There’s a strain in the Australian consciousness that conservatives routinely tap to undermine momentum for redistributive policies: that confronted with inequality people’s attention shifts not up the socioeconomic ladder but down, writes Peter Lewis in the Guardian.
Downwards envy is a powerful force that entrenches power and privilege, channelling the anxieties of those who are struggling to resent any support for those who are actually going under.
I’ve witnessed the phenomenon in countless focus groups: talk about high level tax evasion, family trust rorts and executive salary and the conversation inevitably leads to hand-wringing about dole bludgers and single mothers who apparently breed to maximise their welfare cheque.
It was a subtle force in the May election, where lower-income voters turned against a party that was vowing to close income loopholes for the wealthy to fund things like free dental for pensioners.
It’s in this context that results in last week’s Essential Report make for interesting reading because recognition that Newstart is too low is significantly stronger among lower-income earners.
In a separate question, support for an increase in Newstart is running at 75%, again driven disproportionately by householders earning less than $52,000 a year, where support for a $75 bump is running at 80%.
This seems to me evidence that the dynamics of welfare politics in Australia may be changing. And if I’m right, it’s because of the common lived experiences that drive empathy.
Despite the official joblessness figures that on their face remain reasonably stable, lived experience is of more tenuous work and the looming impact of automation, which is only going to accelerate as the next wave of AI technology matures.
The modern Newstart recipient is not some cartoon slack arse nor some precious job snob. More likely they are an older person whose job has been “reformed” out of existence.
Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential