COMMENT: by Michael ScammellNews Weekly
Poor always the losers in a middle class game
, October 18, 2003
You can tell by watching Shadow Treasurer Mark Latham's ungainly defence of his "matched savings" plan that our politicians are a bit rusty when it comes to engaging with Australia's poor.
Latham - who never backs away from a publicity generating stoush - has defended criticism of his proposal by trade unions and some media that the poor "have nothing to save", by arguing they give up smoking, alcohol and gambling in what amounts to the usual tin-eared attempt by politicians to knock the poor into shape by sending them off to an anti-vice boot camp.
That a number of conservative commentators have supported this rather paternalistic suggestion is hardly surprising and shows the extent to which the political left and right have merged into one these days.Comfort zone
Labor and Liberal politicians are much happier playing the vote-attracting comfort zone of appealing to middle Australia. Contrast the ham-fisted comments over the matched savings proposal with the major parties enthusiastic interest in the true 'non-issue' of recent times - the question of housing affordability for middle class Australia.
Non-issue - because the solutions so far put forward at assisting first home buyers break into the market (cutting stamp duty or providing home buyer grants) - while popular with the public are just as likely to lift market prices further and leave real estate agents and property developers rubbing their hands together gleefully.
Of course the actual effect of these policies is hardly the point - politicians know that the middle class dream of home ownership is where the votes are and giving hand-outs to assist is always popular (funny how these first home owner grants never cop the "middle class welfare" critique used to describe funding of tertiary places).
The politicians are aided and abetted in this by a media which loves to fuel the interest in property as the supposed ultimate Australian dream - generating truckloads of media copy and property advertisements, spinning off into television programs on auctions, home renovations and current affair type exposés on shonky property dealers.
All this hype fitting neatly into the latest big issue of the 'property bubble' and whether it will or will not affect our trade credentials overseas.
But for Australians on the edge financially, the media and political obsession with property is nothing more than the usual middle class self-absorption.
The juxtaposition is telling when on the same evening that television new services carry Latham's remarks about giving up the booze, smokes and gambling, many of the same poor would have sat in front of their sets watching the Brownlow Medal count (footy, the workers' game) as footballers and media sat in a casino
The vox pops interviews with the arriving players made much of asking the player's partners how much their outfits were worth (usually a figures in the thousands was gushingly announced) serving only to rub in the sense of disenfranchisement for Australia's poor.
But even if the paternalistic stamp of some of Latham's comments are unfortunate he should still be congratulated for at least trying to tackle the issue of poverty.Real issue
What would be even more impressive though would be policies from both major parties tackling the real
issue in Australian society these days - unemployment (both the official and
Typically, many media commentators - who seem unable to break bad habits - have decided to interpret these latest Labor policy machinations as more manoeuvring for position in the likely case that Simon Crean eventually loses the Opposition leadership.
As always, what the media think
is important to the average Australian in politics, and what they (especially disadvantaged Australians) actually do think matters politically, are quite different things.
Given the poll-driven middle Australia focus of how politics play these days, it is unlikely that the "matched savings" plan will prove much of a vote winner for Labor.
As Australia's disadvantaged are increasingly realising, modern politics is really a game played for the benefit of the middle class.
- Michael Scammell is a Melbourne writer firstname.lastname@example.org