The budget reveals the government’s inability to put itself in the shoes of its electorate. By Sean Kelly.

Sean Kelly
Failure of imagination

Trying to explain why fiction matters, novelist Ian McEwan put it simply. “Cruelty,” he said, “is a failure of imagination.”

It is a quotation that has lingered with me as the fury over the Abbott government’s brutal ideological assault on the poor, the sick, the unemployed and the elderly has gathered momentum.

The reaction to this year’s federal budget was swift and it was shocking.

Most budgets barely move the needle, giving the lie to the political hype that precedes them. Most die quick deaths, hardly remembered days later. This one scratches steadily onwards, its lifespan measured in front pages and stories on the evening news.

Amid the frenzied catcalls of political debate, it is worth pausing for a moment to ask why this time is different.

There is an easy answer, and it is to be found in the astounding number of broken promises. It is a good story, with a moral: Tony Abbott, having forced Julia Gillard to her knees with attacks on her dishonesty, is now brought low with his own weapon. But as H.L. Mencken wrote: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Voters don’t like being lied to. But they have come to expect it. The information that has trickled out of focus groups suggests the vitriolic public reaction has little to do with dishonoured vows, and everything to do with basic humanity.

Political reporter Laurie Oakes, given access to research by pollster John Scales, wrote: “The takeout [by voters] was a budget cruel to those who can least afford it and a government that does not appreciate what battlers in the community go through.”

People listened to what the budget was telling them, and what they heard was a prime minister and a treasurer who had failed to imagine their way into other people’s lives.

One of the first things I was told when I began working in politics was that voters cared only about their bank balances. And it is true that politicians ignore this maxim at their peril.

But something more nuanced has happened in the past few weeks. Australians have punished their leaders for a devastating lack of moral imagination. It’s possible that every disaffected voter is simply frustrated at the plundering of their hip pockets. But it doesn’t feel that way, talking to friends, talking to strangers. It has been hard to miss, this sense of widespread anger on behalf of others.

A populace able to imagine, if they are young, what it might be like to be old and forgotten one day – or, if they are old, to recall the precarious sensation of being young, without prospects.

An able-bodied populace imagining the everyday obstacle course imposed by disability.

A fit and healthy populace, many in white collars, feeling phantom twinges of the bodily ache that follows having worked with your hands and limbs and back for 45 years, then being told you have to work five more.

This is difficult imaginative work, and it is important that we recognise that achievement for what it is.

That said, we should not simply congratulate ourselves and move on. There is harder work ahead, work many of us have still largely failed to do because what we are being asked to imagine is too far removed from our own experiences.

In reacting to this budget we are not, after all, being asked to conceive of life as a refugee, locked in detention with uncertainty the governing principle of existence. Or to imagine what it is like to attend an endless roll of weddings, watching friends enter into a celebrated institution open to them but closed to you. Failures of imagination are everywhere once you start to look for them.

We must also temper self-congratulation with the knowledge that our rage will not last. It is easy to be angry when confronted with daily headlines, but difficult to remain angry when they fade away. How savagely the prime minister succeeds in reshaping the social contract depends on how quickly we allow the rhythms of our daily lives to absorb his changes, how soon we forget that things were different once.

Some respond that it is simple to throw stones from outside the palace, and that is true. Any leader must choose between competing demands on her sympathies. It is possible to justify almost anything under the heading of “fairness” because there are two sides to almost every story. 

This budget is not one of those cases. The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has found the poorest fifth of our society is taking a $2.9 billion hit, while the richest fifth loses $1.78 billion. There is no economic argument that can render this “fair”.

How did our leaders neglect so completely to put themselves in the shoes of those they govern? One reading is that Abbott and Joe Hockey have been cloistered by lives of relative privilege, unable to imagine otherwise, and perhaps that is true. But other politicians have managed the trick. Gillard, forced to defend her ability to govern for families with children, said “there’s never going to be one Australian who can encapsulate in their own life experience the story of every other Australian”.

More likely is that the Liberal Party never accepted the result of the 2007 election, and sees its return to government as a right, not a privilege.

You can see it in their outrage at having to answer for what was promised during the campaign, their exasperation at our stubborn refusal to believe all this is for the good of the country. Drawing the wrong message from a community that voted Labor out, and believing they had a mandate to do as they saw fit, Abbott and Hockey did not put their moral imagination to work – not just because they couldn’t, but because they didn’t think they had to bother.

It is jarring to realise that the people you elected either cannot or do not care about the life you actually lead. Clever sound bites will not dispel Australia’s wrath. Only a genuine identification with the people who elected them, an honest effort to understand the fear and injury they have inflicted, can save the Coalition now. Right now, this simple task seems beyond them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Failure of imagination".

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Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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