The privilege idiots on the government front bench
Last Wednesday week was the day we reached peak gaffe in Australia. It was a momentous event that should probably be commemorated in years to come. As a nation we were all enjoying the public humiliation of George Brandis over 18C, followed by his disastrous interview regarding the new ASIO powers. Eric Abetz’s promulgation of theories from the “uh-nineteen fiddies” about abortion and breast cancer were still to come.
Betwixt and between those, Education Minister Christopher Pyne appeared on 7.30 to talk about the huge hikes in university fees the government was proposing, and the effect it might have on women, who have lower incomes on average.
Sarah Ferguson asked him: “Do you accept that there is a hit in the way that you’ve set up the loan repayments that hurts women and poorer people more than it does high-income earners?”
Pyne replied: “Women are well represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn… Therefore the debts of teachers and nurses will be lower than the debts, for example, of lawyers and dentists.”
Now, in ordinary times this sort of remark would have been good for three days chewing over, as both incorrect in fact – women make up a majority of any number of professional courses – and in aspiration, since policy should be geared to equalising gender access. But by the time anyone got their head around the remark, Abetzgate was kicking off, and the national media and commentariat decided as one to let it pass. Joe Hockey wasn’t so lucky. By the time he gave his views on the poor walking to work up mill, the decks were cleared, and it kicked on for a week.
Good political fun with out-of-touch ministers. Traditional, except for one thing: the hopeless targets of this stuff are usually relics of a bygone age. Joe Hockey is 49, Christopher Pyne 47. They were toddlers in 1969 – the year of Woodstock and equal pay for women. They are products of a post-’60s Western world, bound within it, but their mindset comes from somewhere else. It’s as if they’ve had a Philip K. Dick-style mind implant from an earlier era.
Perhaps the whole frontbench got a bulk deal on such, for what can explain this government’s unique inability to understand the real-life impacts of many of the measures it is proposing? The Howard government had the basic nous to refrain from antagonising low-income people who voted for them on culture-war grounds. There seems to be none of that on display in the Abbott government. Indeed it is worse. They seem to have no conception of the life-world of those on low incomes, the everyday structure and texture of existence for those in precarious or poor situations.
What else can explain Joe Hockey’s remark that the $7 Medicare co-payment is no more than a “couple of beers”? Quite aside from the inherent anachronism – it’s barely one beer in a pub – it suggests Hockey is unaware that many people on benefits have to budget with the expectation that they will spend the last two to three days of a fortnight with no ready cash at hand. How else to explain the six-months-on/six-months-off dole scheme for the under-25s, which would make it impossible for a dole recipient to, among other things, rent a flat with a standard 12-month lease. How are they then supposed to move to areas of lower unemployment to seek work, as they have been urged to do? The scheme is meticulously designed to punish initiative and reward stasis. It is anti-brilliant. You don’t have to come from a low-income background to understand these demands. You only need to buy a pie and a Coke at a convenience store – close to $10 – to realise that it constitutes about 10 per cent of a week’s discretionary income on benefits, or the part-time wage of a worker who needs a full-time job.
Critics point to the comfortable lives of many of the frontbench – Hockey, the banking lawyer; Pyne, the Adelaide liberal Doogie Howser; Abbott, the Rhodes scholar – as an explanation of their recent political blundering. Quite possibly they have been more cocooned than most, missing out on even the semi-voluntary semi-poverty that many middle-class people experience in student and post-student life. Swaddled in residential colleges, going straight to the professions, perhaps their existence in late modernity is the explanation for their obtuseness – they are the first generation of leaders to have come up wholly through the political caste system that fully developed in Australia in the 1980s. They have rarely had a real job, much less a low-paid one, and so the raw material for empathy has never been laid down. Tony Abbott, with his seminary experience, may be the only leader with a glimpse of some other way of life, and we know by now that he is an odd and psychologically dissociated man, so perhaps it does not flow through.
Viciousness and a despite of the poor is easy to explain. But a self-defeating projection of it, by people who may not themselves be vicious, demands a more complex approach.
The extra element in the frontbench’s repeated gaffes is the antiquarianism of their vision: some bonkers Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-world, where lady nurses and handyman types walk whistling to work each morning, from Penrith or Mulgrave. I suspect the overlay – of a vanished pre-’60s world onto a complex modern one – is the “Thatcher” effect. In the ’80s, a whole generation of right-wing student activists were energised by Thatcher’s claim that she was “restoring Victorian values” and that there was “no such thing as society; there are individuals and there are families”. As much as anything, those bold statements of 19th-century liberalism gave that generation of young right-wingers not merely a rallying cry, but an identity that many were sorely in need of. The idea that they were the saviours of the values of thrift, hard work, individual responsibility, et cetera, became something they wrapped themselves in.
You can see it still, whenever George Brandis prattles on about the US Bill of Rights and free speech (a bill of right he opposes for Australia), or when Christopher Pyne tries to push a lobotomised rote-learning curriculum plan that would leave Australian students ill-equipped for the contemporary world. None of this is being done for political effect, no matter the simplistic theories some people will offer for it. It is the genuine article: submersion in an ideology that makes difficult the sustained assessment of real conditions. We had enough of it on the left in past decades to recognise it on the right in a heartbeat. The right can’t see it, because they simply think they’re, well, right, and that’s an end to the matter. They won’t see it even if they read this, which is why the matter can be talked of openly, and why this government has had the worst first year of any in living memory. And why, praise be, after a brief outbreak of competence, normal chaos will be restored, and the gaffes will continue.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "The privilege idiots". Subscribe here.