Undressing Abbott's Conservative Alliance

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Prior to his arrival in Washington, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that he wanted to build a conservative alliance to stop international moves to address climate change through carbon trading. He would challenge President Obama’s push to reduce pollution of the atmosphere.

Such a conservative alliance is fuelled by an interpretation of freedom in which, a Sydney Morning Herald editorial tells us, ‘self interest outweighs the public interest.’ 

The Prime Minister’s opposition to the American President’s plans is also informed by ignorance. He behaves as though oblivious of the several emissions trading schemes being experimented across China, in California – one of the world’s largest economies – and in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and British Columbia.

Such ‘ignorance’ continues because Abbott and his colleagues like to please and protect the big polluters. Even if coal poisons the only atmosphere that we have, it is available so we should burn it in Australia, and export it to the rest of the world.

Ideology stifles evidence. So, no Minister for Science, abolish the Climate Commission, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and appoint a climate change denier, Dick Warburton, to chair a committee to review the renewable energy target.     

The designer label on Abbott’s right wing clothing says that taxation is negative and taxes should be reduced. ‘Put up with the pain of cuts in spending now and I’ll reduce your taxes later.’

Seldom is the case put that the benefits of a civil society – public schools, hospitals, roads, clean air and water plus the rule of law – are outcomes of taxation.

Behind this attitude to taxation is the Abbott version of the strong, self-made macho individual  – ‘learn or earn’, ‘put up with poverty until you get a job’, ‘be a man, get on your bike.’

 

Why Should I?

An ugly selfishness is revealed in Ministers’ encouragement of ‘Why should I ?’ attitudes.

‘Why should I contribute to the costs of others’ health, education or welfare?’

Minister for Education Christopher Pyne whinges his justification of a free market in student fees.

‘Students pay just 40 per cent of the costs of their education, which means that 60 per cent of Australians who do not have a degree are subsidizing the other 40 per cent. ‘Why should they?’ he asks.

Cues given by government ministers are dog whistles to a talk back radio chorus, ‘Why should I contribute to social security for people on the dole?’  ‘You’re lazy, I’m not.’ ‘I’ve looked after myself, why should I contribute to Medicare for people who exploit it ?’ And a Government Senator claims that the ABC wastes taxpayers’ money, so why should they be subsidized ? 

When politicians reach for moral high ground by defending taxpayers’ money, there smoulders a disdain for public sector initiatives, except when it comes to purchasing weapons and other military equipment, to massively subsidizing private schools and private health care and to defending the superannuation and the expense related perks of politicians.

Their age of entitlement has not ended.

The right-wing clothing also covers some Labor Party views, in particular regarding the treatment of asylum seekers.

In wanting to appear tough, in supposedly showing that you have to be cruel to be kind, the Opposition spokesman on Immigration, Richard Marles, is barely distinguishable from the evangelical bully, Minister Scott Morrison. 

With the exception of the impressive National Disability Insurance Scheme, ideas that even a mild form of socialism requires compassion towards the vulnerable have usually eluded Labor leaders.

Although defending universal health care and insisting on the need for emissions trading schemes, in other areas of economic policy they have also been hooked on the free market drug.

The long-term consequences of that drug are greater social and economic inequality, which has a destructive effect on the nature of relationships in so many contexts.    

The ‘Why should I?’ attitude carries a ‘taken for granted assumption’ that social justice merits little attention except through philanthropy, that the consequences of growing inequality are not worth worrying about.

Yet policies to promote two tier systems in health and education contrast so vividly with the Gonski conclusions that governments must ensure that ‘differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.’      

 

Re-paying a Moral Debt

In the lexicon of the conservative alliance, opposition to carbon trading is coupled to plans to promote privatization, reduce taxes and cut spending.

Supported by equally blind economics commentators, Treasurer Hockey speaks about debt as though there is nothing else in a country’s culture except a bank balance.

Government debt does need to be addressed, but Australia’s real debt problem is moral not economic. Governments have significant moral obligations to Indigenous people, to asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru, to the young unemployed and homeless, to the mentally ill. 

As a rich country, Australia also has a moral obligation to the poor in developing countries, and to peoples who are oppressed – the Indigenous citizens of West Papua, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and to Palestinians.

If respect for equality of opportunity and for the dignity of all people was grafted into social policies, the destructive values of a conservative alliance would be challenged and political conversation changed. 

To do that, let’s not be apologetic about emotional appeals. Remember Stephane Hessel’s thesis that ‘To maintain connection with your own humanity, you must be outraged by injustice. The alternative is indifference.’

For more political nourishment, consider Bertrand Russell’s famous dictum, ‘Remember humanity and forget the rest.’    

* Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees is Vice Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation

Stuart Rees

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.

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