We’re ‘entitled’ to be outraged, Mr Hockey

April 19, 2012

Last night Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey came out swinging on ABC1’s Lateline program. His topic of choice? Australia’s alleged culture of ‘universal entitlement’, and how we had to stop expecting the government to pay for everything.

Of course, by ‘entitlement’, he was referring to Australia’s welfare and benefits systems, often referred to as Social Security. It was a shambles. A shemozzle. It had to be fixed. Look at the US, he cried. Look at the UK. Their debts are huge, and we’re in danger of going the same way! It’s time for decisive action, and Hockey’s our man for it, apparently. We need to cut this runaway welfare spending while we still can, or we’ll end up like the US. He actually managed to convey the impression that the reason Europe and the US were plunged into the Global Financial Crisis was the fault of welfare spending, rather than under-regulation, irresponsibility and sheer criminal activity from banks and regulators alike.

But the real target of this plan isn’t the government, of course. It’s the most vulnerable people in our society – the chronically ill, the young single parents, the old and the unemployed. Hockey’s plan is aimed squarely at the very people most in need, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, he seems proud of it – and utterly contemptuous of the people he proposes to further disenfranchise and disadvantage.

The clue is in how he talked about the issue. He repeatedly used the word ‘entitlements’.

From the World English Dictionary:

entitle (vb)

1. to give (a person) the right to do or have something; qualify; allow
2. to give a name or title to
3. to confer a title of rank or honour upon

Seems pretty straightforward, right? If someone is ‘entitled’ to something, they have the right to receive it. An ‘entitlement’, therefore, is what said person should receive.

But this is a word that’s taken on a very nasty meaning in recent years. We hear people described as having ‘a sense of entitlement’, that they believe they can demand special treatment. In other words, that the world – or in this case, the government – owes them a living.

And that’s the sense in which Hockey is using the word. He could have talked about ‘benefits’, ‘pensions’, ‘government allowances’ – any one of a dozen synonyms. He chose to use the word ‘entitlements’, to invoke the implicit idea that those who receive such benefits don’t deserve them. And lest anyone think it was an innocent choice, we have Hockey’s own statement that there is ‘a lot of spending by government which many voters see as their entitlement’.

In essence, this is no different from the way the Liberals under former Prime Minister John Howard repeatedly targeted those receiving government benefits. They helped whip up the outrage that led to A Current Affair’s notorious ‘Paxton Controversy‘, in which the program vilified and defamed a family caught in a cycle of dependence on government assistance. They positively encouraged the view that anyone – anyone – who was on unemployment benefits was simply a ‘dole bludger’, who would rather sit and home and watch TV than do an honest day’s work. They insinuated that those receiving disability pensions were faking their illnesses, and that a woman on a single-parent pension just ‘didn’t want to work’. They introduced ‘Work for the Dole’, which can best be described as demeaning make-work that looked suspiciously like it was designed to get as much as possible for as little as possible, with the added benefit of humiliating the people forced into it.

At the same time they introduced non means-tested ‘Baby Bonus’ and private health insurance rebates, handing out significant sums of money to those in the top tax brackets. They didn’t even bother to establish any but the most rudimentary criteria for eligibility: all that anyone needed to qualify was a birth certificate or a receipt from an insurance provider. This was certainly welcome relief for those who fell into that ever-widening crater between needing government support just to go to the doctor’s and those who could pick and choose their private hospital and get that elective surgery whenever they wished.

The Coalition thought it was ‘fair’ to provide those same benefits to those who demonstrably didn’t need any help from the government whatsoever. They cut taxes and put in place rebates that ensured Australia’s highest income earners were better off than ever. While they were doing all this, they made it harder and harder for those in genuine need to even gain a Health Care Card to enable them to get medical treatment – let alone help them get out from under spiralling debts, manage their chronic illnesses or stay home with a baby because was no possible way to afford child care.

And Joe Hockey, mouthpiece for the Coalition, wants to do it all again. When pressed on why the Liberals said they’d repeal the means test for the private health insurance rebate, he dodged the question. When asked about the Baby Bonus, likewise. Oh, and they re-affirmed their commitment to establishing a Paid Parental Leave scheme that guaranteed full income replacement for all Australians regardless of income (despite the ever-widening gap between the Coalition’s spending promises and available Budget funds). If those schemes are quarantined from Hockey’s guillotine, all that’s left are the benefits for those who depend on government help just to get through the day.

Hockey read us a lecture on how this might be brutal, but it was ‘financially sustainable’. He exhorted to look to ‘Asia’ as a role model and embrace ‘filial piety’ – in other words, expecting help from the government was a sign that we were failing in our responsibilities to our relatives. We were children raised by ‘bad parents’, he insisted, who had instilled in us a sense that the government would look after us.

Here’s a news flash, Mr Hockey – it is the government’s job to look after us. We elect the government to build our roads, manage our borders, represent us to the world, regulate the systems on which we depend, protect us from (to coin a phrase) ‘enemies foreign and domestic). We also elect our government to help look out for those in our society who are not able to help themselves – the destitute, the chronically ill, the disadvantaged. We expect that our government will be there for us when a flood or cyclone devastates our town and tears away the infrastructure built with our money.

We pay taxes and levies to provide the government with revenue to do these things. Income tax, fuel tax, sales tax, company tax, levies of various kinds, and of course the GST – there is not one person in this country who is exempt from taxes. Despite what’s often said by those who subscribe to the ‘dole bludger’ rhetoric, an unemployed person pays taxes every time they fill up their car or do their shopping. To suggest otherwise is a poisonous untruth, and that unemployed person has the right to expect their government will assist them if they need it.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this morning, ‘If Australians think they’re entitled to Medicare, aged pensions … they’re right’.

And as for your idea that we should look at Asia, Mr Hockey – just which part did you have in mind? Let’s look at a few countries, just on the issue of public health care.

Let’s start with China’s Communist-Capitalist hybrid, where an adult leaves his family and lives in a faraway city just to find enough work to lift them (barely) out of subsistence? Where huge construction projects reap billions for a few companies, but then stand empty for years because no one can afford to move into the apartment complexes? Where the young nouveau-riche spend millions on collecting sports cars while the elderly in the provinces go without medical treatment and die from diseases that simple nutrition can prevent?

But China is also in the process of overhauling their health care system to provide near-universal health care, for the cost of about 10 yuan per person after provincial and national government contributions. Their public health infrastructure lags sadly behind, and if someone has the misfortune to need to visit a clinic in the country, they’re only covered for 60% of their bill – but reform is in progress.

So which part of China should we emulate? The universal health care, or the massive class divide that exists as a result of China’s race to outrun the US?

How about India? That’s a booming economy – and it eclipses the millions who live in abject poverty. It has a maternal and neonatal death rate that is simply appalling. For every person with a good job and health care, there are thousands dying in rural areas because its public health spending is less than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product.

Or how about South Korea, which has a well-developed public health system subsidising development of hospital and medical services, and financial assistance for most of its population to cover medical bills and social disadvantage?

Which one of those, Mr Hockey?

Our health care and welfare systems have real problems – in some areas, they’re utterly broken. Nonetheless, we still enjoy a higher life expectancy than most developed economies. Our maternal and neonatal death rates are lower than most developed countries. We don’t have raging epidemics of measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and a whole host of diseases preventable by vaccination. We’re lucky. We have some incredible medical personnel, and we are in a position to take advantage of the latest research.

We also have public money – our money – allocated to public health care. Our vaccinations are subsidised, if not actually free. Our poor have access to subsidised medicines and aids. Our chronically ill and disabled are not thrown out into the street and left to beg for scraps.

Can we do more? Yes, we can, and we should. We shouldn’t be talking about cutting that kind of spending, Mr Hockey – we should be increasing it.

Remember, Mr Hockey? It’s our money. We hand it to the government in trust that our needs will be properly met. If your party isn’t prepared to do that, then why on earth do you think we should give it to you? It will be no comfort to us to have your fabled ‘large Budget surplus’ when our most vulnerable are suffering – and you still maintain that there’s something wrong with them expecting you to help.

You should be ashamed of yourself.

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