged and leave the wealthy largely unscathed. This is hardly surprising considering it has long been the modus operandi of neo-conservatives, yet the measures contained in this budget are so patently unfair that they go against traditionally upheld core Australian values, at the heart of which is egalitarianism. It is the kind of breach of trust Australians generally do not tolerate.
Unfairness, in “the land of the fair go” is, to put it bluntly, un-Australian. The term is here used with ironic awareness that it is most often falsely deployed by nationalists and narrow-minded knee-jerk patriots with the least interest in the greater good. Fairness, or egalitarianism might be an abstract idea which can be realised in many ways, yet in recent decades in Australia it has been associated with equal opportunity and equality of access to services and welfare. Australians have long boasted of their good fortune in not being like America, something people of all political persuasions talk about with pride: our free Medicare; our decent, if not perfect education system with its relatively equal access, our social safety net which, despite its holes, is broadly adequate and at times generous; our better safety and health regulations and more sober judgements on issues such as gun ownership. This position is even reflected in the way this debate is characterised in the media, where the question has been repeatedly asked as to whether Australia is in fact turning into America: a United States of Australia. We inherited our social system from the British, yet we look to America for comparison to see its virtues, and its virtues are the fairness and egalitarianism encapsulated in the idea of universal access.
Forcing people to pay $7 for a visit to the doctor is clearly unfair and no amount of rhetoric about “price signals” is going to change the public’s view of what is clearly an unnecessary and highly unwelcome tax. It is an outrageous imposition on low-income earners and those dependent on welfare, yet even more galling is the dismissive suggestion that it is merely the cost of “a couple of middies.” For a start, there are many disadvantaged Australians who don’t have the opportunity to enjoy a couple of middies, because finances are so tight, but irrespective of that, the failure to empathise with the situation of these people, or worse, care about it, is indicative of the age-old conservative blindness to the actual cost of living. A man with Joe Hockey’s assets and income is not well placed to contemplate the incapacity of people to pay this fee – though he should be, or else, he should not be in politics. If we can accept that Hockey is, in fact, capable of such empathy (bearing in mind his student protest days) yet has chosen to pursue this policy anyway, then it merely highlights the government’s indifference to fairness and equality.
The attack on unemployment benefits – cutting off payments after just six months – is not only unfair, especially in areas where work is not available, it is socially irresponsible and dangerous policy. On the ABC’s Q & A on May 21, a young Tasmanian man pointed out to Joe Hockey that there are roughly 18,000 job seekers in Tasmania, and around 500 jobs advertised monthly. How are those people expected to live when, still unable to find employment, their benefits are cut off? What kind of Australia are they trying to create? One in which crime and depression are more widespread? No one is suggesting it’s OK to exploit welfare, but to have a system which might deny support to people who genuinely need it is not remotely fair. You can’t have a watertight public system and feeding a few leeches is a small price to pay for security and dignity.
The public has already had a sniff of this government’s “un-Australian” tendencies with their unwillingness to save Holden and blithe indifference to a future foreign takeover of Qantas. This might not been the greenest polity in the world, yet they are deeply suspicious of the government’s lack of concern for the environment, most evident in their willingness to expose the Great Barrier Reef to risk. Irrespective of any cold logic or economic rationalism that might be argued in any of these cases, the gut response across the community is that Australia is losing its icons and its unique environment is directly threatened. Woe betide any prime minister who carelessly tinkers with the very soul of the nation and transgresses its core values.
This country might represent the richest and most decadent society in human history, but it is less stupid and complacent than Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey seem to believe. How do they think it looks to the average person when they move to cut billions from education and deregulate university fees, along with increasing the interest on student loans, in the light of the knowledge that Tony Abbott’s daughter was offered a scholarship that was clearly only granted on account of her wealthy, influential pater? How does it look when, on budget day, a day on which measures that would harm the livelihoods of millions of Australians were announced, the treasurer and finance minister are seen joking and smoking cigars? We are not a bunch of mugs, and, so far as doing the “heavy lifting” is concerned, such arrogant, hypocritical rhetoric will see this government picked up and tossed into Lake Burley-Griffin in the next election.
These are but a few examples, yet the unfairness of this government’s agenda is evident on many fronts. Why push to remove the mining tax, perpetuate tax breaks for the fossil fuel sector, but cut welfare payments and services? Why claim to be a government for indigenous Australians, then rip more than 500 million dollars out of funding for indigenous programs? Why push for a ludicrously generous and expensive paid parental leave scheme which will primarily advantage high income earners, but not invest in child-care whilst at the same time cutting family support? Why spend $12.4 billion on foreign-built fighter planes, while offering no support for local manufacturing? There are so many clear inconsistencies coming out of this budget, but they all add up to one very clear and alarmingly loud message – the rich pay once (maybe, if the levy passes the senate) while the rest of society pay forever with an unaffordable, elitist education system, more expensive health care, under-funded services, inadequate childcare, slow, expensive internet, and a bleak environmental future. This does not reflect Australian egalitarianism, in fact, it is the most blatantly arrogant form of elitism we have witnessed in decades.
The government’s program might seem less cruel and vindictive if it was coupled to a sound vision for Australia’s future, yet their performance so far makes it clear that they are clueless. The Coalition never had any real alternative policies in opposition, only oppositions and disingenuous arguments about how to fund things, whilst pretending they would uphold the significant social infrastructure which Labor had put in play – particularly Gonski and the NDIS. It is now clear that this government’s only purpose is deregulation – creating an environment in which their donors can operate freely without red and green tape getting in the way. This is especially evident in their attitude to science, climate policy and the environment. Why dismantle the Climate Commission, as though climate change is not a real and present threat? Why fail to appoint a science minister for the first time since the 1930s? Why shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, even when it’s turning a profit? The answer is simple – no matter how much they might pretend otherwise, Tony Abbott still thinks climate change is “crap” and the coalition have absolutely no vision for Australia’s environmental future.
What makes this all so stupid strategically is Tony Abbott’s failure to understand how greatly disliked he is across the community as a whole. He won the last election on the back of the most vicious and partisan propaganda campaign by the right wing media, and only because, despite their best efforts to sell him to the public, he was viewed incorrectly as the lesser of two evils. After such vitriolic rhetoric about lying and broken promises, after taking the moral high-ground so stridently against Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, he would have done well to adhere to those standards. By treating the public with such contempt, namely, in breaking almost every single promise he made prior to the election, he and his government have lost the small amount of credibility they had mustered. They now have no political capital left to spend whatsoever.
Even Tony Abbott’s one big win in “stopping the boats” has become a slow-burning, potentially metastasising cancer that will eat away at Australia’s international credibility and come back to bite them as the situation inevitably deteriorates. In “solving” the problem they have, ironically, removed the one issue on which they might have argued competence, thus nullifying any positive effects on public opinion. The mainstream media has already moved on, and, increasingly, the focus is on conditions on Manus Island – a human rights disaster which no amount of whitewashing can disguise.
The very nature of this government’s broken promises also significantly undermines their credibility, because they mostly serve to punish people in need, without any net positives for the majority of the population. The lie that these cuts will improve Australia’s position economically and save the country from perilous levels of debt quickly evaporates with a glance at the comparative statistics on debt levels across the OECD. More importantly, however, the cruelty and short-sightedness of these cuts is readily apparent when we consider that there are other, far more effective ways of generating wealth without restricting the grass-roots spending power of the lower middle and working classes, or imposing unreasonable charges and debts on the most vulnerable socio-economic groups.
The government’s attempts to sell this budget have been pathetic and contradictory to say the least – relying either on false dichotomies, blaming Labor, economic rationalist rhetoric and even bullying. One MP , George Christensen, had the temerity to suggest on Twitter that Australians should tour Asia and live like locals to put their “First World complaints” into perspective, going so far as to post a photo of a poverty-stricken street. The take-down was swift – “Aussie battlers should take a glimpse at LNP model for Australia’s future,” was one reply. Apart from the exploitative, disgusting sentiment expressed by Christensen, he might bear in mind that most Australians have visited Asia and already appreciate what they have and will fight to keep it. He might also bear in mind that many of us have been to Scandinavia too, and know only too well how much better things can be with even fewer resources if only the government has the balls to tax industry properly and make the people it was elected to represent its priority.
But of course, in reality, this is class warfare pure and simple. The government has been using a false premise to wage ideological warfare on behalf of its benefactors. The “incompetence” and “profligate spending” of Labor, resulting in a “budget crisis” are rhetorical constructs of right-wing ideologues. Yes, Labor at times appeared shambolic on account of their lack of internal discipline, yes their PR team is likely the most incompetent in history, but at least their policies (with the very clear and obvious exceptions of cuts to welfare for single mothers – the greatest betrayal of their heartland – and their pathetic and cruel policies on asylum seekers) were primarily geared towards providing the essential hard and soft infrastructure Australia requires to function as a progressive, competitive and fair society: the National Broadband Network, the Gonski School funding program, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Carbon Pricing Scheme, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax among many others.
These are in some cases expensive, but arguably necessary policies, designed to promote fairness, equality and to raise revenue from areas that are inadequately taxed or require taxation to curb current practises. At least when Labor broke their promises about the Carbon Pricing Scheme it was, arguably, for a good cause. We do need to reduce our emissions and make an effective transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Other programs for which Labor have been pilloried, such as the Home Insulation Scheme, smack of a bad case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No one doubts that the deaths of those installing the insulation were an unmitigated tragedy and should have been prevented, yet the policy itself was implemented with sound intentions. Do we really need a royal commission, especially one that is ideologically motivated and has siphoned funding from the royal commission into child abuse? Labor made mistakes, but arguably their efforts were more broadly in the public interest – more egalitarian – than those of the present government, which are abundantly non-egalitarian.
The real problem underlying Labor’s program – a problem which still prevails – was not how much they spent, but how little they taxed. If they truly believed these programs were necessary, then it was simply a question of raising revenue to pay for them. There were, and still are, plenty of ways to do that without cutting anything. In a recent article in The Guardian, Luke Mansillo outlined six means by which the government could raise revenue totalling $136.5 billion dollars: through removing unfair superannuation subsidies which are skewed in favour of the wealthiest; increasing taxation on the mining industry; abolishing fuel subsidies for the fossil fuel industry; defunding private schools; introducing more progressive income taxes and abolishing negative gearing.
It is worth pointing out just how little mining is taxed – at present, it effectively equates to 13% . This amounts to revenue totalling around $17.6 billion from an industry that was worth $135.6 billion in 2010-11. As Mansillo points out, Norway taxes its industry at a whopping 78%, and it is a thriving, going concern. With a tax of 50% on industry profits, Australia could raise around $67 billion – single-handedly wiping out the deficit and paving the way for a future of generously funded public services. How long is this rort going to continue?
What is most astonishing about the present debate is that it focuses squarely and, to some degree appropriately, on the cruelty and suffering inherent in the budget proposals, but has not as yet centred around alternative measures of raising revenue. Why aren’t we discussing how much more we need to tax the mining sector? Why are we merely imposing a one-off levy on high income earners, rather than increasing income tax for high earners and thus locking this revenue stream into the taxation structure? Do we honestly buy the redundant argument that this will cripple the economy and drive mining investment away?
Of course, with the next election still two and a half years away, Tony Abbott might just get away with it. The bounce for Labor will be unsustainable if they fail to remove the taint of their recent time in office and if Bill Shorten remains as uncharismatic as he is at present. The Greens and Palmer United are more likely to be the longer-term beneficiaries of the present storm – a storm which might herald the beginning of a new politics in Australia. After all, this has been the most volatile period politically since the sacking of the Whitlam government. Are we entering a new era of one-term governments, a far more diverse senate and the greater presence of minor parties in the Lower House?
One thing is for sure, Abbott must resign as minister for women. Winkgate has made his position untenable. It might seem trivial to some, but, wink aside, the contemptuous and disrespectfully glib smirk and body language expressed during the conversation, along with the patronising tone of voice, perfectly illustrate precisely why so many women are so suspicious of Tony Abbott and find him so contemptible. The very fact that there is only a single woman in Tony Abbott’s cabinet sends a clear enough message already.
Right now as Bomber Harris once said, quoting Hosea: “they that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind” and Tony Abbott and co had better batten down the hatches, for they have been flagrantly tossing their seed into the wind for some time. Australians have traditionally punished those they see as elitist or arrogant, those who don’t believe in a fair go. There will be no exceptions for Abbott if he doesn’t win back the public’s trust. I for one, most certainly hope that he fails in that endeavour.