Green Without (Class) Envy: Richard Di Natale’s Disappointingly Neoliberal Messaging

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Populism over policy is never a particularly good look, particularly if you’re pitching to people who want substance over style. Michael Brull* explains.

In a Facebook post recently, leader of the Greens Senator Richard Di Natale had a message for the youths of Australia. Don’t “throw your hard-earned money away” on private health insurance “you don’t need”. Save your “$$” for a house deposit instead.

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Senator Di Natale threw in a complaint about the Government’s (unexplained) private health insurance reforms. He tweeted out a similar message in this video clip of him discussing the private health system. But the message is clear enough in his Facebook page’s meme. If you’re “young and healthy”, don’t waste your money on private health insurance.

The replies that followed on his thread (and there were others) made some obvious points. Firstly, people who have health issues without private insurance may be forced to wait months for surgery under the public health care system, which may deem non-urgent surgery “elective”.

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Secondly, just because someone is “young and healthy” doesn’t mean they will stay that way. People are often healthy, until they are not. I was a healthy young man until I turned 23 and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Since then, I have faced considerable health issues, along with associated costs and challenges. Whatever the systemic issues involved – and without denying my considerable privilege – my care and quality of life would have been (and would be) considerably diminished without private health care. Indeed, I may well be dead without the kind of care I’ve been privileged enough to have.

Furthermore, there are many gaps in the public health care system. Suppose, for example, that you spent a month and a half in hospital, faced a considerable risk of dying from surgery, and accumulated numerous traumas along the way. You would be entitled to government subsidies for six sessions with a psychologist.

If you’re game, you can convince a GP to grant you another four subsidised sessions with a psychologist. Even if you’re lucky enough for this to cover your sessions with a psychologist without having to pay a gap fee, you may not find yourself emotionally recovered after 10 weeks. The public system would not have offered you the support you needed to recover.

Though you may have saved some of the way towards a house deposit, you may well find that you have to start spending that money on your own physical and mental recovery. At which point, you might wind up eating into your home deposit savings, hoping for further life advice from the Senator.

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The next point seems straightforward. Affording a house deposit isn’t easy. The issue for young people is not always just about their generation, but about class. Some millennials are born into families which are happy to transfer wealth to help them buy homes. Others struggle to save for a house whilst paying rent, and do what they can to make ends meet. If they are then struck by health issues, they can face considerable difficulties. Private health insurance may sometimes be what it takes to get by without sinking.

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Some of the above may seem like an argument for private health insurance. It isn’t. I have it, and I have benefited from it, but the point isn’t whether it’s good or bad for an individual. The point is that there are systemic failings in the public health system which need to be addressed.

Lecturing young people on how they should spend their money is the opposite of advocating systemic change.

It’s condescending, but it’s also pointless gesturing. Telling young people to save their money is about as productive as telling rich people to give more money to the poor. Supposing even that they should do it, it’s not the same as advocating for and creating systemic change so that working class and poor people don’t need to rely on the charity of others.

This episode seems like an illustration of neoliberalism seeping into the Greens. Instead of advocating for systemic change – or developing a class politics that aims to redistribute wealth – Senator Di Natale urges individual action, which will not actually help anyone.

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Affluent young people who can afford to do so will continue to invest in private health insurance, because it is a sensible thing to do. Even supposing that they didn’t do so, more young people saving for house deposits wouldn’t address the housing affordability crisis. Telling young people to not fritter away their money on health insurance is even worse advice than telling young people not to buy avocado on toast (admittedly, avocado tastes awful).

I have argued before that the policies of the Greens are the furthest left of the mainstream parties. Yet Greens voters are less likely to consider themselves working class than any of the other major parties, and slightly more likely than the Liberals to earn over $120,000 per year.

Whilst some surveys show concern about the health system ranks highly among Greens voters, they typically highlight what are considered moral concerns, such as climate change and our treatment of asylum seekers. These are important issues, but if the Greens are going to expand beyond 10 per cent of the vote (focused among the relatively affluent in inner city areas), they need to demonstrate that they are in touch with the material concerns that face the everyday lives of ordinary Australians.

Sometimes a meme is just a meme. Sometimes – this time – it shows that the Greens need to step up their game.

* Disclosure: earlier this year, Michael Brull became a member of the Greens.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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