Victims and their suffering are politically important to the Australian government. The Coalition creates some victims who genuinely suffer as a result of policy decisions. They persuade other people that they are victims – of political correctness for example – in order to justify inquiries and legislation for which there is otherwise little need.
Two decades ago when I conducted interviews with New South Wales state parliamentarians, I asked them to suggest a private member’s bill they would like to introduce to improve people’s lives. A few emphasised that the legislation they proposed would cost very little and also that it would create a situation in which everyone would benefit. In other words, they understood and valued the principle that government should aim to produce ‘win-win’ outcomes. How different Australian politics seems today when the federal government in particular prefer policies which create winners and losers. The Coalition thrives on use of the wedge which potentially wrong foots critics, especially the parliamentary Opposition. It adopts most enthusiastically those policies which have the potential to exacerbate social division.
Instances of this behaviour abound across almost every portfolio The disgraceful pursuit of people placed into debt by government maladministration is an obvious example. People on low incomes are victims of regressive taxation policies and the reduction of the social wage in favour of commercialising every aspect of life. Newstart recipients are victims of a spurious boast about balanced budgets. They are blamed for not trying hard enough to gain employment and accused of being drug addicts in need of constant testing for substance abuse. Meanwhile the government has created legislation to restrict the activities of trades unions including union advocacy on wage rises, conditions and workplace safety.
Wedge politics and the ‘dog whistle’ approach of sending silent messages to an aggrieved constituency were pioneered by the Howard Government in the area of policy on asylum seekers. It was so successful that the Prime Minister of the day claimed boldly the right to decide who comes to Australia and the conditions under which they come. Today, without hordes of boats with which to scare people, the Coalition has turned to the ‘medevac’ law. The tiny number of asylum seekers involved are demonised as taking – ‘stealing’ – Australian jobs and jumping queues for health services, housing and welfare support. The government tries to convince ill informed people to believe they are the victims of generous policies towards asylum seekers and refugees.
Then there is the penalisation of local governments which wish to hold citizenship ceremonies away from 26 January. Under pressure for inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution, the government is creating an expectation that all Australians must be consulted about Indigenous determination. The model for this creation of an aggrieved faceless minority arose during debates over ‘marriage equality’. The government deliberately misrepresented the issue as concerning ‘same sex marriage’. It will do the same now for Indigenous rights and will refuse to acknowledge the need for all Australians to live in a land based in justice.
Failure to unite the nation around a campaign to address climate change has led to a situation where some people have been led to believe that moving away from fossil fuels disadvantages them. Miners and energy consumers have been told that they cannot afford the move to renewables. Meanwhile, victims are being created both here and offshore as coastlines are threatened by rising seas, farms are ravaged by drought, habitats are destroyed by land clearing, and community health is threatened by pollution and waste.
Victims are being created by the Coalition government among its own constituency. It has encouraged an aggrieved constituency of males by suggesting that they have been disadvantaged by decisions on the family court. This has the potential to undermine campaigns to reduce domestic violence. It has depicted farmers as victims of animal rights activism by proposing harsh and unnecessary laws about incitement to trespass. The legislation included penalties for demonstrating on crown lands and would make criminals of the knitting grannies protesting against coal seam gas exploration.
It has encouraged religious minorities to believe that their freedom to worship is threatened by other rights laws. The intention to legislate freedom of religion has encouraged people of very narrow vision to speak about fear for their faiths. The timing of this debate is doubly unfortunate given the recency of the marriage equality plebiscite and the media attention given to the homophobic statements of a footballer. The list goes on.
This zero sum, win-lose game is a natural fit for a government which thinks everything can be reduced to a profit and loss balance sheet. When funds are limited the Coalition sees its role clearly as having a mandate to distribute largesse according to their understanding of who is most deserving. Parties which think they have the correct gender balance among their MPs because positions are decided on merit, are inclined to believe that some Australians have more merit than others. When funds are plentiful they see their role as reining in spending.
The great problem with the creation of victim mentality is that it breeds a combative political culture and a divided society. People resent those who the government holds responsible for their disadvantage. Bob Hawke achieved power promising to resolve conflict. His use of consensus politics certainly had its critics. But at least he left Australians believing that there were common goals and that goodwill could reside in political opponents. How remote that era of trust now seems.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.