It’s been just over a month since the loveable, cuddly, Shrek-like-grump otherwise known as Joe Hockey, apparently outed himself as an elitist jerk through the simple act of smoking a cigar. Apparently, cigars are the hallmark of fat cats, investment bankers and the like.
This narrative isn’t particularly convincing, and seems to me, more like a facile inversion of former Prime Minister John Howard’s out-of-touch remarks about lattes and chardonnay. I found it just about as convincing when Republicans in the US too, speculated about the dining habits of Al Gore and John Kerry.
In order to be petty enough to both appreciate, and to find confirmation in these kinds of damnation-by-commodity associations, people have to first be pretty well polarised for one reason or another. Welded-on party loyalists, haters, the politically humiliated, the desperate and the short-term-angered.
Which is to say, once you can sell this kind of thing to an electorate, you’ve already got them. At best, this stuff’s for shits and giggles, or for preaching to the choir.
At worst, which is often the case, its abject foolishness. (I include in this category, marketing-driven “analysis” that merely capitalises on the political resentment of a target audience in order to sell subscriptions and draw advertisers).
Now the budget that Hockey has delivered; that’s doing a lot of the left’s campaigning for it. If there’s anything that screams “Elitist Bastard” louder than cigars, lattes, chardonnay and Perrier ever could, it’s fiscally pummelling the stuffings out of the poor and the aspirational.
This, rightly, has pissed people off. Parents don’t want their kids living with them until thirty, much less are they happy to continue feeding them if fairly paid work isn’t available. Few Australians are willing to be targeted to take the brunt of the current account deficit, much less the many who can’t, or are less likely to be able to afford being weathered by austerity measures.
This is before considering education cuts, and fee hikes, and repayment scams, which a cynical elitist government could conceivably pass off to some extent, as Making Those Educated Folk Pay Their Way. A good raft of the fiscal restraints of the current budget are like this; potentially passable with old-school conservative guile. But a good few also, are clearly not.
At the time of Hockey’s supposed cigar transgression, Australians’ rage over the budget was starting to boil. A month later and it’s now spilling over. But the cigar had nothing to do with this.
Policy points are squidgy things. Ordinary folk don’t always vote on them, because they often don’t keep the details in working memory for long before something else in their busy lives comes along to distract them.
This budget of Hockey’s may be an exception though, much as was the Work Choices legislation during the last Howard Government. But if we’re talking about signs of elitism, other than in pure policy terms, and if we’re not talking about whether politicians prefer Iced VoVos over Biscuits Roses de Reims, what else can we turn to for a diagnosis?
On Wednesday, Treasurer Joe Hockey told The Sydney Institute that “…criticism of our strategy has been political in nature and has drifted to 1970s class warfare lines, claiming the budget is ‘unfair’ or that the ‘rich don’t contribute enough”, and that “…only in a closed economy, based on old style socialism, can a government hope to deliver uniform equality of outcomes”.
There’s a lot you could say about this purely on the basis of policy points; a mixed economy has been part-and-parcel of the New Left since there was a New Left; the Hawke-Keating government opened the Australian economy to the world more than any other, and few-to-none of Hockey’s mainstream critics actually seek to reverse this, or, one could point out that there is a vast multitude of possible fiscal platforms more equitable than Hockey’s that don’t even approach being socialist.
In short, in terms of policy points, you could point out that what Hockey is saying is unequivocally false; that it’s horseshit.
But being tricksy or false hardly signifies that he’s being an elitist dirtbag. Rather, what it does show us is that he’s either or both foolish, or dishonest. This wouldn’t be telling us anything that we don’t already know.
Currently, opposition leader Bill Shorten is hounding Hockey for his dividing Australians into a cynical dichotomy of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. With little doubt this is something worthy of criticism, the banal outrage element amongst consumer-reader markets not withstanding. Indeed, if only Shorten could be more the media darling on this, that he was during the Beaconsfield Mine collapse in 2006.
What this particular language doesn’t do though, is highlight the very real division between Joe Hockey, and “Average Joe”; that he is not one of us. Hockey’s divisiveness, in this case, is pure demagoguery of the Alan Jones, or 1990s Current Affair variety, and like the politically dishonest and the foolish, the political demagogue experiences little difficulty blending in with us commoners.
Indeed, wealthy demagogues are particularly adept at passing themselves off as battlers or hard workers; it’s a good part of what makes them so politically dangerous.
No, it’s Hockey’s remark about 1970s socialism that does the trick, more than cigars, foodstuffs or demagogic bloviation ever could. Outside of the sheer wide-ranging cruelty of this latest budget, it’s this arcane and somewhat abstract point that Hockey makes that best signifies that he is alien to us little people.
Labor could almost be forgiven for not realising it. Almost.
Despite the achievements of the Hawke and Keating governments, there’s still a fiscal insecurity lurking at the back of the minds of many an ALP member; The Spectre of Gough. Beating back the Global Financial Crisis under Rudd may have exorcised this anxiety to some degree, but I’m sure it’s still there in no insignificant measure.
So when the Liberals concoct an imaginary “Budget Crisis”, and the Australian public reject a perfectly fiscally competent government, you can expect that folk in the Labor party are going to worry about their party’s (allegedly) long-standing reputation for these things.
Only, outside of the political classes, nobody really gives a rat’s posterior about this anymore. The public’s interest for political history isn’t as great as the average party wonk, and is easily subsumed by urgency and practicality. The “Budget Crisis” was such an urgency, and the in-fighting that made Labor appear impractical, was clear, apparent and immediate.
This had nothing to do with the hauntings of The Spectre of Gough.
Similarly, and to my point, aside from the party faithful, and the welded-on, the Australian electorate couldn’t give two farts about Hockey’s venture into the shortcomings of “1970s socialism”. Aside from being factually dubious, which many a wonk will be tempted to address, and aside from alluding to fiscal ghosts, which many a Labor-type may be baiting into defending, it’s just too alien.
Talk of historically closed economies, and the alleged unattainability of attempts at absolute and uniform equality, are at least for the time being, too far removed from the electorate’s immediate concerns, which thanks to Hockey’s callousness, are now many.
If Labor want to take full advantage of the way Hockey has alienated the Australian public, it needs to jump on the arcane and abstruse qualities of his ideations, and use them to portray him for what he is; out of touch with most Australians, and utterly unconcerned with their welfare.
Hockey is far too busy chasing ideological spectres of his own imagining to be worried about us plebs.
A stark, alternative approach, would be for the ALP to continue overlooking openings like these, instead remaining distracted by their own flirtations with the abstract and the tenebrous, thereby opening themselves up to fair speculation that they too, are too busy with other things to care about the little folk. It shouldn’t need saying that I don’t think this is a good idea.
Shake off the fog, the ghosts and the long shadows, Labor. A strong opposition is needed.