Us, Them and that gap

FOR months now critics of Labor in general, and Julia Gillard in particular, have been complaining that her government lacks a narrative - a simple story that defines what it is and where it wants to go.

But at the weekend it appeared the Prime Minister had come up with one, or at least the one she intends to take to the election. And it can be summed up in three words: Eat the rich.


Of course Labor's strategy is not quite as crude as the ironic Trotskyite slogan of the 1960s suggests. But it certainly looks as though Gillard is determined to turn back the economic revolution of the Hawke-Keating years and even the progressive forays of the Whitlam regime that preceded them to launch an old-fashioned Labor campaign based on the simple formula of Us against Them. Us being the workers and Them being the bosses.


This at least was the theme of the AWU conference last week at which she said she was proud to lead a union-based party and willingly accepted the embraces of Australia's best known faceless men, AWU bosses Bill Shorten and Paul Howes.

It was Howes who set the tone with his description of the mining magnates as "robber barons," rhetoric more reminiscent of the 1930s Great Depression than of the boom years of the 21st century.

But if this was supposed to be challenge, then Gillard turned it down flat. She is unwilling to reverse her 2010 capitulation over the mining tax or take any other serious measures to restrain the robber barons orgy of looting and pillage - which leaves her entire campaign looking more like bluff and bluster than a genuine crusade on behalf of the downtrodden.

She and her treasurer, Wayne Swan - himself a factional warrior for the AWU - are pretty good at verbal bellicosity.

In recent times Swan has invoked the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, derided his opponents as antipodean versions of the American Tea Party, declared war on the banks and lambasted sitting ducks such as Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.

But to date nothing serious has been done to rein in either their depredations or their profits. Indeed, their balance sheets show the government has treated them with a generosity bordering on dissipation.

Gillard and Swan talk a good fight, but have been reluctant to step into the ring. The budget will show whether they are fair dinkum or not, and on the surface at least they might as well throw a few punches, because not only do they have nothing to lose, they have a story to tell.

It has long been accepted that executive pay packets have become quite simply unconscionable. The gap between the top and the bottom, or even the middle, is now quite obscenely wide.

And as the rich have grown richer, they have also become more arrogant and selfish. They now give proportionately less to charity than the poor and spend far more time and effort rorting the system.

Last week alone Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury drew attention to devices such as the one he termed "the double Irish Dutch sandwich", by which multinationals like Google avoid paying tax in Australia. It was revealed the big coal power generators had not only passed all or more of the carbon tax onto consumers, but were trousering billions in compensation for their trouble.

And of course, those earning 90% more than their fellow Australians continued to insist that they were not rich - well, not really. And if they were, well fair enough. As a letter writer to The Sydney Morning Herald once put it, the reason the rich need more money than the poor is obvious - the rich have greater expenses.

But any attempt to introduce a modicum of restraint into this manifestly inequitable system is immediately greeted with loud cries of "Class warfare! The politics of envy!" by those with the money and the power. It is taken as a given that there is no class in Australia, and therefore any attempt to close the gaps in society is a sinister and wrong-headed attempt to promote not equality, but division.

Robert Menzies set the myth in stone back in 1944. "We believe," pontificated the great man, "that the class war is a false war."

But, false though his premise clearly was, it appealed to the egalitarian streak in Australians, and is now considered unchallengeable.

To take it on, Gillard and Swan will have to do more than simply promise the unions a blue collar future; after all, few present-day Australians see their own, let alone their children's, future as a lifetime spent on assembly lines.

And simply shovelling more lower and middle class welfare into the marginals won't cut it either. Not only is that unaffordable, it doesn't attack the real problem - the fact that the super rich are now seen to set their own salaries, choose whether or not to pay tax, and cynically ignore their obligations to the rest of the Australian community.

If Gillard and Swan want to be taken seriously, they will have to cut down a few tall poppies just for starters.

The political backlash will be fierce, but so what? Can things get any worse? And if "Eat the rich" sounds a little too brutal for an election slogan, then how about: "Time for a fair go"?

Gillard, for one, should be able to relate to that.

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