Dining at Bill Shorten's inequality lunch, where chocolate desserts are covered in gold specks.Source:Supplied
Dining at Bill Shorten's inequality lunch, where chocolate desserts are covered in gold specks.Source:Supplied

A BIT RICH? Labor’s gold dessert proves hard to swallow

SOMETIMES the irony of a situation is too much to bear. As Bill Shorten delivered a rousing speech on inequality at a luncheon on Friday, the assembled audience were being delivered desserts topped with gold.

The Opposition Leader's speech, delivered in a ballroom in the Grand Hyatt Hotel to mostly well-off academics, public servants and media, marked a shift in emphasis for the Labor party - ranking the rich and poor equal first. The assembled crowd listened attentively as they spooned up the chocolate tart with salty caramel mousse and toasted hazelnuts, accompanied by gold leaf.

Bill Shorten made it clear the Labor party he leads will prioritse inequality before the next federal election.

"The system as it stands is accelerating inequality rather than addressing it. It is entrenching unfairness rather than alleviating it. A belligerent defence of trickle down economics is no kind of plan for Australia's future," Mr Shorten said.

Inequality is up by many measures. As this next chart shows, the share of incomes going to workers has fallen sharply.

Shorten has made it clear he will focus on inequality in coming months. But for the message to help him win the next election, it will have to travel far beyond the well-fed crowd at the Economic and Social Outlook Conference, sponsored by The Australian and the Melbourne Institute. The question is: will the rest of Australia bite?

"I think people are hungry for something more substantial than the current political fare," Mr Shorten said, promising to do things that were in the past dismissed as too politically difficult.

He promised to go back to the "too-hard basket" and re-examine the tax options that had been put in there. But for now the details of what that might mean is scant, beyond already-announced changes to tax arrangements like negative gearing and deductions.

Bill Shorten's speech - and one by shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen the day before - made it clear the Labor party is trying to draw on the legacy of the Hawke and Keating governments. But they want that legacy understood in slightly different terms.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen referred to it as "a grand bargain."

"The Hawke government floated the dollar, deregulated the economy and brought down tariffs, opening up our economy, they also embarked on a grand bargain," Mr Bowen said.

"Reforms which opened up the economy were accompanied by new social standards, through Medicare, superannuation, increased school retention rates and the social wage. Hawke and Keating understood that these were vital reassurances at a time when there were serious threats to the status quo and that they were essential components of good economic reform."

When Mr Shorten echoed the same sentiment a day later, Mr Bowen's argument started to look like part of a strategy: Labor wants to make sure the Hawke Keating era is remembered not just as a period of economic reforms - but of social interventions that made them possible.

Here's what Mr Shorten said on Friday:

"It is not good this nostalgic pining for the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s if we don't recognise the defining qualities that made those reforms possible. A voice for working people in the decisions that affect them, inclusion in the economy, a fair share, fair pay, a social wage a strong world-class, world leading safety net."

This is a clever ploy. Labor is always vulnerable to the impression it is engaging in what some like to call "class warfare" or "the politics of envy." But the same commentators who reach for those epithets are generally willing to admit the reforming zeal of Hawke and Keating is the best of the Labor tradition.

So, social reforms are only possible when society is calm, comfortable and confident, Labor seems to be saying. Political turmoil in the USA and parts of Europe suggest western society is anything but calm and comfortable right now. The focus on inequality could work for Labor if it captures the revolutionary mood.

After all, everyday people have toppled plenty of governments that didn't pay enough attention to the fact they were struggling. Who can forget the famous saying attributed to Marie Antionette, Queen of France, before the guillotine got her: "Let them eat cake."

(For the record, it's not clear if Bill Shorten himself ate any of the cake with gold.)

News Corp Australia

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