Pipe dreams

This editorial is about Scott Morrison, but it begins someplace else.

It begins with the Australian Dream as it was once described, a home you owned with a car in the driveway. It was the existence promised by Robert Menzies. The basic unit of life was the family. The basic aspiration was for comfort, a place in the community, a sense of security.

Very quietly, John Howard updated that vision. The houses became McMansions. The aspirations became exceptional. Polling began to show people in favour of tax concessions they would never enjoy. The dream became American: not to be comfortable, but to be rich.

The American Dream sustains a society built on inequality. It sustains the waiter being paid below the poverty line, who believes tips and hard work will lift them not just out of hardship but onwards into extreme wealth. It sustains the store clerk who believes hope and ingenuity will acquaint them with privilege unbound by class.

Howard worked at this dream gently. Hawke and Keating had done some of the preparation, caught up in the neoliberal wave that moved through the world, but they didn’t fundamentally change the desires of the individual. Howard did.

His conservatism was married to Menzies’ notion of the Forgotten People, but it was more American in character. It promised more and had to deliver less. It was not simply a house you held out for: it was the big gamble of something much larger. Perhaps it was a million dollars in super and no tax on it. Perhaps it was being in the top earning bracket, but being able to keep more of the money. It freed the government from all sorts of expectations and responsibilities. They would simply wait for everyone to be rich.

America became the destination for conservative study tours. Their think tanks became finishing schools. The alliance flourished not just because of trade and defence but because of realigned values.

When Scott Morrison won on Saturday, a significant number of Australians voted against their interests. They voted on the promise that they could make themselves rich, that they didn’t need a government redistributing wealth. They would prefer to be sure that the concessions were still there, when they, in the dream, made it to the top.

Howard changed Australia in extraordinary ways. The greatest of those were cultural. Perhaps the greatest of all was changing the desire at the centre of the nation’s dream.

Before Saturday, it looked in all the published polls as if the country might be stirring and might even wake up. Instead, the individual continues to dream and hope and wait.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Pipe dreams".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.