“Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods,” wrote the famed American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken. If the mark of genius is the ability to say something that only becomes truer with time, then it would definitely appear to be present in this instance, as this observation is as true as it has ever been. Need we actually ask which stolen goods Mencken was referring to? Let us think for a moment.
How about funding for higher education? Rather than being given more funding as it needs, the higher education is increasingly subject to cuts and austerity measures – not because the funds are unavailable, but because the will doesn’t exist to put them where they’re needed, much less to say the institutional capability. Now the implementation of the Gonski report into secondary education will be used as a pretext for further cuts. Where are the goods to ensure everyone can get an adequate education at the tertiary level who wants or needs one?
How about the adequate welfare provisions for indigenous people? The poverty gap for indigenous people is a national disgrace; indigenous people continue to rank at the bottom of most social and economic indicators, experience greatly reduced life expectancy and systematic discrimination, and suffer far greater levels of chronic health problems. Where are the goods to grapple with these very serious problems? Indigenous people moreover have never ceded sovereignty over their traditional lands, nor have they ever been granted land rights. What about those goods?
What about poverty in general? Numerous reports from multiple sources attest to a consistently widening gap between rich and poor that belie our self-image as the ‘lucky country’ and tend more to beg the question, ‘lucky for whom’? We learn from the 2013 BRW Rich 200 list that the top 10 richest Australians alone have combined assets of $66.38 billion. All 200 have a combined value of $176.8 billion. Did the wealthiest 200 people create that wealth by themselves? Or are these massive inequalities the result of a bipartisan political consensus about where the wealth in our society should go, and who should benefit from economic growth?
We see in the Salvation Army National Economic and Social Impact Survey. Of 2,705 people who accessed its services, 28% of respondents could not afford one decent meal each day, 58% could not pay utility bills on time, 92% had little or no savings, 60% could not afford dental treatment, 28% had no decent home, and 27% could not afford heating and cooling in at least one room. What happened to the goods that these Australians who were clearly doing it tough very obviously needed? Again we find that goods are at best, misappropriated.
The same report points out what the ACTU has been pointing to for some time—namely, that the casualisation of the workforce (which appears partly to be a result of the economic dominance of multinational coroporations whose modus operandi where their workforce is concerned is often hostility to unions) is giving rise to a growing army of “working poor” whose wages are not enough to supply them and their families with many of the basic essentials. While 40 percent of the Australian workforce is casualised, a good third of those surveyed for the Salvation Army report after having accessed their services report having full-time jobs. To the extent that living wages are goods, where have they gone?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the answer. Over the last three to four decades, both major political parties have developed a neoliberal consensus, a consensus operating on the basis of the notion that economic growth is the greatest good to which Australian society can aspire and apparently that the Australian public exists to serve the economy rather than the other way around—especially in the context of its globalisation. If there are ‘goods’ besides economic growth, as there certainly must be, where have they gone? Why are we no longer unable to conceive of any purpose or reason as a society than to buy and sell?
A new satirical page on Facebook called ABC23 provides us with a possible clue as to some of the answers to these questions. In a speech of August 15, Tony Abbott made a comment to the effect that, “The essential point is, this is our country and we determine who comes here”—a clear reference to an earlier speech by former PM John Howard. ABC23 produced a graphic consisting of a close-up photo of Howard with the text, “John Howard is thrilled to have inspired the line that just won Tony Abbott the 2013 election: ‘Unbelievable! Who would have thought Australians would fall for an imaginary enemy twice?’”
Well, this being a rhetorical question notwithstanding, our very good friend H.L. Mencken for starters. “The whole aim of practical politics,” he wrote at another juncture, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Really, in many respects, truer words were never spoken.
From the point of view of someone who is clamorous to avoid being held to account for the consequences of their actions, or from the consequences of the past actions and/or policies of the party they represent, nothing could be more useful than to have a population that is both alarmed and hence clamorous to be led to safety. The reason for this of course is that a population that is clamorous is too busy being clamorous and looking to be led to safety to think cooly and dispassionately about the true causes for the condition in which it finds itself.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the condition of Australian society is a troubled one indeed, not least for all the reasons cited above, but for others as well that we barely have space to cover — the climate crisis being foremost amongst them. In the face of these practically endemic problems, the temptation must be great to look for simple answers to explain it all away. Yes the solution to all our problems is a simple one and can all be fixed of we just…stop the boats!
What make no sense about this particular answer is not only the goods that have been robbed from the Australian public as a result of three to four decades of neoliberalism — an ideology to which all sides of politics subscribe (even in Germany the Greens are known as ‘Neoliberals on Bikes’). The regime of offshore processing, that even Kevin Rudd has embraced in a breathtaking about face from his October 2006 article in The Monthly, is projected to cost $1.3 billion (ABC; 23/8/12).
Where does this $1.3 billion come from? Does it come out of the pockets of the 2013 BRW Richest 200? Hardly likely. It comes out of our social programmes more like, out of the single mothers’ pension Julia Gillard’s axed the same day she stood up in Parliament to denounce Tony Abbott’s nauseating misogyny, while remaining steadfastly silent on that of her own party and out of similar cuts to social spending both sides of politics pursue. As creatures of neoliberalism, this is their nature; while their conduct can only be shocking to many, it can hardly come as a surprise.
We find ourselves faced then with the fact that we are devoted to this regime of ‘border security,’ which in theory is a good thing to the extent that it prevents the country from becoming subject to a flood of refugees who so the mythology goes will only become a drain on national resources. Given the above facts however, the billions in taxpayer monies devoted to running an offshore gulag, and the billions more to be spent when Tony Abbott has a fleet of US-built drones policing the border, how is this any longer an issue of sensible allocation of resources?
It would seem then that this is not an issue of money. If it was, it would be vastly cheaper to let in every refugee who made it within 500 kilometres of the Australian mainland, set them up in serviced apartments on a politician’s salary and a personalised social worker to help them integrate into the community. It costs far more to lock refugees up without charge than it does to do the human thing by welcoming them and integrating them into the community. What it is is an issue of finding ways to make sure we are looking the other way while the advance sale i taking place.
This election is exactly what H.L. Mencken said it is — an advance sale of stolen goods. The stolen goods are our funding for higher education, our welfare provisions for the poorest and most underprivileged in our society, for indigenous people, the homeless and the urban poor, for the casualised workers and those of us with full time jobs who need to access social services because our pay and conditions are so poor. The advance sale is of our dreams, our prospects, our ability to control the conditions of our own lives, our futures, to the 2013 BRW Richest 200 who are doing better than ever, and the only ones who are.
The main reason that this is possible is because all sides of government are part of the same game of exploiting popular fears of the unknown to establish in the most cynical, cruel and manipulative fashion possible a pretext for shifting the blame for decades of neoliberalism, if not for even greater shortcomings within capitalist democracy per se, onto those least responsible for them, and least able to do anything about them. Those who can do something about them are however those least willing to do anything about them, because they are the ones who benefit the most. It is far more convenient for them to scapegoat those least able to fight back.
When this kind of thing happens in the school playground we call it bullying. When it happens amongst adults socially we call it thuggery. What do we call it when it reaches the level of ideology? We call it policy. By the logic of the policies common to both major candidates those most responsible for the effects of neoliberalism and austerity and a generalised shift of wealth distribution upwards is the fault of a handful of people arriving in this country on leaky boats. Since when do they determine government policy? Since when does it become preferable to scapegoat minorities than to allow oneself to be held accountable?
There are of course historical precendents for this state of affairs, the kind we tend to tell ourselves can never happen here. One is forced to wonder though, when national elections are run under conditions of fear and panic and polarised public discourses that seem to function to shift large-scale social problems under the rug, when those involved propose seductively simple solutions that not only run counter to their own previous statements but that stoke fear and engender pack-wolf mentality into the bargain. This is not the stuff of a free society, nor of one going anywhere other than down.