October 19, 2015

The view from Billinudgel

A bit rich

By Mungo MacCallum
Ernest Hemingway with cat
It’s hardly class war to mention the fact that class exists

There is a famous, but, alas, apocryphal exchange between the celebrated American novelists F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, which goes like this:

FITZGERALD: The rich are different from you and me.

HEMINGWAY: Yes, they have more money.

If these lines had ever occurred, Malcolm Turnbull would be firmly in the Hemingway camp. Yes, he has money – lots of it.

He has, he explains somewhat disingenuously, been very fortunate. But apart from that, he is absolutely normal. There is certainly nothing to be ashamed about, nothing to hide. And so what if some of the lot is sequestered in a very large building in the Cayman Islands? The income is fully declared and tax is paid, every cent of it, in Australia. Nothing to see here.

But Bill Shorten and his colleagues are more Fitzgerald fans. Inordinate wealth – obscene amounts of it, in fact – may well be legitimate, but why squirrel it away in a notorious tax haven? After all, Turnbull’s own government, through the tax office, is determined to clamp down on those shifting their profits into sinister overseas destinations. It is not too long ago that we were being regaled with stories about the multinationals and their devices such as the double Dutch-Irish sandwich.

Turnbull’s own arrangements are certainly legal, but that does not make them appropriate. They are, what’s more, different from the arrangements of the rest of us – a class, if you like, apart. If simply highlighting this truth is to be described as class warfare, well, it is the prime minister’s own class that has been the provocation.

And as for the politics of envy: perhaps those who are struggling to make ends meet as the government continues remorselessly on its campaign to slash public spending, as jobs are stalled and disposable income is falling – just perhaps they have something to be envious of as they see the Turnbull squillions paraded before his Point Piper mansion.

The well-rewarded commentariat rejects such heresy. We have become a nation of aspirationals, and gratuitous and personal attacks on the rich and successful are, by definition, counterproductive. And the pundits may well be right: Turnbull’s defence has been effective and plausible, and the issue will probably fizzle out.

But out in the pubs, and clubs, there will still be some who remain suspicious and somewhat resentful. Fitzgerald’s idea that the super-rich simply cannot and will not relate to the masses is a long-standing and widely held belief. It is obvious that the majority feel well disposed to Turnbull – at least, a lot better disposed than they ever were to Tony Abbott. But will they embrace him as one of them – one of us? Many are yet to be convinced.

And it is those doubters Shorten is seeking to target. Unedifying, perhaps – even a touch shabby. But, as Abbott has proved beyond any doubt, that does not mean that it is not good politics. Taking the high moral ground demanded by the gurus of the media is all very uplifting, but as another eminent thinker, Neville Wran, once declared: “If those greedy bastards wanted spiritualism, they would join the fucking Hare Krishna.”

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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