The Budget and Personal Responsibility: Piercing the Neoliberal Veil


There is one word in the neoliberal repertoire that should, but doesn’t, elicit laughter whenever uttered by the political classes – personal responsibility.

Usually it is deployed in a self-righteous fashion, to raise the ire of all hard-working, tax paying, citizens, against scroungers and benefit thieves – those perennial ‘wasters’ who want something for nothing.

As its ‘charm’ becomes part of the national ‘common sense’ it is used more offensively. We begin to talk about individuals taking responsibility for their own education and healthcare; cue payment at the point of use, and unregulated higher education fees.

The hallowed virtues of ‘personal responsibility’, have long been used in the UK to help citizens swallow the bitter pill of ‘austerity Britain’.

Now its ideological appeal is being deployed in Australia, along with a few home-grown additions like ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’.

Treasurer Joe, recently playing before a home crowd at the Sydney Institute, served up these now hackneyed phrases with a trowel to an approving audience.

“It is unfair”, we are told by Hockey, “to keep a system intact that is clearly not encouraging participation and personal responsibility”.

He adds: “It is up to individuals in the community to accept responsibility for their lives and their destiny.”

By way of illustration, Hockey observes, “the average working Australian, be they a cleaner, a plumber or a teacher” – ie. regular Joes like you and me – “is working over one month full-time each year just to pay for the welfare of another Australian”.

Then, in something of an ‘in your face’ to the Occupy movement, the Treasurer pauses to remind his audience who the real heavy lifters are: “less than one per cent of companies pay 62 per cent of all company tax”.

Not that the Treasurer is participating here in “class warfare”, that he observes was a debate we had and finished in the 1970s.

So he concludes, society “must reward the lifters” and “discourage the leaners”.

Or, as Hockey put it on the ABC, “the age of entitlement is over. The age of personal responsibility has begun”.

But this is a personal responsibility that is unilateral, and downward in its trajectory. For were ‘personal responsibility’ to be applied with even a modicum of balance – and surely, in fairness, it should be – it would be a bugle call for a justice revolution that would shake the most elite stratas to the very core.

In the US and Britain there is a growing body of robust, scholarly research showing the pyramid of frauds, gross illegalities, and predatory behaviour that triggered the global financial meltdown.

And what did the disciples of personal responsibility say when vocal calls were made for criminals in the financial sector to assume personal responsibility for their actions?

To borrow the words of Britain’s most senior baking regulator, “it would be a very destabilising issue [prosecuting banks]. It’s another version of too important to fail…. Because of the confidence issue with banks… this is not an ordinary criminal indictment”.

So the millions of victims of this global Ponzi scheme have been thrust into the refuse bin of leaners, while the perpetrators of this defining swindle of our age remain “free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise”.

Or spare a thought for the long-suffering victims of the Bhopal disaster in India, a classic example used in the corporate crime curriculum (not that it is lacking in material). Their campaign to have Union Carbide take responsibility for the tragedy is now 30-years-old.

It would seem once we enter the suites, ‘personal responsibility’ becomes something of an empty slogan.

Indeed, even those men of blood and slaughter, such as General Soeharto and General Pinochet, despite epic legal struggles, never had to assume responsibility for their crimes. Instead they got accolades.

And what about Britain’s new political orphan, Tony Blair – or Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, as The Independent’s Robert Fisk calls him. Every attempt has been made to keep the machinations behind the Iraq war under lock and key.

Now as Iraq capitulates under a horrendous rot of sectarian violence, Lord Blair tells the British public “we” – presumably the royal we, because millions of Brits opposed the war – are not responsible for this mess.

It would seem personal responsibility is something of a one-way street.

And nowhere is exempt. In Australia, we have seen nasty little covert wars committed all around us.

Up in West Papua the Australian government has been an aider and abetter for decades, on Bougainville they were much more directly responsible for a military campaign littered with war crimes.

No-one, to date, has been held personally responsible for the extra-judicial killings, the mass-rapes, or the village burnings. 

Indeed, to the contrary quite extensive efforts have been plumbed into buttressing impunity.

Personal responsibility does indeed have a nice ring to it, and were it to be applied with a modicum of fairness, it would be the most dangerous concept of our age.

* Dr Kristian Lasslett is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster and sits on the Board of the International State Crime Initiative. His work has featured in leading international journals and his book State Crime on the Margins of Empire is available via Pluto Press.

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.