Suicide machines is how Bruce Springsteen described cars, in one of his 937 songs about them. The description would be better attached to the Abbott government, which appears to be engaged in a systematic process to alienate every section of the public who might consider voting for it.
What’s impressive is the bases that it covers. Starting with multicultural Australia via the new bigots’ rights movement, moving on those genuinely looking for work, and then to all women — with the abortion/breast cancer finagle, and Education Minister Pissy Cryin’s suggestion that women will pay less HECS because they study to be nurses. That last one came at the end of a week so error-filled that most of us didn’t even have time to pick up on it.
Now it’s low-income people with cars. Let me repeat that — low-income people with cars. If ever there were a a low-income group that could be persuaded, by sheer false consciousness, to vote Liberal, it’s surely young people with cars.
If ever there were a rural group who might be persuaded to shift from the Nats to a Cathy McGowan-style independent, it’s people with fuel costs eating their income. There is an IDF-quality to the appearance of precision given by the Abbott government disaster squad — it’s as if they ring people five minutes beforehand to tell them they’re about to lose their vote.
Joe Hockey’s latest is a masterpiece, though, a sort of portmanteau error, combining all errors in the smallest possible space. It’s an error with something for everyone: basic category confusion, bad reasoning and inherent contradiction with their own policy direction. It’s an error for the ages. They should have it bronzed and put it in the foyer of their headquarters.
Kick the tyres! Let’s start with the basics, as briefly as possible, because most people with year 10 know them anyway. Hockey’s remark that the rich pay more than the poor for driving is firstly to use raw figures rather than proportions. The rich pay less as a proportion of their disposable income than the benefits-dependent poor, and even low-income waged workers. Figures from the Greens leader’s office show that the poorest 20% of households spend 6.3% of their weekly income on petrol, compared to 4.6% for those in the highest quintile. Indeed, the bottom 80% all pay more than the top 20%. Even if you take the top 40%, they pay less — 5.25% — of their weekly income than the poor.
And that of course disguises car journeys foregone — nothing on the dial! The second basic error is that of mistaking aggregate measures for real conditions. The “rich” and “poor” don’t get together and collectively budget. They are made up of millions of individual life circumstances, in which the aggregate load makes no appearance. Yes, I assumed it went without saying, too. Apparently not.
“The issue is not the fuel excise … The bigger issue is the one that Hockey is utterly oblivious of — the necessity for many Australians of a car they can ill-afford to run — or essential journeys forgone, because no alternative exists.”
That one contains some fantastic errors of reasoning. It’s true that the poor own fewer cars than the rich, but that doesn’t add up to less driving, unless one assumes that multiple-car households drive all their cars at once — or that low-income people don’t make multiple trips to family and friends without cars. (It brings to mind Mitt Romney’s remark about his wife at his disastrous NASCAR appearance in ’12: “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs …” Simultaneously, presumably, balanced between them, stunt-style. That’s Hockey’s ideal rich driver.)
That noise is just the hum of a fine, fine engine! Beyond that is a whole and more embedded realm of wrong. Recall that this government announced it was going to be a “government of roads” — and promptly stripped infrastructure funding from state public transport projects, including Melbourne metro and Sydney rail projects, funding instead the East West Link and WestConnex. The base figure used by transport planners are that every dollar spent on roads adds only 25-50% of the journeys that would be added by public transport spending. For people in the outer-eastern and western suburbs of both major cities, the diverted funding will ultimately produce up to 160,000 public transport journeys/day less than would have been available — thus forcing low-income people into increasing reliance on cars.
This emphasis on roads goes hand-in-drivers-glove with the spatialisation of poverty, and denial of services. For decades now, the pattern of inner-urban development has been to simply let capital have its head, with an absence of any interest in shaping new, post-industrial, inner urban neighbourhoods as mixed income areas, of public, affordable and market-price housing. The result is a reversal of the conditions that obtained in the post-war era, when many of the poor did live in highly-serviced areas. Once those areas became favourable, in a changed culture, the poor were excluded and exiled to outer suburban areas.
The result is a double squeeze. Public transport in vast swathes of our de facto unplanned outer-urban sprawl is practically non-existent — buses twice an hour, none after lunchtime on weekends. Such lack of service drives the rents down — relatively — so they become areas of low-income habitation. In Melbourne, as an example, low income areas like Kilsyth/Noble Park and the outer parts of the Dandenong corridor in the east, and Laverton/Brooklyn in the west, are “public transport deserts” in which non-car mobility is more or less impossible.
So the sump fell off. Who needs a sump! These gaps — together with whole areas, like the central Mornington Peninsula, which have no public transport services at all — make petrol a crippling cost for those who work, a real disincentive to work at all, and thus a self-fulfilling source of “entitlement-dependency”. For low-income people in rural and urban public transport deserts, all things considered — unsubidised childcare being another factor — there is often a compelling, rational case not to work.
But wait, we’ll throw in a paint job! For those who are on benefits in public transport deserts, there are often compelling costs — multiple medical visits, for one. Since government free clinics will suspend services if clients miss multiple appointments, a car becomes an essential part of maintaining health. The same for the unemployed put to the work test — who can be breached and have their benefits suspended for missed interviews. Or who can have their benefits delayed if they are sacked for negligent behaviour — i.e. persistent unpunctuality. Who would rely on public transport in Doveton to do anything, from anywhere?
The issue is not the fuel excise per se, whose costs are small. The bigger issue is the one that Hockey is utterly oblivious of — the necessity for many Australians of a car they can ill-afford to run — or essential journeys forgone, because no alternative exists.
Call urban and transport planning what it is — a war on the poor and low-income, nothing else. It is simply one feature of the neoliberalisation of Australian life — let private developers shape cities, define services as a public cost, thus essentially privatising the profits of social development and socialising the losses. The result is to build relentless service decline and inequality into the system. When that is underway, slug the poor inequitably for costs produced by the system you’ve imposed on them. When you’re embedded in the logic of that system, as Slow Joe and his advisers are, you don’t see its contradictory nature. You don’t see the poor either, marooned in low-service suburbs, or dying towns — except when you’re targeting them. But they see you. Suicide machines indeed.