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.
This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune