Have They No Shame?


Yesterday the Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, called upon childcare operators to “do the right thing”.

“Do the right thing” is a subjective term, but what Ley meant in this instance was that childcare providers — who had already signed funding agreements under the previous government’s early years quality fund — should refrain from increasing their low-paid staff members’ wages. Instead they should divert the funds to professional development instead, as per the new government’s policy.

Novelist Joyce Cary coined the term “tumbrel remark” to characterise revealing statements by the upper classes which were liable to provoke revolutionary sentiments. The late Christopher Hitchens pronounced himself “something of an expert” on such statements, providing examples including:

"The late queen mother, being driven in a Rolls-Royce through a stricken district of Manchester, England, said as she winced at the view, 'I see no point at all in being poor' … The Duke of Devonshire, having been criticized in the London Times, announced in an annoyed and plaintive tone that he would no longer have the newspaper 'in any of my houses.'"

Political doublespeak is nothing new, and is rarely as entertaining as the clueless utterances of early 20th century English toffs. It does seems though that our journalists need a similarly evocative descriptor for remarks that reveal the Abbott government’s low regard for the electorate in general and lower earners in particular.

Consider Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos’ remarks last month regarding the government’s decision to get rid of both Labor’s low-income super contribution (which provides up to $500 a year to help those earning $37,000 or less) and a proposed tax on earnings of superannuation pensions above $100,000.

Responding to criticisms of these decisions (which are usefully discussed here), Sinodinos stated:

“We've always been on the side of those who are aspirational … the superannuation measure … would not have just captured people whose earnings from super in retirement were above $100,000, it would also capture people with much lower amounts who, for whatever reason a particular year had their income from super bumped above the $100,000.”

Sinodinos’ statement demonstrates both that the government’s empathy is concentrated with these workers (not those earning under $37,000), and that the word “aspirational” has become a pox on our political culture, carrying the risible implication that a desire to improve one’s situation in life invariably correlates with higher earnings.

The aspirations of childcare workers, however, apparently ought to be collective rather than individual: Ley stated disapprovingly that Labor’s scheme created distortions between “the haves” and “the have-nots” and pleaded for providers to “think about the greater good of the sector” rather than the financial position of their workers.

Beyond these examples, a certain contempt for the electorate shines through in the government’s brazen inconsistencies, such the Coalition’s about-face from hysterically harping on every boat arrival while in opposition to cloaking them in silence and its cynical flip-floppery on education funding, about which Katharine Murphy wrote that the “Gonski imbroglio underscores one of the most profound problems currently afflicting Australian politics: the too-easy resort to the fudge, the bald-faced chutzpah after the fudge…”

Murphy asked whether Abbott would, “despite all the howling hysterics about the importance of morality and character in politics over the last three years … turn out to be a politician just like every other, who says one thing before an election and another thing after”.

Pointing out instances of governmental hypocrisy is so easy it seems to bring us into the realm of banal high school debates. What is interesting is what the gap between the rules the Coalition sets for its opponents and for itself reveals about our new political masters’ bare-faced bravado: they are apparently impervious to shame (an emotion which, Alan Jones infamously suggested, had brought about the death of Julia Gillard’s father).

“Shame” is a word that resonates in our politics, whether called out in parliament or echoing through protest marches. This concept has also been much in vogue more broadly, and in a recent article in Slate, Mark Peters relegated “shame” and “shaming” to the “Overused Buzzword Club”.

He also proffered some exaggerated examples of how far the tendency to abuse these words might go (such as ignorance-shaming and crime-shaming) and in our political context one might imagine parliamentarians complaining of being incompetence-shamed or mining billionaires bemoaning the emotional scars left by greed-shaming.

Writing on the politics of the “culture wars”, Raimond Gaita draws a distinction between shame and guilt. In his excellent 2004 Quarterly Essay the moral philosopher noted:

"National shame and national pride … are two sides of the same coin, having the same conceptual structure. They are two ways of acknowledging that we are sometimes collectively responsible for the deeds of others … In the debate over the apology and much else that came under the derogatory heading of “symbolic” reconciliation, it is national shame that has come under attack in the name of national pride. The wish to be proud without sometimes acknowledging the need to be ashamed is that corrupt attachment to country — I will not call it love — that we call jingoism."

One can feel genuine shame at one’s government, or for one’s country; this emotion is often expressed in the context of Australia’s increasingly cruel asylum seeker policy. The accusation such expressions of mortification generally attracted from right-wing columnists during the Howard years was that of moral vanity. That is, the individual is accused of perversely being proud of his or her embarrassment.

The term “moral vanity” is often profoundly unfair, a lazy response to problems we don’t want to deal with and a simple way of rhetorically shooting the messenger. There are nevertheless problems with shame as a political response: one can wallow ineffectually in personal angst about the state of the nation just as one can marinate in political despair. Both these emotions can take an inward turn, leaving an individual helpless under the weight of his or her own rage.

This is not to say we shouldn’t feel bad about the direction our country is heading; the real problem in this context is not with shame but with shaming: it simply doesn’t work if your opponents don’t have a conscience. The story of the Australian political left over the past few decades has in part been one of fruitlessly calling “shame” at opponents who are shameless.

Malcolm Fraser and his colleagues were largely unrepentant at having ridden roughshod over constitutional convention in order to gain power in 1975; John Howard and his ministers expressed no guilt for their mendacity during the “children overboard” affair; and the Abbott administration shows little shame arising from the gulfs between its “principled” attacks on the Rudd and Gillard governments and its own mode of governing.

In the interests of fairness, successive Labor administrations also appear to have experienced negligible remorse for reducing their party to the Least Worst Government Option rather than a choice for which social democrats might be proud to vote.

Calls of outrage will fall on deaf ears, and cries of “shame” will simply meet with puzzlement; our new government will shrug and continue exercising power. Know your enemies, lefties, and remember that they simply don't care.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.