Union Songs

The Politics of Envy

Article by John Tomlinson

Many of us who thought that two and a half years of the Howard Government was a bit less than three years too long, spent Saturday night the 3rd of October trying to drink and smoke the Labor Party over the line- but to no avail. Just too few of our fellow Australians shared our views. On the night it looked as if Rick Farley, the Democrat candidate for the ACT, would defeat the Liberal incumbent and thereby gain the balance of power for the Greens and Democrats immediately. That hope too, has been sadly dashed.

I had spent the days immediately before the election at the 5th National Conference on Unemployment in Melbourne. In the stark light of Sunday morning as the transistorised radio alarm clock blurted out its depressing account of the vote I dragged my badly damaged body towards the cold shower provided in this State of Excitement to celebrate the benefits of a privatised energy system.

It was not all defeat. The One Notion Party of Pauline Hanson had, by winning no House of Representative seats and only one in the Senate, started out on its slow path from ignominy to invisibility.

Labor's low points

The Labor Party promised to keep our existing tax system more or less as it is but- with some tightening of tax avoidance and evasion- particularly avoidance through family trust scams, a tax credit system for the working poor, some relaxation of higher education charges, adding assets acquired prior to 1985 to the Capital Gains tax net, increasing the sales tax on Toorak tractors, and generally ensuring that the majority of its tax reductions went to the bottom 50% of wage earners.

Labor won back its heartland. But on the way alienated four-wheel drive owners, those with assets acquired prior to 1985 which might attract a capital gain, and many who mistakenly believed they would be better off under a GST. Labor had been attacked by ACOSS for not having a radical tax plan. ACOSS "believes" that unless the Government substantially increases the tax take there will not be sufficient funds to look after "its constituency".

A long time ago I suggested that ACOSS would like to see itself as part of the political horse-trading mafia, but unfortunately it does not have any horses. It is really only able to swap fleas.

ACOSS, in a similar manner to the environmental lobby in 1996, provided comfort to the Liberals and blunted the edge of Labor's attack on the GST. All those Australians forced to engage in compulsory labour through the expanded Work for the Dole schemes have, in part, ACOSS to thank. ACOSS might also need to account to all the frail aged and other ill residents of nursing homes for its continuing support for a Liberal regime in aged and disability areas. Recently arrived migrants in need of income support will be able to thank the Liberals and ACOSS for the absence of that support.

ACOSS did criticise Labor for neglecting the non-working poor in its tax credit program but failed to get sufficiently stuck into the Liberal Government for its massive diversion of funds from working and non-working poor to the rich and super rich.

ACOSS will no doubt ignore, as will the Liberals, the thousands of unemployed Australians who might have benefited from Labor's re-instigation of its Working Nation plans. Despite its claim to working in the interests of low income earners, ACOSS failed to raise the issue of either a Guaranteed Minimum Income or a Basic Income in any of its public statements.


About three weeks out from the election, John Howard succeeded in surprising me. He actually used the term social justice. I was stunned because within days of his winning government in 1996 an instruction had gone out to all parliamentary liaison officers telling them never to use the term social justice in any brief destined for Prime Minister Howard's desk because he saw social justice as blatant Labor rhetoric. They were advised that if they wanted to convey any such idea they might use the term social equity. His use of social justice reinforced my belief that he was worried about the possible electoral outcome. I knew that the Liberals had never voted for him as leader for two consecutive terms and hoped the Australian people would have equivalent taste.

When I opened the Liberal blurb (sorry, this was actually tax payer funded material) on the GST I was struck by the lie on the front page. "This is not a new tax. It's a plan for the country." There has never been a GST or VAT in this country. When I opened the local Liberal, and fortunately now ex- member's electoral material, I saw the gleefully exaggerated claims about the number of welfare cheats the Liberals had struck off welfare. But I know something about how these figures are manufactured, why they are distorted and how they are designed to delegitimise the welfare state and welfare recipients. I am delighted there are fewer Liberals in the House who wilfully berate and denigrate those who have no alternative but to attempt to survive on Social Security.

Despite the vigorous campaign waged by the supporters of the Mirrar people to stop the Jabiluka mine going ahead in the middle of Kakadu National Park and Labor's promise not to allow the mine to go ahead, if it was legally possible to prevent it, Australians either ignored the issue or voted for the Liberal's Parer / Hill preparedness to mine at all costs. I was at a rally attended by 3,000 anti-mining Jabiluka protesters on the eve of the election. On a tram on the way to dinner that night I wrote:


I spoke with a woman from Kiev
and asked her about Chernobyl,
she said she could feel it in her bones.
I asked a man from Mururoa
whether one nuclear bomb
could ruin your whole day.
An American sailor suggested
radiation had faded his genes.
I advised him to mutate now
so as to avoid the rush later.
An ERA man told me about Jabiluka.
He said it would all be mined.
The leading traditional owner of Jabiluka,
Yvonne Margarula,
won an international human rights prize.
But Northern Territory police arrested her
for walking on her tribal land.
Perhaps she walked too softly
and left only her footprints.
If she had used a bulldozer
she'd have been alright.
I still don't know the answer
or the reason why
no one wins nuclear wars.
An Australian Liberal leader told me
nuclear wars are democratic,
because all are cremated equal.
A mining magnate said that
those who oppose uranium mining
should freeze to death in the dark.
I asked him if that was worse
than dying of radiation poisoning
in a Nagasaki park.

The failure of the Liberals to come to anything approaching a just position on land rights in the wake of the High Court's Wik judgment, their promotion of a tax regime which if implemented would grossly reward the rich at the expense of the poor, their callous disregard for the environment (Jabiluka, Hinchinbrook, Kyota, and their turning the Telstra environment reserve into a slush fund to conserve the National Party's interests), their glorification of the market as the final arbiter in all things, their undying loyalty to privatisation, their treatment of the wharfies and industrial relations generally, their promotion of private health funds over public hospitals and Medicare, their scrapping of labour market programs for the unemployed, their abolition of income support for 16-18 year olds, their cutbacks in child care, their treatment of the frail aged, and their running down of the education system were individually a sufficient reason to encourage the thinking voter to consider an alternative to voting Liberal. Taken together they necessitate the rejection of the current Liberal Government.

The Greedy Stupid Tax

With the exception of Neil Warren and a couple of other "independent" economists, few subjected the GST to a proper critical scrutiny. Maybe Howard's rushing to an election before a proper analysis of the impact of a GST on low income earners emerged was good politics. But it is the sort of half smart politics of division which undid Paul Keating. The necessary information on which politicians might make informed choices about the GST is not yet available, according to several leading economists in recent days. This reinforces the Democrat call for a full blown Senate inquiry prior to any vote on the GST. It is to be hoped that Harradine does not betray us once again as he did on Wik.

At the first joint party meeting following his election, Howard declared that he had rediscovered the need for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, but that the reconciliation he had in mind would not be a major departure from his previous position. So reconcile yourselves to that you black bastards.


John Howard claims that Labor's attempt to get the rich and the super rich, like Kerry (the Goanna) Packer, to pay anything approaching a reasonably fair rate of tax is driven by the politics of envy. Howard suggests that the Labor Party is attempting to ingratiate itself with the working class and unemployed people by questioning the legitimacy of the wealth of the rich and the super rich. Labor, he correctly asserts, intends to undermine the capacity of the well-off to avoid paying the appropriate rate of tax. Howard realises that, once workers understand that the rich consider paying tax is an optional extra, this will strengthen Labor's demand that the most affluent hand over some of their ill gotten gains.

Howard's talk about the politics of envy is intended to divert attention. It is a smoke screen intended to disguise the real politics of envy which drives the rich, the super rich and those who would hang off their coat tails. The affluent are envious of: single parents who are provided by the Commonwealth with a level of income sufficient to maintain them and their children in poverty, street kids who manage to survive, students who are provided with an income almost enough to get an education, people with disabilities who receive from the taxpayer nearly enough on which to get by, migrants in their first two years in this country, those who rely on the age pension, and indigenous people struggling to maintain a level of health which means they die, on average, 15 years younger than their white counterparts.

The real politics of envy is what has led to the welfare cutbacks, increased targeting, greater harassment and denigration of people forced to rely on the State for income support. It is a politics which defines progress as increasing the amount one can "steal from blind men's cups".

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