It’s typically right-wing governments which accuse the Left of playing class politics and engaging in class warfare. But when Joe Hockey insisted that the poor wouldn’t be any worse off as a result of his proposed increase to the fuel tax, he did more for the Marxist movement than any socialist government could ever hope for.
“The poorest people either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases. But, they are opposing what is meant to be, according to the Treasury, a progressive tax.”
And there it is. The sudden naming of a category of Australians who are now “the poor”.
It’s not that poor people never existed in Australia before Joe put them/us in the media spotlight. Ever since European capitalism was introduced into this country, there have always been those who live in opposition to the wealthy.
The style of capitalism that we know (and love?) in Australia today relies on the existence of poor people who can work for, produce for, and support the rich.
In support of his comments about poor people and cars, Joe insists he is only stating what the Australian Bureau of Statistics identifies to be fact. This same body of knowledge about life in Australia also shows it to be fact that you are more likely to be poor if you are indigenous, female, a recent immigrant, or young.
But the poor have never been so eagerly identified. Neoliberalism – which has dominated the development of capitalism for the past few decades – doesn’t just demand eradication of the poor to prove how successful its open-market economic practices can be. It must also refuse to recognise the very existence of the poor, because it is the existence of such a group of people that exposes neoliberalism’s immediate and ongoing failures.
In neoliberal-affected societies over the past few decades, working class people have eagerly been seeking entry into a respectable and respected middle-class world.
They have bought into property ownership, often taking on large mortgages to prove their legitimacy to belong. They have taken up offers of unaffordable credit so they can purchase the social symbols of success. Even those whose asset portfolio would actually show them to be technically poor have participated in a cultural silencing of the poor.
Joe has finally brought unity to this diaspora in a way that has not been seen for well over a generation.
But more than just identifying this group, he has also helped it to grow in numbers. He tried to insist it was only those who don’t drive who are truly the poor. He failed to do his calculations; and not for the first time. Because how many people don’t own “cars” (plural)? And how many people don’t drive “very far”? For all these people are now officially included in “the poor”.
There are also thousands more Australians who are suddenly willing to identify with this group. We might consider them to be this country’s internal economic refugees. They reject Joe’s claim that the increase in the fuel tax will only affect the rich because they know it will affect them, and this means they too must be poor.
Their allegiance with those who are poorer than they are may well be the result of dissatisfied affluence – “affluenza” as the writers Professor Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss described it in their 2005 book of the same name which explored the Australian reaction to the Western addiction of overconsumption.
In Tony Blair’s Britain, it became acceptable to identify oneself as rich. Having it all and showing it all off were an important part of New Labour’s marketing brand.
But Joe has managed to persuade many Australians to throw away the past few decades of feigned decadence. He has given a single name to a diverse range of people who now unite in their opposition to political and social changes which have for too long sought to silence their economic realities.
Tony Abbott once declared himself to be a “reforming conservative” just like Margaret Thatcher. In Thatcher’s Britain, the poor were extremely vocal and very loud. They went on long strikes and demonstrated in diverse and constructive ways.
The Liberals and supporters of neoliberalism ideology should be scared. Because Abbott’s right-hand man has risen from the depths of immigrant poverty, and he has spoken. He has incited people all across Australia to identify themselves as “the poor” and to rise up as one.
Let’s not forget that now iconic image of our Treasurer sitting outside Parliament just before he handed down his first budget to fix all our economic woes. And what was that he held in his hand? Ce n’est pas un pipe. It was a cigar. A Cuban perhaps? A symbol of socialist success?
So we salute you, comrade Joe. For you are most definitely not your average Liberal.
* Dean Laplonge is a cultural theorist whose research and consulting work explores the relationship between culture and everyday practices. He is the Director of the cultural research company Factive www.factive.com.au and an Adjunct senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales.
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