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.
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
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,
won an international
human rights prize.
But Northern Territory police arrested her
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
or the reason why
no one wins nuclear wars.
Liberal leader told me
nuclear wars are democratic,
because all are
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.
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.
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.
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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