When Kevin Rudd suggested recently that in order to fund increased pension payments and unemployment benefits in the upcoming budget, a contribution to that should be forthcoming from those who are closer to the upper income bracket, Joe Hockey protested loudly that Rudd was playing ‘the politics of envy’. As this term is not in everyday use in this country, I checked out its history. It’s been around for millennia, but contemporaneously the saying seems to be used by conservatives (Republicans) against liberals (Democrats) to use the US nomenclature, and the Coalition against Labor in this country. At its core it proposes that those less well off are envious of those better off, and by implication support the redistribution of wealth to give more to the poor by taking it from the rich. So the moment this is mooted the ‘politics of envy’ tag is attached to Labor, which is seen as promoting this envy. John Howard used this to great effect by suggesting that the Labor Party attempts to ingratiate itself with the working class and unemployed people by questioning the legitimacy of the wealth of the rich and the super rich. [more]
Conservatives argue that those with initiative who work hard and take risks deserve any success that attends their efforts, and should be able to enjoy the rewards. They contrast this with those who do the opposite and sit around expecting handouts. Like so many who argue their case by referring to those who live at the extremities of the bell-shaped curve, they overlook the vast bulk of people who live around the middle, for some of whom life has been less rewarding, or who are at a time of life when income is reduced – unemployed or on a pension. This is an age-old issue that defines the sort of society we live in. Do we want to share this country’s bounty equitably while still rewarding those who are successful through their own efforts? It seems a matter of balance.
So what is Joe Hockey really saying when he accuses the Government of playing the politics of envy? What is he trying to achieve? What is the underlying logic of his position? Is it simply the mouthing of a slogan that has been used in the recent past to tarnish Labor’s approach to wealth distribution, which he feels might gain some traction now? Or does he really oppose giving more to pensioners and the unemployed? It would not be politically wise to oppose such increases, and the Coalition probably won’t, but from where does he expect the funding to come when revenues have been so grossly reduced, if not by reducing what is now labelled ‘middle class welfare’. Would he prefer that it be left untouched and the deficit increased accordingly? As the Coalition uses any deficit as a political weapon, a bigger one would be a larger, heavier and more damaging one. Who knows? Does Hockey?
An unrelated instance also questions Hockey’s logic. Wayne Swan announced that instead of giving predictions about the state of the economy for just the next financial year when he presents the May budget, which is the usual routine, he would give predictions for the following financial year as well – 2010/2011, and less precise ones beyond that. This he said was to enable the Government to show how it planned to ease the country out of the debt incurred from deficits arising from the GFC. Hockey’s response was a protest. He said that this was a political stunt, that the long-term Treasury estimates were likely to be flawed because Treasury could not get its short term estimates correct, and finished off by accusing the Government of not comparing apples with apples. Try as I did, I could not comprehend what his reference to apples meant. Does Hockey himself?
It seems odd that the Coalition could object to receiving more information, even if in the form of estimates, which everyone knows will be ‘softer’ the further out the predictions are. I suppose they would have preferred the bound-to-be-gloomy 2009/2010 predictions alone, and suspect that the 2010/2011 predictions will be brighter for the Government. The Coalition seems to welcome economic gloom, which it uses to reflect poorly on the Government.
So maybe there’s some political logic there, opportunistic though it is, but can anyone find the logic in the ‘apples with apples’ analogy?
As an aside, the Coalition seems to be brewing dissonance between it and Treasury with its frequent disparaging remarks about Ken Henry and his Department. Maybe they’re thinking that by the time they’re in Government again, Henry will have retired.
So Hockey’s logic seems cryptic at best, obscure or absent at worst. Can you fathom it?