There’s no money in poetry, Robert Frost once quipped, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.
In his budget address, Wayne Swan seemed determined to prove Frost’s point. He didn’t so much turn his phrases as curdle them in the stale Ruddite argot about working families, mumbling dutifully but unenthusiastically through the various means tests, taxes on luxury cars, the spending on infrastructure, health and education and the rest of it.
Significantly, he displayed the most animation not when explaining how the ALP would uplift the battlers who voted for it, but rather in response to Kerry O’Brien’s suggestion that Labor hadn’t inflicted sufficient pain.
“Oh, there’s pain, all right,” the Treasurer insisted. “There’s pain.”
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You might think that the promise of pain makes a peculiar selling point.
But that’s the odd political era we now inhabit. Within the parliamentary mainstream, economics no longer allows for debate. You can argue about your social issues but, when it comes to the economy, everyone’s just as conservative as each other: a perverse whips and chains consensus exemplified by Ross Gittens’ column in today’s Age, which explained that the budget “could have been much, much better … By better, of course, I mean more unpleasant.”
Much to the chagrin of the pundits and parliamentarians, ordinary people still display something of a reluctance to welcome that wonderful unpleasantness as it showers down upon them.
Which is why the Labor Party should bless the Good Lord for the chair sniffing culture of the post-Howard Liberal Party. Not surprisingly, an organisation inhabited by people who regard Ted Baillieu as a communist and public housing as a rort for bludgers reflexively accused Swan of soaking the rich — and thus helped to obfuscate how little the budget actually offered in the way of economic redistribution.
Take Swan’s centerpiece — the division between well-off families and their working counterparts. As Tony Wright argues, only 3% of families actually fall above this line. Furthermore, after 1 July, the top marginal tax rate will apply only to those earning above $180,000. Compare that to the last Labor budget, where a higher top tax rate kicked in over $50,000.
Class war, this ain’t.
Under Hawke and Keating, the slogans of social democracy sat rather uncomfortably alongside the practice of economic rationalism. The innovation of Ruddism consists of applying one to another, so that neo-liberalism becomes, rhetorically, at least, the embodiment of the Labor tradition, with the doughty reformers of the ALP willing to roll up their sleeves and make the cuts that the effete Liberal blue-bloods were too feeble to manage.
We saw this during the election campaign when Rudd promised to spend less rather than more than Howard, implicitly contrasting irresponsible Tory profligacy with the frugality of Labor’s ordinary folk. Swan’s budget represents more of the same — hence the willingness to talk the work of the razor gang up rather than down.
It’s a neat rhetorical strategy and one that, like much of Rudd’s program, you can trace back to Tony Blair. Mind you, Blairism reached its culmination with the recent London elections in which New Labour’s core vote utterly collapsed — a reminder that there’s only so long you can tell people that the Light on the Hill consists entirely of tax cuts for the rich.
But that’s still a little way down the track in Australia.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.