The curious mix of misguided charity and conservative rage directed at Duncan Storrar explains why the Coalition are so anxious to keep inequality off the electoral agenda. Whatever you do, don’t mention the (class) war, writes Ben Eltham.
In recent days, Australia’s media has been transfixed by Duncan Storrar, an audience member on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night.
Storrar asked a question about Scott Morrison’s budget measures. “I’ve got a disability and a low education, that means I’ve spent my whole life working for minimum wage. You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people,” he pointed out to Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer.
“If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life,” Storrar continued. “That means that I get to say to my little girls, ‘Daddy’s not broke this weekend. We can go to the pictures’. Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift.”
“Why don’t I get it?” Storrar asked. “Why do they get it?”
O’Dwyer’s answer was a fiasco of misdirection. She tried to focus on the budget’s tax cuts to small business, which would, she explained, help create jobs. Why, just the other day she had spoken to a local café owner. “He will have access to the instant asset write-off,” O’Dwyer said, “which means he can invest in his business, a $6,000 toaster, which means he can get more customers through his business on a Saturday.”
Storrar’s question, and O’Dwyer’s reply, catapulted inequality into the national conversation. The reaction by much of the right-wing media has been panic and rage.
All too predictably, The Australian went on the attack. The newspaper that likes to call itself “the Heart of the Nation” splashed Storrar’s income figures all over the front page on Wednesday, complaining that he paid “no net tax.” This morning it dispatched Caroline Overington for an unflattering interview with his estranged son.
The vicious reaction of the right-wing media to Mr Storrar’s perfectly relevant question has been enlightening. When a genuinely poor person asked a pointed question on national television, the reaction was a mix of misguided charity and conservative anger. It shows just how worried the government and its cheerleaders are about inequality becoming an election issue.
The charity came via a crowd-funding website, Go Fund Me, where a Q&A viewer named Samuel Fawcett has set up a page to “buy Duncan a toaster” – a cheeky reference to the industrial toaster she’d mentioned in her answer.
Within a day, Fawcett had raised tens of thousands of dollars for Storrar, in an embarrassing example of the disconnect between the ordinary experience of Australia’s working class, and the stroke of luck Storrar enjoyed by appearing on the show.
The online charity drive, started off in Fawcett’s description as an exercise in citizen solidarity, soon posed tricky moral questions about whether individual crowd-funding can ever address systemic issues like inequality and poverty.
It’s worth noting that Storrar never asked for charity. He asked for a tax cut for low-income earners.
The unmoored nature of the post-budget debate highlights the increasingly wide class divisions opening up in Australia. While battlers like Duncan Storrar make do on a low income topped up with penurious government benefits, high-income earners are shooting off into the stratosphere.
Storrar was right: low-income earners didn’t receive an income tax cut in Morrison’s budget. High-income earners did.
The government has elected to reward high-income earners and ignore (or even punish) the lower and middle. This upwards redistribution has not gone unnoticed by many in the electorate. It reinforces the out of touch narrative that adhered to the government over the $4-an-hour internships debacle.
But the government has problems with the rich, too. The Coalition is fighting a budget war on two fronts currently. The changes to superannuation taxes in the budget have sparked a wildfire in the Liberal base.
The retrospective nature of the changes, and the fact they hurt the Liberal base of self-funded retirees, have provoked real anger from the superannuation industry and the Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA, always a reliable mouthpiece for the interests of rich people, is threatening to launch a campaign against the government over the “retrospectivity” of the superannuation tax changes.
In an irony of true numerical beauty, Morrison told the budget media conference last Tuesday that the superannuation changes would affect only the top one per cent (or perhaps four per cent) of superannuants.
But the one per cent are a dangerous interest group. The IPA has hit the ground running, mobilising its considerable support base in the Liberal Party’s right to pressure the government to kill off the changes.
And, purely coincidentally, today was the day it emerged that Malcolm Turnbull’s name is in the Panama Papers. The jigsaw puzzle of class combat was complete.
The viral power of the Duncan Storrar story is wholly to do with the jarring authenticity of his experience. In an election mediascape where politician-voter interaction is completely stage-managed (as even seasoned journalists admit), the sudden interruption of a genuinely poor person was a rare shattering of illusions. A similar thing happened this afternoon, after a single mum bailed the Prime Minister up on education funding in front of the media pack.
Instead of anodyne conversations followed quickly by a microphone-studded media conference, here was a real Australian asking a real and entirely valid question to his political representatives. The iconoclasm of the moment was too much for a waffling O’Dwyer.
The received wisdom is that we don’t have a class problem in Australia. Indeed, the government’s favoured line when challenged by Labor over inequality is to accuse the ALP of “class war.”
But the single-minded pursuit of an ordinary citizen who had the temerity to enquire of a minister speaks volumes about the savagery of the social contest. Australians aren’t exactly at the barricades, but the reality of social inequality is a lot more obvious than it used to be in the easy boom years of Howard. There’s a multi-millionaire in The Lodge, young people are locked out of the housing market, and a socialist unionist is running in the seat of Grayndler (against Labor, and for the Greens).
It’s class war, all right. We’ll be seeing a lot more of it during this campaign.