To spite one’s face

The proverb first appeared in Latin sometime before 1191. Male ulciscitur dedecus sibi illatum, qui amputat nasum suum (He who cuts off his nose takes poor revenge for a shame inflicted on him). It had some traction in different forms, mentioning mutilation and neighbours, before establishing its real popularity in the idiom of 19th-century Britain. Most recently, it is a useful description of Labor’s approach to the stage three tax cuts.

In Question Time this week, Anthony Albanese reiterated his support for the mindless policy: “We haven’t changed our position on the stage three tax cuts at all.” For good measure, he added, again: “At all.”

Albanese knows these tax cuts are self-defeating. He knows almost all of their benefit will go to the richest Australians. He knows they will drive up inflation and make life worse for the poor. He knows they will slice $69 billion from government revenues over the next four years.

All reasonable economists urge the government not to implement them. Anyone looking at their impact can see they will make the country less fair, that they will unpick the safety net and undermine health and education. Albanese knows all of this but he believes he is unable to do anything about it. “We haven’t changed our position on the stage three tax cuts at all.”

Politics has a fondness for precedent. In its practitioners is a love of rules. Staffers will earnestly note the seats in which a government has not lost a July byelection since World War II. The trouble with this false wisdom is that it is soon mistaken for fact. Superstition becomes unchallengeable.

Something like this has happened with the stage three tax cuts. The government has decided they are irreversible and they have become irreversible. It doesn’t matter how much damage they will do; it doesn’t matter how few people they will benefit: they are not changing.

A brave government would look at these preposterous cuts and say they are not possible. They would explain that the 3.6 per cent can live without them. The money would be better targeted on relief for the poor. It is needed to maintain the standard of living this country has always promised and which the government has a key role in delivering.

When Scott Morrison announced the stage three cuts, he never imagined he would have to deliver them. They were a promise for a future he didn’t expect to see. The perverse part is Albanese is keeping that empty promise for him. He cuts his tax to spite his face.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "To spite one’s face".

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