Sitting on the train, surrounded by other poor people, sans cars, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Abbott Government is becoming increasingly out of touch with its constituents.
Sure, there are a lot of discrepancies on public transport – for example, on the not-so-rough Sandringham line, taking in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, I’m guessing some commuters don’t have one, but possibly three cars. And across town, over on the Cragieburn line, cutting up Melbourne’s North-West, while it may seem a little shabbier than the line that takes in South Yarra, the Brightons, and the Hamptons, I’m guessing a fair share of passengers also own cars (with the propensity for hotted up Subarus increasing north of Essendon).
With a nod to Donald Horne, we’re the lucky ones – in that we actually live in a ‘burb along a train line, unlike those sprawled across the outer corridor growth areas that are roads-heavy, hugging the highways, and public transport-light.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s comment, that the “poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far,“ only adds fuel (excise and all) to a collectively growing image problem for the Coalition – that suggests they are protecting their own interests, their own ‘people’, the real ‘elites’, the upper echelons of society.
Hockey’s comment was in response to the Coalition’s budget policy of re-introducing the excise on fuel, which was removed by the previous Coalition Government led by John Howard. Like him or absolutely loathe him, Howard had a knack of responding to the interests of ‘middle Australia’, so much so the phrase ‘Howard’s battlers’ was coined after, under his leadership, the Libs won a swag of western Sydney seats, previously considered safe Labor Party territory, housing newly arrived migrants nestled amongst the remnants of the blue collar working classes.
It could be assumed that Joe Hockey isn’t currently endearing himself to such ‘battlers’ (ironically which millionaire MP Clive Palmer is now appealing to), with Hockey’s poor-people-don’t-own-cars comment adding another clunker to the Government’s already dire sales job of the budget itself.
Last week the Treasurer met with boilermaker Phil Raker in Ballarat to try and convince the locals of the budget’s wares. In recalling the encounter to the Australian newspaper, Raker provided this special conversation ice-breaker:
“[I said to Hockey] It’s like two dogs barking on either side of the fence — we’re never going to agree. What we need to do is both of us get on one side of the fence and we’ll lick each others’ nads.”
According to the Australian’s report on the meeting, this drew a laugh from DLP cross-bencher John Madigan, who hosted the meeting, which momentarily caused me to wish the Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambert was in attendance because she sure as hell would have had a good comeback.
But seriously, along with providing a very curious visual, the boilermaker in Ballarat delivered this poignant advice to Mr Hockey:
“I said to him it takes a man to realise that the budget was wrong,”
“Put less of a burden on me and more burden on them (the wealthy) and you’d get your policies through. Then you’ll be seen to be doing the right thing by everyone.”
And this is Hockey’s dilemma. Despite cries of fiscal emergencies, Hockey has failed to convince ordinary Australians of the budget’s fairness; that rather than big business or individuals wealthy enough to shoulder the burden of returning Australia’s budget to surplus, it has instead targeted students, young unemployed, the sick, the welfare dependent, and even “middle Australia” with the fuel excise increase, the GP co-payments, and the proposed changes to family tax benefits (the last of which even John Howard criticised when asked for his response to the fledgling Government’s first budget).
And to dim any light at the end of the hip pocket tunnel, the budget also foreshadowed the next ‘public enemy’ for the Government – elderly pensioners. The only apparent ‘fairness’ in Hockey’s budget is ‘sharing’ the load in terms of kicking all the needy who are already down.
Who, according to the Treasurer, don’t own motor cars and so are presumably catching public transport. And the women? Again, the Government’s “sales” job is not going so well. According to the Government’s logic, presumably there’s gotta be some female students commuting their way to studying nursing and teaching degrees, with Education Minister Christopher Pyne being asked by ABC 730′s Sarah Ferguson (bless) whether the proposed HECS loan repayments will hurt “women and poorer people more than it does high income earners”.
“not charge higher fees for courses which are typically going to be studied by people who’ll be nurses and teachers” and that “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, and vice chancellors in framing their fees, their fee structure, will take that into account. Therefore the debts of teachers and nurses will be lower than the debts, for example, of lawyers and dentists.”
Presumably men. Driving cars. Phew for that.
Scanning the peak hour train, with fellow poor car-less people, I search for more women, but alas, there are no obviously identifiable nursing or teaching studying women. Instead, I’m nestled amongst a sea of suits, worn by both men and women, crisply pressed at the start of the day, no doubt ironed by women still contemplating the removal of the price on carbon.
All in all, as Ministers have proven and as even Coalition backbenchers have attested (disunity = death, ahem), Hockey’s first budget has been a damn hard sell (and not helped by Hockey’s attempts at demonstrating the “fairness” of it). And the Treasurer’s fuel excise comments are not even the half of it, with Hockey also:
- likening the budget’s $7 GP co-payment to “beer and cigarette” change (claiming mid-strength beers are around $3 each, presumably in some magical pub, perhaps at a Defence Force barracks where alcohol is not subject to any taxes, (Yes, Hello Sailor)).
- being lumped with the nickname ‘Smokin’ Joe’, after being caught snapped with his Assistant Treasurer Matthias ‘Arnie’ Cormann, puffing away their pre-budget jitters with their lips around a couple of Cubans.
To a large extent, politics is all about appearances – and the image of ‘Smokin’ Joe’ will most likely remain a favourite to various photo editors’ delight over the bulk of Hockey’s parliamentary career (think Alexander Downer and those fishnet stockings … and deep apologies to those who had managed to block that image from their memory). It’s not a good look.
Two years ago the then-Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey delivered a speech in London declaring the end of the ‘Age of Entitlement’. The speech (transcript here) lays the foundations for much of the Coalition’s ideology behind its policy proposals that are now on display in the full swing of Government.
By declaring an ‘end’ to such an age, Hockey needs to be careful – for while his speech reference was more in relation to ending government support of social security, there is a different type of ‘entitlement’ that is now creeping into view within government ranks. Hockey’s comments of late suggest that this other class-defining, cigar smoking ‘Age of Entitlement’ is far from being over, or even remotely nearing an end.