Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Getting over Kevin

The former PM's latest “look at me”; moment gave him just a few short hours in the sun. Is the media finally as tired of his manipulations as the rest of us?

On Monday night Kevin Rudd posted on his website a strangely-argued but long-overdue announcement of his change of position on same sex marriage. On Tuesday he held a press conference. The presser had already been scheduled, for an announcement on the Brisbane Cross-River Rail project; I’m told that there were questions about the rail project, but the ABC journalist who told me this hadn’t been paying much attention. She was there, as were so many others, because of Kevin’s Big Gay Marriage Blog Post.

We’ve become, in the time since he lost the Prime Ministership, used to K-Rudd’s stunts and grand pronouncements and non-leadership moves. And we became used to most of the Press Gallery playing, or being played, along with him.

But something changed recently, after Erik Jensen’s piece was published in The Monthly. Finally the worst of Rudd’s behaviour was laid out in one article. What it said about him was instructive, unsurprising, and yet still confronting, destroying whatever faith was left after the euphoria of Kevin ’07 had collapsed under the weight of the ETS, the MRRT and the more and more frequent stories of vile behaviour to staff and contempt for Cabinet.

The most revealing part of the article, though, was the section on Rudd’s relentless playing of the media and the utter failure of the Gallery to see that they were being used, so accustomed are they to, and so dependent upon, the prestige of being first with the leak.

Laurie Oakes, one of the greatest Canberra journalists of our time, does not come out well:

Gillard(‘s)…. campaign was hobbled by leaks. Three weeks after Rudd lost the leadership, Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes questioned Gillard over a supposed “deal” with Rudd. The account was remarkably detailed. Oakes asked whether on the night of his ousting Rudd had offered to stand aside if the polls did not improve. “Is it also true that you agreed that this offer was sensible and responsible?” Oakes asked. “Is it true that there was then a brief break during which Mr Rudd went outside and briefed a couple of colleagues on what he thought was a deal while you contacted your backers, and that when the meeting resumed you said you’d changed your mind? You’d been informed he didn’t have the numbers in caucus and you were going to challenge anyway?”

The insinuation was obvious: Gillard’s ascension was not just ruthless, it was dishonest. She told Oakes the conversation had been confidential, but there was little doubt where the story had come from. Thanks to former ALP leader Mark Latham’s pugnacious 2005 memoir, Rudd’s leaking – particularly to Oakes – was already infamous. Latham outlines in The Latham Diaries how he suspected Rudd of being the source of numerous damaging leaks before and after the 2004 federal election – “his pompous language is a give-away” – and details a curious trap he set by feeding Rudd false information. The information, concerning nonexistent focus groups, was prominently reported in Oakes’ Bulletin column the next week.

Ten days into the 2010 election campaign, on 27 July, Oakes fronted Nine’s evening news with a report that, while deputy leader, Gillard had opposed increases to paid parental leave. He also reported her questioning an increase to the aged pension, allegedly saying “elderly voters did not support Labor”. The story, which also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, written by another long-time Rudd confidant, Peter Hartcher, cruelled Labor’s vote in marginal electorates.

Oakes and Hartcher and Grattan should not be proud of their dealings with Rudd. Their dependence on him as a constant source of leaks blinded them to what they had become, what no journalist should be – a mouthpiece for personal ambition.

Rudd couldn’t destabilise Gillard from the inside, even when he was Foreign Minister, because most of caucus had come to loathe him, so he reverted to the behaviour that Latham had warned of in his Diaries: he leaked, and leaked, and leaked. And he knew that every confidence he betrayed, every titbit of information, true or not, would be gladly gobbled up and repeated in the next day’s news.

The Gallery were played by Rudd, over and over again. His betrayal of his party during the 2010 election campaign should have seen him denounced as a traitor and thrown out of the party. But the election result, skewed as it was by his behaviour and that of the journalists he manipulated, gave him power in the media and he’s been firmly latched on ever since.

Even before Jensen’s piece was published, the gallery were finally starting to twig; not to what he was doing (they’d known it and been complicit all along), but to how the audience was starting to see Rudd, and them.

Like the alcoholic who keeps drinking but tries to reassure loved ones that it’s not a problem anymore because he’s admitted to the problem, subtle disclaimers started to appear in Rudd-based stories: “we know this is a stunt, we know what he’s up to, and we know that you know that we’re being used, but it’s okay because we know, okay?”

Despite this knowledge, the press jumped on the Rudd bandwagon again this week. Same sex marriage (SSM) is an easy wedge for him to use against Gillard, clamped as she is between the “no poofters” wing of the ALP and public support for change. He played it well: the contrast between the self-confessed god-botherer finally accepting that SSM won’t mean the end of civilisation and the professed atheist PM who has to say that it will. The blog being posted the night before a hitherto innocuous presser. The reference to his wife being an influence was an easy trail of breadcrumbs over to Tony Abbott’s sister, mandating comment from the Leader of The Opposition.

Across the bottom of the ABC News 24 for most of Tuesday ran the sub “Rudd’s gay marriage stance puts him at odds with PM” as if we didn’t know it already and as if that wasn’t exactly what Rudd wanted.

Then a strange thing happened.

George Brandis (with whom I sincerely hope never to agree again) said this on Sky News:

Forgive my cynicism, but I’m bound to say that I think this is more about Kevin Rudd than it is about Same Sex Marriage… who would have thought… all of a sudden Kevin Rudd dreams up a new issue to draw attention to himself.

The comment itself was not strange, but it started popping up in my tweetstream and my facebook feed, accompanied by “+1”s and “YES EXACTLY”s.

Soon after @Steph_Philbrick tweeted:

Oooooh, interesting… Rudd’s same sex marriage troll was covered on #10news 10 minutes in. EVERYONE is seeing through this stunt.

Lateline’s intro didn’t even mention Rudd, running instead with all the actual stories – the Oklahoma tornado, Treasury’s Budget figures, Apple’s alleged US tax-avoidance, even a feature on nursing homes. Kevin’s SSM moment was squished, twelve minutes in, next to the Treasury story, amongst a wrap-up of today’s Canberra goings-on.

There’s been no new coverage in the late news that I’ve seen tonight. SSM has gone back to its familiar place in the national psyche, with Penny Wong berating the Australian “Christian” Lobby for its latest mouth-breathing bigoted outburst and Sarah Hanson-Young squeaking something nice about love.

Rudd is nowhere to be seen.

Could it be that, finally, the media are as sick of him as the rest of us have been for so long now? Could it be that his perpetual maelstrom of damage and petulance has at last blown itself out?

Probably not, but it seems that it is, finally being seen for what it is: Rudd gazing into the media pool, entranced by the beauty of the image it reflects back to him.

Published in Weekly Email

Paid Parental Leave is the current feminist cause célèbre, but how much difference will it make to gendered economic disparity? And what does that disparity really look like?

Helen Razer once said, in a piece that upset almost everyone,

Feminism is the struggle against masculinised violence and feminised poverty. Or, the acknowledgement that physical violence is enacted disproportionately by men and poverty is experienced disproportionately by women.

It is one of the most accurate summations of feminism that I've read in recent times.

One could argue however that, as physical violence is not just enacted, but also experienced, disproportionately by men, male violence is a male issue, not a female one. Making it a feminist issue distances men from the discussion of the problem and the source of the solution.

Feminised poverty, on the other hand, is experienced by solely women. It is undeniably a feminist issue.

It’s curious then, that the feminist debate about economic issues in Australia is focused on paid parental leave. Such payments may make a small, short-term difference in the economic lives of working women who have children, but it will have almost no impact on a lifetime of gendered economic disadvantage. The relatively minor differences between the Labor and Coalition offerings on parental leave are irrelevant to making genuine change to feminised poverty. Why are we focused on the meaningless sideline issues and ignoring the extent and cause of the problem?

It’s probably important to consider where the gender disparity in economic welfare comes exists. Is it in employment participation, salary discrepancies, superannuation savings, disproportionate child care responsibilities or varying remuneration rates across gendered industries? Well, yes. To all of those things.

 

Employment participation and dependent children.

According to ABS data, the overall labour force participation rate in 2012 for men was 80% and 65% for women. When you factor in dependent children, the gap widens significantly: participation rate for men with children under five is 94%, for women in the same group it is only 56%. The gap is smaller for parents of six to fourteen year olds (men: 93%, women: 78%) but still significant.

Of the people with children who are in the work force, 65% of women and 7% of men with children under five are employed part time.

It is worth noting that, excluding people who have retired, this is primarily a matter of choice for women: 37% of women not in the labour force cite family reasons (predominantly looking after children). 55% of those women report that they prefer to care for their children at home, only 12% cite no childcare available or childcare too costly as a reason to not return to work.

The main reason given by men for not being in the labour force was ill health/disability.

 

Lone Parents

18% of men and 20% of women are living in low economic resource households [persons in the lowest two quintiles of both equivalised adjusted disposable household income (adjusted to include imputed rent) and equivalised household net worth.]

This doesn’t seem like there is a significant gender disparity, until you start drilling down into the data.

According to the ABS 13% of families in Australia are single parent households and 84% of those households are single mothers. Of those women, 84% of mother under 35 and 62% of the total are living in low economic resource households. Or to put it another way, single mothers are seven times more likely to live in poverty than single fathers.

 

Gender Pay Gap

Not only are men are paid significantly more than women across all occupations, they are also disproportionately represented in the highest paying occupations. This data has nothing to do with employment participation and it is not directly skewed by absence from the workplace, it is average weekly earnings of people actively in employment.

gender pay gap

Source: ABS 4125.0 Gender Indicators, Australia, January 2013

 

Superannuation and Retirement Income

34% of women and 24% of men in 2007 had no superannuation coverage. Of those people who did have superannuation coverage, the mean balance for men was $84,589. For women it was $52,272.

In 2010, 17% of men and 10% of women over 65 had superannuation as their main source of income. 74% of men and 80% of women claimed government pensions as their main source.

 

So how does PPL affect gendered wealth disparity?

It doesn’t. Women who return to work three or six months after a baby is born are still economically disadvantaged, but probably no more so than women who never have children.

Gendered wealth disparity exists because it is still predominantly women who leave the workforce for years not just a few months, to care for children and because when they are in the workforce, they are paid less than men. Paid parental leave doesn’t either of those issues.

As much as we would like a simple solution that we can require government to implement, there is no way for any government to make effective changes to the social mores that direct women away from the workforce after they have children. And very little that government policy can do to change the long term effects this has on women’s on remuneration and career prospects. It requires a social shift towards sharing the burden of income generation and childcare responsibilities more equally between men and women. We need clear recognition of the damage the current imbalance does to women’s long-term economic prospects and the knock-on effect on children of sole parents. We need proper investigation into the barriers women experience in returning to work. Investment in logistical assistance (e.g. getting young children safely to and from school) skills training and employment re-entry would be far more effective in changing women’s long term economic prospects than cash handouts for the first few months after a child is born.

Paid Parental leave is not the problem or the solution, it’s nothing more than a distraction.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 13 May 2013

Canberra’s Night of Nights

Ben takes us behind the scenes of Canberra’s night of nights, and pulls back the curtain of glitz and glamour to reveal the hard work and dedication of the artists who make it all happen

“This really is our grand final, you know? Our Oscars. Our Eurovision.” The young intern hands me a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a donut, and scurries away, no time for idle chit-chat when there’s work to be done.

I’m on the floor of Swan Central: the enormous hangar-like structure from which the Federal Treasurer manipulates the economy and controls all of our lives, and it’s D-Day. The Federal Budget will be handed down tomorrow, and the vast spaces of the top-secret facility are crammed with people and equipment, as Swan’s staff ensure that the production goes off without a hitch.

I sit down with Arthur Spandon, one of the senior choreo-budgeteers in charge of Tuesday night’s performance. “I started out in dance,” he explains, “but then I was headhunted as part of Labor’s push to make budgets more exciting for the audience. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but then I realised that budgets are a lot like dances really.”

I’m fascinated. “How so?” I ask. Spandon looks startled, and runs away without another word, but I think I’m getting his drift. Like a dance, a budget needs to have everything in precisely the right place to make sure nothing goes wrong. Each foot must land in the right position, or everything might collapse. Tomorrow night Wayne Swan will do the dance of fiscal responsibility, and the several thousand people working like bees all around me are here to make that dance a thing of beauty.

“It’s obviously a huge production,” says Steffi Asteroth, Swan’s chief of staff and au pair. “There’s so much riding on this. And so much time and effort has gone into it. The costumes alone took eight months to sew by hand, and we’ve had forty different drafts of the script. And a Budget doesn’t come cheap: every year they get more sophisticated; this year’s will have over 200 special-effects shots in it.”

Special-effects? Yes: in the old days a Treasurer did things in the practical way; if he needed to ascend to the ceiling of the House, it would be done with wires. But today such effects are managed with CGI – from where I sit I can see Swan himself rehearsing in his motion-capture suit – and Asteroth has been in charge of overseeing the effects team to see that it’s all seamless. When Swan starts manipulating the hologram of the solar system floating in front of him in order to explain the cuts to the arts budget, there’ll be hell to pay if any glitches show up.

So what’s it like overseeing a production that, by most conservative estimates, is three times bigger than any Hollywood movie ever made? “I’ll admit there’s a lot of pressure,” says Asteroth, frenetically kneading a Whitlam-head stress ball. ‘But if you’re committed to Labor values, like I am, you welcome that pressure. You embrace the chance to serve your country in this way.

Yes, Labor values. Among all the set designers and lighting rigs and gaffers and horse wranglers milling about the budget floor, the sense that everyone is part of something bigger is palpable. I can see Swan trying on his feathered Treasurer-Helmet in a last-minute fitting, and it’s obvious just how much this man cares about the movement of egalitarianism and freedom, of which he has inherited the legacy.

As Asteroth shows me around the wardrobe department, the sequins seem infused with the blood, sweat and tears of workers long dead. This will be a spectacular production, yes, but the spectacle will all be in service of fairness and social progress. The theme song, “Prayer For The Small-Revenued”, written for the occasion by Bernard Fanning, makes the purpose of this Budget clear.

But what will actually be in the Budget? Asteroth refers me to head writer Graeme Foofcleft, who shows me the storyboards. Giving “spoilers” would obviously be unforgivable, but Foofcleft makes a point of emphasising some things.

“It’s about character,” says Foofcleft. “A lot of past Budgets have been very plot-driven, all about clever twists and exciting chases. Like unexpected tax cuts, health insurance rebates and so on – all about where the story’s taking place. But with this we’re going back to basics and asking, who are the people of the Budget? They’re just like you and me – in fact technically they are you and me – so let’s explore that a bit, let’s get to know these people, these mums and dads and dole bludgers, and look at what makes them tick. It turns out that getting lots of money from the government makes them tick mostly, so we’ll be exploring that side of things a bit.”

There’s no doubt it’s an ambitious endeavour: pulling off an entire country’s Budget armed only with one man’s crazy dream, a multimillion-dollar budget and a huge staff. What drives a man like Wayne Swan to keep on doing this year after year? Steffi Asteroth knows treasurers better than most: she orchestrated Peter Costello’s famous “Napalm budget” of 1997, and she was a focus-puller when Paul Keating released fifty leopards into the chamber during the 1985 budget. She’s seen budgets from inside and outside, and she takes a moment to ponder the question.

“It’s love,” she declares at last. “Wayne Swan loves this country, and he loves its people, and he genuinely believes they deserve the best Budget money can buy. He wants to make his mark, he wants to leave a lasting impression upon Australia, and that’s what keeps his passion burning. He once had me over to his place for a key party, and he said to me then, ‘Steffi, when I die, I just want to be remembered as a man who changed the world and held millions of people’s lives in the palm of my hand.’ That humility is typical of Swanny.”

And it’s true: all his staff seem to adore him, and all are single-minded in their pursuit of Budget excellence. As I watch the Treasurer being fussed over by technicians fitting him with explosive squibs, I can’t help but marvel at his commitment to making his mark. Truly this is man who wants to leave a legacy of sensation, wonder, and equitable but responsible redistribution of wealth. And for Wayne Swan, this Budget is the acid test of that legacy. As Fraser said to Howard, you’re going out there a nobody, but you’re coming back a star.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 13 May 2013

The Myth of Objectivity

Do political journalists truly maintain objectivity? Do we even we really want them to?

As a long-time observer of politics, I’ve often struggled with the question of journalists’ political views. That they have them is indisputable. Whether these views colour their political reporting and analysis is another thing altogether.

Former journalist, editor and now ABC radio presenter Jonathan Green wrote last week

Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right? What is certain is that it should not matter. Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence. Journalism tainted by conviction just isn't. That's the simple truth of it.

For the large part, Green was railing against New Limited’s uber-tabloidisation of political news: the reduction of nuanced policy discussions to absurd campaigns and the deification of shock-jock commentators such as Andrew Bolt.

While I agree with his sentiment, I suspect Green may be pining for a lost time that might not have even existed.

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy. Environment writers tend to favour progressive policies that protect the environment, while business writers lean towards pro-business policies that inherently are conservative. Agriculture and resources writers usually support capitalist industrial-scale exploitation of Australia’s natural resources. And economics writers implicitly favour approaches aligned with whatever school of economic theory they support.

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand. The ubiquitous commentary pieces that are the privileged domain of senior political writers can also distort our perception by blurring opinion with analysis and fact.

This can make it hard to get to the truth of a matter, for it is the truth that’s meant to be at the heart of journalism. Invoking CP Scott’s admonition that “facts are sacred”, Green also stresses:

Journalism is neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. In any journalism worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance and the journalism that might be produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it.

Find and report the truth. That’s a noble goal: just ask church abuse whistleblower Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox. But sometimes it’s not: just ask former Speaker Peter Slipper. How the truth is wielded – for good or ill – is completely dependent upon what the journalist sees as being the public good.

Added to this diabolical conundrum is the cult of celebrity, which distorts how politics is reported. The personal branding of journalists has become so important that now some mistakenly assume their private views are as important as the news they report.

At its most benign, this phenomenon has delivered us endless panels of journalists interviewing journalists and, at its worst, political editors such as Michelle Grattan brazenly calling for the Prime Minister to resign and Peter Hartcher actively campaigning on behalf of Kevin Rudd.

However, journalists’ celebrity status does not necessarily have to go to their heads. Even though they’ve reported politics for two decades or more, I’d argue the political views of other high profile journalists such as Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis are unknown. So it’s not impossible to have a strong personal brand and still be an impartial journalist.

Extended to a broader canvass, we know that some news media organisations favour one political philosophy over another. The views of arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch are reflected in the editorial stance adopted by his newspapers and television stations. Conversely the Guardian newspaper continues to promote the small L liberal values upon which it was established.

It seems these days that any assessment of whether media bias is a good or bad thing is usually determined by one’s own political preference. Liberal supporters bask in the warmth generated by the Murdoch cheer squad while deriding the luvvies at the ABC for their (albeit limited) scrutiny of the Opposition. Meantime Labor supporters rail at the partisan News Limited, while calling for the soon-to-be-launched Guardian Australia to even up the score.

So what do we want? Do we want to “simply be informed without bias or favour” as suggested by Jonathan Green? Or do we want the media to support our chosen side?

It’s all in the hands of us, the consumers. But we can’t have it both ways.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 06 May 2013

Retail Politics

The Tribune has been considering how we should cover the federal election. We’re not a member of the press gallery, we can’t do what they do and we’d look foolish if we tried. So, what can we bring to the election coverage that will be both interesting and useful?

Our electorate is Melbourne Ports (traditionally a safe Labor seat, held by Michael Danby). The neighbouring electorates are Melbourne (currently held by Adam Bandt for the Greens) and Higgins (a safe liberal seat, held by Kelly O’Dwyer). These electorates are going to be interesting microcosms of trends across the country: can the Greens hold on to the gains they made in 2010? Will shifting electoral borders, changing demographics and the predicted swing against Labor unseat entrenched sitting MPs? How much effort do the Liberal candidates in safe seats need to make to protect their turf? How much does politics really matter to the general population? How much do they engage with, or want to engage with, their local members?

So far, it seems that local engagement is small, but perhaps this is the perfect time for that to change.

Tim Dunlop wrote a piece for the Tribune last year about how painful it is trying to decide who to vote for, when both the major parties (and their leaders) seem equally uninspiring and ill-equipped for government. The general response to the article was a collective “yes, exactly”. And the view is borne out by Essential polling on both leaders, showing their disapproval ratings have been significantly higher than their approval ratings since early 2011. Perhaps it’s a mark of how privileged we are in Australia that great statesmen are only required in times of great need.

But the lack of inspiration leaves Dunlop’s question unanswered: how do we decide who to vote for?

In 2010, the Tribune interviewed the candidates from the three major parties in our electorate (excuse the shamefully amateurish writing, we were very young then). The results of those interviews took us completely by surprise - we ended up voting for the candidate we wanted representing us in parliament, regardless of party affiliations. It was a perception of federal politics we’d never considered before.

Former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil coined the phrase “all politics is local”. It’s meant to demonstrate that voters base their vote on the things that matter most to their own interests, but it’s often misused as a means of disparaging political opponents’ activities (or lack thereof) on behalf of their constituents. While an active and involved MP can be a powerful ally, only a small percentage of Australians would have need of support from a local member and, as Dragonista has argued, most of us usually base our votes on a general feeling about a party or leader, not specific detailed knowledge of policies or candidates.

Retail politics (a style of political campaigning in which the candidate attends local events in order to target voters on a small-scale or individual basis) has never been a big part of politics in Australia. The focus of our political reporting is on the personalities and activities of party leaders, but, given the disillusionment with both current leaders, perhaps a greater interest in local politicians could prove helpful.

For instance, given the factional divisions in both parties, would a small “l” liberal be more representative of your interests than a far-right Labor MP? Would the economically conservative left be more closely aligned with your views than the progressive right? The right wing of the ALP (the SDA or “shoppies”, as described by Andrew Elder) are far more socially conservative than large chunks of the Liberal Party, but conservative voters may not even realise this, if they are still stuck on the traditional, obsolete left/right of the Labor vs Liberal dichotomy. Is the candidate of your choice actually aligned to the values for which you chose them?

What is the issue of most importance to you in determining your vote? Economic management? Health? Social issues? Education? Where does your local candidate sit on the party spectrum of those issues? What about the opposing candidates?

The only way to answer those questions is to buy into retail politics, just a little. And you may even find that it’s more interesting than you expected.

Thus far, the Tribune’s experience of retail politics in the 2013 election is Politics in the Pub, an event organised by Kevin Ekendahl, the Liberal party candidate for Melbourne Ports. We missed the first event but made it to the second, along with about 40 other folk from the local area. It was a hilariously partisan event, but despite this, it truly was retail politics in all its glory. The issues raised were almost entirely national, with the exception of one vociferous complaint about parking issues – dealt with admirably by a local councillor. Kelly O’Dwyer and Senator Scott Ryan were there to answer other questions and listen to concerns and, naturally, lend their support.

Regardless of your personal reaction to the views expressed, it was far more satisfying to dispute such views in person, than to engage in futile shouting at an unresponsive TV screen.

It’s hard to gauge the level of local interest so far. We’re still five months away from the election and the collective “meh” response to politics may deter many folk, but it’s an admirable endeavour. Ekendahl is planning on running the event every month until the election, and, should he win, every month after that. He assured us that all comers (excluding only abusive hecklers) are welcome.

The Tribune will be investigating other local political events organised by Labor, Greens and others over the coming months We’ll also be tracking the campaigns of all the local members and their opposition. Not just because this will affect the Tribune readers in those electorates, but because they are representative of local campaigns across the country. And, as we get closer to a dispiriting election, this may be a way of finding something with which it is worth engaging.

If you have stories or events that demonstrate retail politics are alive in your electorate, do get in touch. Let us know what’s happening around Australia and how much it matters (or doesn’t) to the people in your local area.

If we can’t take the numpties out of politics, perhaps we can take politics away from the numpties.

Published in Weekly Email

John Howard, thanks to circumstances and his clever adaptations to them, achieved a level of respect, unanticipated at the time of his election. Tony Abbott looks certain to fall into the top job, but does he have any of the qualities that will make it his own?

I was thinking back to 1996, when the Howard Government was first elected. Although I wasn’t particularly happy about it, I perfectly understood why the country had tossed Labor out and why they were sick to death of the sight and sound of Paul Keating. All governments eventually become repellent to voters, and the Labor Party was rotting from the head down.

My concerns with Howard weren’t just about his politics, as abhorrent as some of his views were. He was just hard to take seriously. Against Hawke and Keating and the other significant players of the late eighties and early nineties, he seemed a lightweight and a throwback. But, as most of them faded into retirement, Howard at least had longevity and a certain pigheaded gravitas that set him apart from the apprentice middle-managers on his side of the aisle. Compared to Alexander Downer, whom he had replaced, he seemed positively Periclean. He was the last resort who became the viable option.

He once said of himself that the times would suit him, and they did, but not in the way he meant.

He inherited a restructured economy that was about to burst into life on the back of a mining boom. He inherited a deputy leader whose vacuousness and immaturity kept him (Howard) secure at the head of the Liberal table. He inherited a Labor opposition riven by structural problems that were not only beginning to render them suspect to middle Australia, but allowed them to throw up leaders - Beazley, Crean, Latham - ill-equipped to reinvent the party and inspire loyalty or political joie de vivre in anyone with a pulse.

Mr Howard proved me wrong, of course. He actually became something quite substantial, in the way that a meal of leftovers can sometimes be. He easily found common cause with sections of the media who shared his worldview and together they forged a credible, conservative vision of what it meant to be Australian. Using the windfall of the economic miracle that landed at the end of his rainbow, he cobbled together a coalition of voters who benefitted, at least in the short term, from his largesse with their tax dollars and who genuinely warmed to his cultural values. He continued to enjoy the well-heeled support of big business and the direct and tangential lobbying for which they pay, the sole purpose of which is to pass off their self-interest as the national interest via think tanks and the national media.

Significantly, he was handed a genuine threat - international terrorism - that he parlayed into a potent patriotic aphrodisiac. The times suited him again, and his potentially flaccid career engorged on the rush of blood that comes from leading a nation perceived as being under “attack”.

I don’t wish to deprive Mr Howard of agency in any of this: sure, a lot of it just happened, but that would never have been enough. It took skill to use all the disparate pieces of political luck that were dropping from the sky and turn them into the Iron Man outfit he was able to fly around in for more than a decade. He was an opportunist, but most good leaders are.

Still, it was the sheer junkiness of what he had constructed that eventually saw him crash to earth. Only the second PM in history to lose his own seat! That’s quite a tumble and it speaks to the shallowness of what he had actually achieved.

Time and chance happenth to us all, sayeth the Preacher, and even the best politicians accrete problems in the way stalactites accrete limestone: the trajectory is slow, inevitable and downwards. Having rarely been held to account for the fibs he told and the spin he spun, the stench of dishonesty eventually clung to everything he did and said, especially once the farce of Saddam’s WMD could no longer be denied. Then he overreached with WorkChoices and exposed the class prejudices he normally kept hidden underneath his walking tracksuit.  

The filigree threads of bullshit that hold together any successful political career and that held together his, dissolved.

Labor, meanwhile, got its act together just long enough to be viable for one election (if not two). They managed to open the electoral window wide enough to let Kevin Rudd vault in, and to toss the flailing John Howard out, the political defenestration of the century.

The rest, like Kevin Rudd, is history.

Tony Abbott was less John Howard’s heir apparent than his wannabe little brother, the runt that hung around the edges while the big kids did cool stuff. Never seriously considered a leadership aspirant during the Howard years, he eventually became, in opposition, the go-to guy for the rightwing of a party who were looking to reassert their position against the preening, self-assured inevitability of Malcolm Turnbull and the progressive liberalism he represented. Having lost Costello to a hissy fit, Brendan Nelson to a congenital lack of seriousness, and then Malcolm Turnbull to hubris, party powerbrokers once again turned to the last viable option.

Mr Abbott hasn’t let them down. Warmly embracing a shameless combination of just-say-no, opposition-for-the-sake-of-opposition tactics, and a quicksilver approach to principle, where his views not only reshape themselves from day to day but from audience to audience, he has become so comfortable with his own dishonesty that he was willing to openly admit to it when a journalist, Kerry O’Brien, actually bothered to pin him down on the matter. The admission did him no harm and, I suspect, the experience taught him the value of hiding your contradictions in plain sight.

He lacks the safe-pair-of-hands charisma that transformed Howard’s mundanity into a politically attractive armour, and he is unlikely to benefit from an economy that will go through the transformative expansion that was so serendipitous for Howard. Just as he is unlikely to benefit from a galvanising national emergency of the magnitude of 9-11, but he is not without prospects.

He will, of course, have the support of significant sections of the media who can lay claim to having invented him as a viable leader from whole cloth in the first place. They have borne him aloft from day one, smoothing out his inconsistencies, ignoring his contradictions, giving him the benefit of the doubt in a way they were never willing to give Julia Gillard. They have puffed him up into the “greatest opposition leader evah”, and there is no reason to think they will abandon him in government.

Most importantly of all, he has been gifted a Labor Party skilled in tipping gasoline all over itself, even as its leaders cook the odd decent steak over the open fire of a hung parliament. For every policy achievement they have conjured, there are a pile of charred carcasses around the barbecue, policies that have been botched, or principles discarded in pursuit of a fabricated idea of Western Sydney, and none is more blackened than the prime minister herself. But hers is a story for another day.

Presuming he wins in September, Mr Abbott will be given a honeymoon to remember and the media will spot his landing on every policy backflip he will inevitably execute. They will tire of him eventually, but not before he has had ample opportunity to destroy some important things and push the country further down the path of American-style inequality.

Power in Australia resides with a handful of oligarchic industries who relentlessly pursue the capitalist wet dream, not so much of small government, but of partnership with governments willing to reshape the tools of redistribution in their favour. They are very comfortable and relaxed about a Prime Minister Abbott.

Traditionally, they have been resisted by a combination of Labor and union power, and political institutions built upon an ingrained sense of what we have always called “the fair go”. But we live in a time where those ends are losing their common sense appeal because the public discourse that supports them no longer has enough credible voices to defend it. The unions in particular have shat upon much of the trust they have traditionally enjoyed.

That a lightweight, puffball cypher like Tony Abbott, who demonstrably lacks popular appeal, and who has singularly failed to articulate a viable, positive justification for his claim to the prime ministership, is in hot contention for that very job is as good an indication as you could find of the power of those oligarchs to shape the world to their own will, of the ineptitude of those who stand against them, and of the inability of our media - old and new - to deliberate outside the narrowest understanding of the national interest.

So that’s where we are: only 137 more sleeps till Prime Minister Abbott. And what better wind could he have at his back than the fact that most of us have been convinced that his victory is inevitable?

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 29 April 2013

Because democracy

New political parties fail almost as often as new restaurants; here's some pointers to help you avoid the indignity of a political kamikaze ride.

So, you’ve decided to start a political party. Well, good for you! Soon you’ll be floating around the country on a cloud of adulation, recognised by kiddies and Laurie Oakes everywhere you go, boldly standing up in Parliament for What Is Right, answering the age-old question of “What’s wrong with this country”, and tweeting “Pyney raised a POO lol”.

Before you get carried away though, there are a few things you’ll need to know, unless you want your dreams to sink horribly into a pit of despair and legal action. And when I say “legal action”, I don’t mean shagging someone in Chambers, I mean the kind of action where you buy boats for a team of lawyers.

You may think that your recent win at your Body Corporate’s Communal Lawn Areas putsch means you’ve got what it takes, but the megalomaniacs who get on those kind of committees are nothing compared to those you meet once you start cutting and thrusting with real, grown-up politicians. Julie Bishop didn’t just work out the Death Stare one night at home over a few glasses of red you know, and as for Craig Emerson, well, he spent years smashing himself in the back of the head with a brick; the skills of Realpolitik and real politicians are not something you just fall into.

So, what do you need to be a successful party leader? “Successful” not just in the way of having Antony Green say your name once or twice on election night; but real success, like getting free advertising, dressed up as a news story about your new political party and your aspirations to be PM.

For a start, you’ll need to be filthy rich, famous in some way, loud and insane. You may already be loud and insane (and quite probably filthy into the bargain), but you will need a lot of money to direct that insanity and project your loudness to where it’s going to get the most coverage. Take it from me, shouting at parking meters and pooing on crowded trains is not the fast track to serious coverage - it may get you short-listed as a judge on My Bogan Backyard Master Rules The Bachelor, but it’s a long way from there to getting hand-relief from Chris Uhlmann or Piers Ackerman.

The richer you are the better, no matter the basis or longevity of your wealth. A tinfoil hat and a giant model ship will definitely assist, although they are not mandatory. Try having a public spat with your children or buying and destroying a TV network or a couple of football clubs.

Now that you’re filthy rich and famous, here are a few tips on getting set up the right way.

Firstly, you’ll need the imprimatur of a respected Think Tank of some kind, ideally an Institute. The Institute of Public Affairs is one example, but their dance card appears to be full of Rinehart at the moment. Gerard Henderson will gladly give you the Sydney Institute’s endorsement, as long as you promise to base your entire campaign on Why Doesn’t Gerard Have An Hour-Long Show On The ABC? Because Sandalistas, AMIRIGHT.

For those of you leaning a bit to the left, Clive Hamilton will throw his weight behind you, but there’s a cost there, too: Clive will want to be Minister for Censorship and Knowing Better Than The Proles, put a windfarm in your second bathroom and he’ll use up all your internets researching the porn he wants to ban.

So I recommend setting up your own Institute, funded by your new party organisation and anonymous donors. Then set them to spitting out policy documents that you can “discover” and “agree with”, as if they didn’t come straight from your policy meetings. Give it a vague, thinky-sounding name, such as The Independent Centre of Democratic Independence. This will show the doubters that you are truly open-minded and evidence-based in all your policy formulations, as well as having an acronym that looks a bit like Roman Numerals.

If the whole think tank thing sounds a bit too difficult, you can try garnering the support of a respected blogger or two. Bob Ellis can easily run off a few thousand words about how good you are, but your policy platform will end up being “David Williamson is a dickhead and I got biblical with his wife”. Greg Jericho can do you some good graphs, but we all know where that leads, right (ex) Senator Fielding? Oh, and just stay away from Catallaxy, okay?

Of course, policies don’t matter all that much, because most policies require numbers and words and things, and your modern journalist just doesn’t have the time for all that guff. So you need a Slogan. To say “the slogan is important” is like saying “the Universe is big” or “Bronwyn Bishop is terrifying”, so you need to get it right.

The first rule of a political slogan is Don’t Swear. “Vote for ME, you limey fuckers” may sound assertive, but it’s not going to get you on TV, unless you’re standing near Alan Jones.

The second rule of a slogan is Have More Than One Meaning. For example, “for ALL of us” sounds nice and inclusive, but it also works as “for all of US”. Likewise, “Moving Forward” means “progress”, “dynamic” and “were you dropped on your head as a baby?”.

Here are a few examples of effective, multi-layered slogans – just insert your party name anywhere within:

  • Get one in ya
  • Trying! Hard!
  • A moistness for ourtimes
  • Consistently Times
  • I’m not the other person, not even a bit
  • Fresh
  • Swag
  • Motherfuckers
  • Please, please, me
  • Hard On Crime

Righto, you’ve got your slogan, you’ve got your think-tank/blogger support, you’ve rounded up all the commenters from your website to be Founding Members of the party, you’re ready to go, there’s just one thing you’ve forgotten:

You’re an idiot and nobody likes you.

 

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 22 April 2013

Ben for PM!

In another Tribune exclusive, here is Ben Pobjie’s opening speech to his bathroom mirror last Thursday. 

My Fellow Australians,

When I first announced that I would be running for Prime Minister of Australia, many people thought it was a joke. But nothing could be further from the truth, unless it was “Ben Pobjie is not committed to the prosperity of this nation”, because THAT would be very very far from the truth indeed. I would like to lay out my policy framework here and now to make sure everyone realises how serious I am about turning this leaky boat around.

A lot of politicians these days talk the talk, but the question is, can they walk the walk? My first act as prime minister will be to establish a Royal Commission on Walking the Walk, with broad terms of reference so it can discover who is walking the walk and who isn’t, and hopefully what “walking the walk” entails. The Australian people deserve the maximum level of walk-walking from their elected representatives.

One of the greatest problems facing Australia is politicians who spend like drunken sailors. I hereby make an ironclad commitment to spend only like sober sailors at all times. Rest assured that when I am buying canvas, rope and sextants, I will not allow my drinking problem to affect my judgment – the Australian people deserve high-quality sailing goods at competitive prices.

These days it is quite common for governments to lose their way. This even happens to good governments. In fact it seems to happen to good governments more often than to bad ones. My promise to the Australian people is that my government will never lose its way, and under my leadership all government MPs will be provided with maps and torches to ensure this. The Australian people deserve a government with a good sense of direction.

The Australian people also deserve a government that is tough on border security. Too many of our borders are insecure. As prime minister I will make sure that all borders undergo counselling to boost self-esteem and learn self-reliance. Our borders must be confident and comfortable with their own identities. To assist in this my government will also install a trip wire around the perimeter of the country that, when triggered, will cause an array of cannons to fire live dogs at anyone trying to get in.

I am a different kind of politician. Many of my opponents refuse to play the rule-in, rule-out game. My promise to you is that I will play the rule-in, rule-out game, as often as is needed. The Australian people deserve a prime minister who will play games with them, and on my first day in office I will begin ruling things in AND out, at astonishing speed. My prime ministership will be one of out and in-ruling, and I make no apologies for that. Many of my opponents make no apologies sometimes, but as your prime minister I pledge to NEVER make apologies for anything. There is no room for inconsistent apology-making. That is something I will rule out right here and now, and simultaneously rule in its antithesis.

Both of my opponents seem intent on using taxes to fund their spending. This is unfair to all modern hard-working Australian fair dinkum families. As prime minister I will abolish taxes and instead derive revenue from a new nationwide scheme of sneaking into rich people’s houses and stealing their jewellery. No longer will governments wage class warfare by taking people’s hard-earned money in confiscatory taxes. Instead I will take people’s hard-earned jewellery. The Australian people deserve a prime minister who will stealthily enter their houses to rob them.

The reason why we need a streamlined taxation/jeweltheft system is because a strong country begins with a strong economy, and as prime minister I will create the strongest economy of all. As soon as I am in The Lodge I will begin feeding the economy vitamins and taking it out for runs. By 2015 Australia’s economy will be able to punch other economies right in the face. The Australian people deserve a muscular, violent economy. 

The above is all the more true when you consider that China is coming for us. Do we want Chinese people murdering us for our uranium? I may be old-fashioned, but I say no. Under my government, Australian citizens will never be murdered by Chinese people. I pledge all murders will carried out by local workers. The 457 murderer visa will be abolished. The Australian people deserve a government that is tough on murder, and tough on the causes of murder. This is why on my first day as prime minister, I will force all cabinet members to take an oath to not murder anyone while they are in parliament. Any cabinet minister found to have committed murder will lose 5% of his parliamentary superannuation.

Now, I am not an educated man. I can’t twist words into unspeakable shapes like my opponents. I am a simple man of the land, who loves his country, and who loves his flag, and who loves a beer and a pie at the end of a long hard day of fair going. I’m not here to make pretty speeches or do outrageous stunts on top of wheat silos. The Australian people deserve better than that. The Australian people deserve a prime minister who knows how to make this country better than countries which are worse, and it’s time someone stopped countries that are worse being better than we are. The Australian people deserve that. They don’t deserve spin or empty promises. On my first day in office I pledge to stop spinning and fill all my promises up. If you think you deserve that, please give me your support.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 22 April 2013

Ties that bind

You may think that Same-Sex Marriage is just around the corner. Andrew Elder takes a look at the politics behind the noise and has some bad news. 

On Friday I was determined to avoid the horrible news abroad by splashing in the bright shallows of Aussie banality. Despite that, I read two well-written but ill-founded articles claiming same-sex marriage will be brought in by an Abbott government. Anyone who contends that this will happen is kidding themselves and misrepresenting the situation to others, and I say this with genuine respect for those who wrote those pieces, Ed Butler and Marieke Hardy.

No, really – this isn’t your token acknowledgment before ripping into someone. Both are knowledgeable and incisive writers, and insofar as I dare insinuate myself among their company, two of their basic assumptions are mine too: that gay marriage is both a desirable and inevitable modification to our laws, and that the election of an Abbott government would be a Bad Thing. 

Tony Abbott has admitted, and demonstrated, that he will say whatever it takes to win an argument or an election but he hasn’t just been a windbag all his life. For many years he was an actual minister in an actual government, and in the actual decisions that he made is the context against which his recent cosmetic “softening” (thanks to his daughters and his sister) on a few, carefully-chosen, social issues can be judged.

In early 1995 the Keating government was electorally vulnerable, and Opposition Leader Alexander Downer stood down in favour of John Howard. Keating fancied his chances of re-election simply by presenting himself as a social progressive, and painting Howard into a fusty sepia-toned corner, befitting his rhetoric and his record. Howard recast himself by moderating his image, talking about Aboriginal self-determination and how people deserved more rewards for their hard work.

There was no WorkChoices at this point, no we-will decide-who-comes-to-this-country. All that was foreseeable in 1995, but back then the broadcast media (what other kind was there?) gave Howard what every politician yearns for: accurate quotation of what he said, no between-the-lines work and nothing on what he did not say. Howard indicated that his daughter Melanie had softened his opinions on some things. Keating simply took the soft cloth to his own record, and by insisting that Howard could not be taken at his (new) word, he rendered himself irrelevant.

Abbott has disavowed WorkChoices, and has increasingly left the we-will decide-who-comes-to-this-country rhetoric to Scott Morrison. The broadcast media gives Abbott what every politician yearns for: accurate quotation of what he said, no between-the-lines work and nothing on what he did not say. If Gillard simply takes the soft cloth to her own record – how about those credit ratings? – and insists that Abbott cannot be taken at his (new) word ... well, we’ve seen that movie before.

Abbott has not indicated that his daughters have softened his opinions on any issue, really. The Abbott daughters claim to be more socially liberal than their father, on same-sex marriage and other issues, but many young women are in a similar position in relation to their fathers. It’s notable that the Abbott Sisters, by some sort of birthright, appear to be the Liberal Party’s Voice Of Youth to a greater extent than the Young Liberals or Liberal Students.

Most powerful institutions in Australia tend to be run by conservative straight middle-aged men like Tony Abbott, rather than by socially-moderate young women. Abbott’s daughters do not set his agenda. They do not have some countervailing power that might check his natural inclination to continue to stymie same-sex marriage. This is the implication that those who thrust the young Abbotts into the limelight hope you will draw, but it has no basis.

Similarly, the implication that Abbott loves his lesbian sister, so he will cut a break to all lesbians (and gay men, and bisexuals, and trannies and intersex and ...) is just not based on reality. Christine Forster (Abbott’s sister) and her partner have not publicly evinced any interest in getting married, nor any Razer/Post-style repugnance to the idea. It’s another neat extrapolation that the Liberal comms team hope you will draw in convincing yourself an Abbott government mightn’t be so bad.

As far as women’s issues more broadly are concerned: you’ll be fine, but only if you develop a close personal relationship with Tony Abbott.

The Liberal Party used to have quite a few moderates in Parliament, but now (if you believe moderate is as moderate does) there are none. Remember the circumstances in which Abbott became leader in the first place? Malcolm Turnbull was making all sorts of moderate noises until the Party’s conservative wing moved against him. Abbott was a senior member of the conservative wing, but people like former Senator Nick Minchin and NSW MLC David Clarke set the conservative agenda and reinforce Abbott in his anti-same-sex marriage beliefs. Firmly on that agenda is: no same-sex marriage. Conservatives know you have to appear moderate to get elected, but Howard showed you don’t have to be moderate once you’re in.

To see how doomed same-sex marriage is as an issue for Liberals, look at those few MPs who speak out with decreasing frequency against mandatory detention. Look at how little they have achieved in that area, and know that they will soon be gone. From time to time a Liberal might speak out on same-sex marriage to get a headline fix, like Kelly O’Dwyer did recently, but you show me a Liberal MP who does that and I’ll show you a Liberal MP who has little influence with Tony Abbott.

In 1994 the NSW Liberals had two candidates for State Director: Barry O’Farrell and Tony Abbott. Abbott was backed by the hardline conservatives but O’Farrell won the backing of everyone else, and got the gig. O’Farrell plays conservatives and other internal power blocs better than any other Liberal politician. Recently he has needed to distance himself from conservatives: so he used same-sex marriage, why not? He has matched and negated his Opposition on the issue, Abbott is the least of his worries, and it’s a way of sticking it to Gillard without a self-defeating rejection of Gonski.

Labor, too, has a strong conservative element. While unions, factions, and other power blocs have lost clout in terms of preselections, conference-floor votes and fundraising, the influence of the conservative Shop Distributive & Allied Employees’ Union (SDA, or “the Shoppies”) has grown. Every state now has an ALP Senator who’s a Shoppie. When Labor’s conservative bloc votes with conservative Senators from the Coalition, they more than negate pro-same-sex-marriage Senators from the Greens and other parties. When the unions were moving to ditch Kevin Rudd for Julia Gillard, the SDA were conflicted; Rudd’s social conservatism on same-sex marriage aligned with theirs, but they backed Gillard provided she declined to support it. She’s just dancing with who brung her.

To those who doubt that Labor is structurally opposed to same-sex marriage, consider the following scenario:

  • Gillard throws caution to the wind, brings the same-sex marriage debate back on and throws her weight behind it. Whether it passed or not, the Shoppies will ensure that she is replaced before the election.
  • Who might realistically succeed her as ALP leader – Rudd? Shorten? [insert other choice here] – do you reckon they’d be solidly same-sex marriage? Why?
  • The closer a Labor leader is to power, the less enamoured they are of same-sex marriage. Gillard, SA Premier Jay Weatherill and Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings aren’t promoting it. The ACT government did but they were overruled. NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson has a gay son and is a supporter, but he is so far from leading his party to power in that state that his opinion barely matters.

It’s significant that the conservative bloc crosses both parties. When most people think ‘bipartisan’, they think middle-ground, moderate compromises – for example, taking veto power over RU486 from Health Minister Tony Abbott. In Australia today, it is possible to be unrelentingly conservative whilst also being bipartisan, which means: no same-sex marriage at all under any circumstances, and get off my lawn.

Consider also that conservatives oppose other things too, like abortion, and euthanasia, and a royal commission into officials who raped children (the Greens support all those things, but as I said earlier, so what?). They can’t campaign openly to nobble those things, but they can create a fuss over another issue – like same-sex marriage, say – while slipping in some minor-sounding limitations and impediments while attention is diverted.

To be fair, proponents of same-sex marriage have done all the slow, patient work you need to do to get an issue up in a democracy. They have raised awareness, and money. They have written letters to their local MPs, and catchy pamphlets, and thoughtful opinion pieces in the broadcast media. They have joined political parties. They have won some and lost some, and have earned respect. It’s just that opponents of same-sex marriage have done those things too, and have been more effective.

Even if Abbott did bring in same-sex marriage, so what? East Timor used to be a preoccupation of the Australian left. The Howard government sent troops in to secure the country’s independence from pro-Indonesian militias. Nobody who wrote earnest articles on Fretilin for Green Left Weekly now votes Liberal just because Jose Ramos Horta said John Howard did more for East Timor than any other Australian Prime Minister. Do you think Tony Abbott got where he is by sticking his neck out for causes with zero political benefit?

Like all sensible and moderate reforms, same-sex marriage is sold simultaneously as a big reform (Equality! Recognition! The power of love to break down crusty shibboleths!), and a small one (the day after same-sex marriage becomes law, life will go on and there will still be big issues to tackle). You’ll remember the republic was also sold as both big and small, and look what Abbott did to that.

Tony Abbott will not be the Prime Minister who brings in same-sex marriage (I still don’t think he’ll be PM at all, but that’s another article). He’ll dissemble if he has to, and will deny it when it comes to the crunch, but there are no circumstances that would lead him to support it while saving face or credibility or any other factor essential to exercising power. Same-sex marriage is an important issue, just not to those who currently hold power.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 08 April 2013

What class war?

Political rhetoric has always tended toward the hyperbolic, but how should we respond when the hyperbole becomes too divisive?

A bizarre survey drifted into my corner of the interwebs on Friday night. It allocated respondents into one of the eight new ‘classes’ identified as the UK’s contemporary social hierarchy.

Having plugged in our responses and tweeted the outcomes, we egalitarian Aussies chuckled at the wacky descriptors and their unlikely recipients. Tweeps identified as the emergent service worker class took heart in their rich social life but empty bank accounts; whereas the precariats conceded they were just plain poor. (For the record I was classified as technical middle class, which must be code for “crazy cat lady who spends too much time on the internet”.)

Our amusement also stemmed from the very notion of class as an identity. Surely this alien social stratifier, imbued as it is with concepts of superiority, inferiority and entitlement, has no place in modern Australia. Surely most Australians consider themselves more or less equal to their compatriots. Classlessness is one of the things that define us. Isn’t it?

Then why is the current political debate encouraging us to make judgements of each other based on who has or has not?  What damage is risked to our social fabric by deploying the politics of envy in the name of votes?

I must stress I’m not referring to the long-standing tension between capital and labour. While capitalism endures as the basis for our economy there will always be a power differential between bosses and workers, mitigated to varying degrees by unions. But as more blue-collar workers have become self-employed and, in turn, become bosses themselves, the demonisation of employers has diminished. This is one of the reasons union membership has dropped in Australia.

That transition from employee to employer is part of our nation’s egalitarian ethos: everyone is entitled to a fair go. While the Great Australian Dream is different in many ways to its American cousin, it is similarly grounded in the belief that hard work delivers dividends and that he/she who toils is entitled to enjoy the fruits of their endeavours. 

It’s for this reason that, while demographers and pollsters may prefer to label a particular segment of the Australian population ‘aspirational’, the term arguably applies to all of us.

The right to a fair go, and to make a go of it, applies equally to cabbies, bakers, brickies, and – yes – even corporate executives. Like it or not, people who are highly paid get the big bucks because they have skills and experience that the employment market has decided are worth more than, say, that of a cabbie. The fact that a person earns more does not make them a bad person, or any less entitled to enjoy what they have earned.

But that’s the subliminal message that’s emanating from the Labor Government, particularly now as we head to the federal election.

What’s curious about this strategy is that it’s been tried before, and it failed. Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s invocation of the politics of envy with his private schools hit list in the 2004 federal election was later identified as one of the reasons voters were uneasy about him as the alternative Prime Minister. Notably, the broad appeal of Gillard’s subsequent Gonski reforms is that they’re based on educational need, not whether a school is public or private.

Nevertheless, Labor has chosen to re-visit Latham’s ‘us and them’ rhetoric by creating baseless antagonism against high-income earners. 

I’m not just referring to the latest proposed changes to superannuation, which would have met any sensibility test if not for the accompanying desperate scramble by the Government to unblock the dribbling revenue pipe. But even in this case, was there a need to demonise high-income earners (undefined as they were for much of the debate) as being selfish tax avoiders? Let’s not forget they are legally using a tax concession established to encourage our nation’s aging population to fund its own retirement. 

Although Joel Fitzgerald’s intervention in the superannuation debate and depiction of his high earning constituents as battlers was risible, it was also a reminder that most Australians see themselves as working or middle class. What remained unspoken by Fitzgibbon was that, despite our self-perception of clustering around the middle of the pack, Aussies nonetheless reserve the right to be fabulously successful and rich.

Australians are incontrovertibly aspirational: we expect to own a home, we buy one million new cars every year, and a whopping 43% of adult Australians own shares. 

So it would be a mistake to read our support for raising and redistributing the taxes of big business and high-income earners as a brimming well of class envy just waiting to be tapped. It is just part of our egalitarian nature: we ardently believe everyone deserves a fair go, and reasonable taxes are an effective way to ensure that revenue is raised according to who is most able to pay.

The merits of the Labor’s proposed changes to superannuation tax are clear without being dressed up as class warfare. To do so is unnecessarily divisive, particularly within what promises to be the most brutal federal election campaign we have ever seen.

While the more obvious culprits in the use of societal division as an election tactic are Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the Coalition, it is not beneath the Prime Minister and her Government either – the rhetoric flying around superannuation and 457 visas has proven that.

The politics of envy should remain in the locked box of failed Latham rhetoric, along with the ladder of opportunity and the conga-line of suckholes. It is neither smart politics nor is it socially responsible for a political party to demonise one element of Australian society, or pitch it against another, for political gain. 

Published in Weekly Email