Driven to despair over fuel excise increase

When the treasurer, Joe Hockey, was filmed in May smoking a cigar with his finance minister, Mathias Cormann, it was almost too perfect – as if the Cubans had been drawn into their mouths by a cartoonist. 

Two months earlier, The Saturday Paper had reported the pair sharing cigars in the courtyard beside their ministerial offices. The two are close, part of a parliamentary grouping variously called the “Hockey Club” or the “Big Swinging Dicks” or, later, the “Society of Modest Members”.

But Nine’s footage of the pair smoking and laughing had special significance. They were days from delivering their first budget – the one that brutalised the old and sick and poor; that will boost homelessness, especially among the young; that will increase acute illnesses and reduce preventive doctor visits; that will see the richest 20 per cent of households pay 40 per cent less in new taxes than the poorest 20 per cent. The cigars held special significance, and the polls have not forgotten them.

It was hard not to think of the footage this week, as Hockey set about explaining proposed increases to the fuel excise. “The people that actually pay the most are higher-income people, with an increase in fuel excise,” he said. “And yet the Labor Party and the Greens are opposing it … The poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases.”

Clanging through the statement, through this whole government, was a sense the Coalition under Tony Abbott simply does not understand what it is to be poor. They cannot visualise it. On education, on health, on taxation they lack the imagination to govern for those whose circumstances are different from their own. It is that, or an unending capacity for cruelty.

The reintroduction of twice-yearly indexation of the fuel excise, which was fixed by John Howard when he was prime minister, is forecast to add $2.2 billion to government coffers over the next four years. It is not necessarily bad policy. But the selling of the policy shows just how little this government knows of those who happen not to be rich.

Hockey called the response to his comments “hysteria”. He did not recant them. He quoted four-year-old Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing that top earners spend more on fuel than the poor. They have more cars. They drive greater distances.

But the figures are specious. So much of this government’s relationship with the poor is. Expressed as a proportion of income, changes to the excise would be felt more than three times as acutely by the bottom 20 per cent of earners as by the top 20 per cent. Indexation would push spending on fuel to almost 5 per cent of income for poor families.

It would be almost preferable to think the treasurer was being dishonest, that he was hoping he could paste over a clumsy comment with some old data and be done with it. But the circumstances of the budget suggest something else, something worse: that he simply cannot see how seriously even small amounts of money can affect the lives of those whose incomes are not disposable. It is a coarse thing, this lack of an imagination that might pass for empathy, and it is what is worst about this government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "Driven to despair". Subscribe here.