Current Issue #488

Modern Times: A garden full of promise?

Modern Times: A garden full of promise?

The recent federal election offered starkly contrasting visions for the future. Its two competing narratives had something in common: they both appealed to a sense of injustice. One narrative asserted that workers are being robbed of a fair share of national wealth. The other conflated changes to franking credits and negative gearing with theft.

Over the electoral cycle, Labor described the problem. Wages are stagnant. The Australia Institute has found that, as a proportion of GDP, the sum of salaries and superannuation is at its lowest point in six decades. Meanwhile, ABS Business Indicators showed that operating profits of Australian businesses rose by 21 per cent in 2018. These two realities should not simultaneously exist in a society in which there is a strong sense of common purpose.

Work is becoming less secure. Australia has the third highest rates of insecure work of all OECD countries. Costs of living are rising. The sum of stagnant wages, insecure work and rising costs of living is a growing number of working poor people in precarious situations. One million Australians work multiple jobs in order to survive. It is difficult to plan for the future without the surety that comes from full-time, secure employment.

The unnatural combination of strong profits but low wages has been seen in Australia before. And in the past, such circumstance has been likened to theft. During the 1891 shearer’s strike, Henry Lawson elegised:

But now that we have made the land
A garden full of promise,
Old Greed must crook ‘is dirty hand

And come ter take it from us.

Over the course of the recently completed electoral cycle, the need to address wages and conditions has become central to political discourse. The argument that these unnatural conditions needed to be met was well prosecuted. But the solutions prescribed were rejected, and an alternative motive for indignation emerged.

A number of Australians who worked hard and made decisions based on the rules of the day, to create wealth and build some security, would have been financially worse off by the policies the ALP took to the election. They were indignant at the changes proposed, and voted according to their financial interests. Taxation, franking credits and negative gearing became the language of the election, rather than how this revenue would be spent to positively impact our communities and economy.

The connection between taxation revenue and programs and services necessary to a functioning society was not adequately made during the election campaign. How could it be? For the past three decades, both sides of politics had mythologised taxation as inherently bad. The connection between revenue and quality public services had been broken. Then, suddenly, one party attempted to abandon this consensually agreed position. It proved to be too great a change, too sudden.

A society that demands universal health and education, roads and railway lines, police and defence forces must also accept taxation is necessary for these collective goods to be possible. Social security is needed to protect our most vulnerable. With efficient processes, the revenue collected is directly proportionate to the quality and volume of these collective goods and services. Government is a social clearing house, through which revenues are collected and dispersed in the form of social goods and services.

To break a political mould set by three decades in which taxation of any kind was consensually demonised, Labor needed a compelling story about how measures to increase revenue collection would benefit all Australians – rich, poor and in between.

A few extra dollars in the pockets of middle Australia would have a positive impact on our economy, as these dollars would be spent and jobs created.

More secure work makes for less anxious communities.

Redistributive measures strengthen the idea that we are all in this together.

Unfortunately, such strands were not threaded together.

Narratives that compete to inspire indignation in the greatest number will continue to diminish our sense of collective purpose, and ultimately favour the political movement that focuses on the individual. Labor will only prevail if it persuasively explains the benefits of revenue accumulation to the entire community. It will require courage and discursive brilliance to successfully meet this challenge.


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