Sep 3, 2014

Kiss the ‘fair go’ goodbye: Tony Abbott gives individualism absolute priority – Opinion – The Guardian

The government is attempting to spark a shift in our national culture – but Australians cannot and won’t be convinced to care less for each other

Through its policies, budget and rhetoric, the government is attempting to spark a shift in our national culture – one that gives the concept of individualism absolute priority, to the exclusion of any concept of collective interest.

I’ve always been cautious about flag-waving politicians who seek to ascribe to all Australians a common set of values, but there is something very real and unique in the concept of the Fair Go that the current government doesn’t seem to recognise.

There is a generosity of spirit within Australian culture – one that embraces a sense of community and common interest. Australians respect success at the individual level, but they also believe that our society is only as good as the way we treat our most disadvantaged members.

We believe every Australian has a right to health care, equal access to education and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. We don’t let our pursuit of individual success come at the cost of fairness.

This is the mindset that Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey challenge with their budget attacks on the disadvantaged and their insistence that people are either “lifters or leaners’’.

At one level, Abbott’s approach is unsurprising because it has failed before. Former prime minister John Howard thought he could change attitudes when he introduced the unfair Work Choices laws industrial relations laws, which emphasised individual workplace bargaining. But by rejecting Work Choices and tossing Howard out of office, Australians voted for a Fair Go.

The surprise in 2014 is that Abbott seeks to extend this creed well beyond industrial relations and into the full range of government activity. The budget undermines policies which enhance equity, presumably on the basis that the government believes Australians can be convinced to care less for others and more for themselves.

For example, while Labor created Medicare as a universal health system, Abbott seeks to undermine it with his new GP tax. While Labor lifted education funding and created the access to tertiary education based upon merit rather than capacity to pay, Abbott has cut spending and wants to make university degrees more expensive by deregulating the sector. Rather than supporting the Fair Go, such reforms entrench privilege.

Labor supports proper indexation of pensions but the government wants to cut pensions. Labor invests in public transport. But Abbott has withdrawn all public transport funding. In his book Battlelines, he wrote that there was no need for any vehicle larger than a car.

Labor believes in helping the jobless with income support and training, while Abbott and his ministers vilify the unemployed and expect jobless school leavers to live on nothing.

Another great example of the lack of generosity is the current campaign to end weekend penalty rates in industries like retailing and hospitality. Unsurprisingly, the vested interests that funded Abbott’s election campaign argue that they are bad for business – but most Australians know that penalties are built into the wage structure of weekend workers. If penalties were removed, hospitality workers would be denied a living wage. Like their American counterparts they would have to rely on tips to get by.

Abolishing penalty rates would also send the worst-possible message to the community about the value we place on the dignity of labour. To me, there is dignity in all work. If we scrap weekend penalty rates, the message we send is that even though shop assistants or hospitality workers are prepared to work hard, they don’t deserve the living wage that we pay to people in other jobs.

If Abbott and his colleagues think that’s fair, they really don’t understand their fellow Australians.

This is an edited extract of a speech Anthony Albanese delivered this week to the national conference of the United Voice union on the Gold Coast.

This piece appears today in The Guardian Australia: