The Politics    Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The rage of entitlement

By Sean Kelly

Joe Hockey’s comments today tell us all we need to know about the skewed way he sees the world

Back in 1988, American commentator Michael Kinsley helpfully defined the difference between a politician saying something stupid and a politician making a gaffe: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

The most damaging type of gaffe occurs when a politician inadvertently reveals what they actually think about something – in other words, a truth not about the world itself, but about the weird way they see the world.  

And that’s the real problem for Joe Hockey today. Not just that he said something dumb (he did), or that it was the latest in a long line of idiocies (it was), but that it reflected the way he actually sees the world. And the way he sees the world, it turns out, is a problem. Because it’s entitled, and cloistered, and narrow.

Hockey said two notable things today, but let’s start with the worst: “The starting point for first home buyers is to get a good job that pays good money.” There are several problems here, so let’s unpack them.

To begin with there’s Joe’s assumption that “getting a job” is easy for everyone. With unemployment as high as it is, that’s just not true. This would perhaps be less of a problem if Joe weren’t the treasurer, who nominally has some responsibility for unemployment.

And remember, we’re not just talking about getting any old job. We’re talking about getting “a good job that pays good money”. (Forgetting Scott Morrison’s dictum a few weeks ago that people should stop holding out for their dream job and just do some work, any work.) Apparently that’s easy, too. Sick of working in a crap, low-paying job? Go out and get a new one.

Then we get to the question of what “good money” is. In Sydney, which is what Joe was talking about, it’s quite a lot. More that 200 Sydney suburbs have a median house price of $1 million or more. The median house price for the whole of Sydney is more than $900,000.

To give you a bit of perspective, a house price of $1 million might be affordable on a household income of $150,000 a year. But while that price is the norm in a lot of suburbs, that income is not. In fact, only 1 in 6 households actually earns that much money. (I’m comparing the whole of Australia with Sydney here, but it gives at least some sense of just how high house prices are.)

Finally, there’s Joe’s assumption that “good jobs” pay “good money”. But there are lots of great jobs – jobs that do real good for the community – jobs that require serious skills – that don’t pay quite enough to let you buy a house. Counsellors, charity workers, nurses – in other words many of those who work with society’s most vulnerable – many teachers, artists (Richard Flanagan, Booker Prize winner, once contemplated giving up writing to go work as a miner) … The list is long.

So what does this tell us about Hockey’s view of the world? First, that he thinks people earn more money than they actually do. Second, that he thinks it’s simple to get a job that pays well. Third, that he thinks the only “good jobs” are ones that pay you reams of cash. Fourth, that if you aren’t living your dream life you have only yourself to blame. Want to buy a house? Can’t? Mate, that’s on you.

In short, it tells you Hockey has no idea of the lives that ordinary people live. When he thinks about whether or not people can still buy houses, he simply asks himself “Could I buy a house?” And because the answer is “Yes”, he assumes it’s “Yes” for everybody else as well.

The other thing Hockey said today was this: “If housing were unaffordable in Sydney, no one would be buying it.”

If it’s not immediately apparent how moronic this is, consider this sentence: “If gold, sapphire and diamond iPhones costing $15 million were unaffordable, no one would be buying them.” See? The sentence works with any noun. (For the record, someone did buy that iPhone, and, mysteriously, his name was “Joe”. Really.)

Of course “unaffordable” in the context of housing policy shouldn’t mean “unaffordable for every single person in the world”, it should mean “unaffordable for most ordinary people”. And so, again, we come up against the crux of Joe’s problem: he thinks that Sydney houses are affordable because he thinks “affordable” means “affordable for people like me”. Which they are.

(All this, by the way, ignores the underlying assumption, which is that people owning houses is a legitimate policy goal. It’s probably not, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Now here’s the thing about mistakes in politics. They don’t have to matter that much – unless they reveal an underlying truth, which people also believe to be true. In other words, unless they are an actual gaffe.

And the problem for Hockey is that today’s gaffe echoes almost precisely in tone his gaffe last year about petrol prices not affecting poor people because they “don’t have cars or actually drive very far”. That, too, showed he had no idea how people live.

So yes, Hockey said some stupid things today. He ignored logic, grammar, and economics. But the worst thing he did was to inadvertently reveal, again, the distorted way in which he views the world.

For a long time now, Joe Hockey has had a “good job that pays good money”. It might be time for the prime minister to change that.

Today’s links

  • At the risk of sounding like an ad, the first part of the ABC’s documentary about the Rudd–Gillard years, The Killing Season, airs tonight. Should be entertaining. Hopefully will be enlightening too.
  • Social Services Minister Scott Morrison says that people who oppose same-sex marriage are not homophobes. Morrison’s position, by the way, was outlined in a letter to his constituents, in which he wrote “For me this is ultimately about a child’s natural right to a mother and father …” Personally, I can respect people’s religious views on this matter. But Morrison’s view, which has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with a judgment that gay people aren’t fit parents, is pretty much the definition of homophobia.
  • Morrison’s comments today come after conservative MPs warned that a parliamentary free vote on gay marriage, if put to a vote in the Liberal party room, would not happen. They’ve likened it to the emissions trading scheme vote which split the party in 2009. I’d be very surprised if they were correct, but we’ll see. Liberal MP Steve Ciobo played down the concerns. Stephanie Peatling explains the split between genuine liberal Liberals and conservative Liberals on this issue.
  • The mortality gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has decreased – almost entirely among women. But overall two thirds of indigenous people still die before they reach 65, also known as retirement age. So the fact that this is a report about good news gives you some insight into the extent of the problem.
  • “There. It is the Best Musical. For once in our damn lives, something made for mainstream labelled the masculine queer woman as ‘best’.” The first entirely female writing team to win a Tony Award for book and score just took their honours.
  • The Abbott government has been accused of running an orchestrated campaign to destroy the Human Rights Commission and its head, Gillian Triggs.
  • Dick Smith will run for Tony Abbott’s federal seat in order to draw attention to aviation safety issues, but hopes he won’t win.
  • The government’s ridiculous suggestion that they would shield the nation’s largest companies from disclosing their tax affairs because of kidnapping fears turns out to have been based on no advice.
  • New figures show the WA government spending up big and going into huge debt, which rather undermines their premier’s argument for more GST. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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