In a memorable moment in the 1983 election Malcolm Fraser, suggested that if people got a Labor Government they’d have to keep their savings under their bed. Bob Hawke responded that the commies were already under the bed. Back then Hawke could tap into a collective consciousness about the foibles and silliness of his right leaning opponents. All that anti-communism had become a figure of fun and an offence against the ‘political correctness’ of its day.
But back then the term ‘political correctness’, if it existed at all had no currency, and its currency marks the success of the Right’s war on the left sensibilities residing in popular culture. There are various left sensibilities remaining there – cultures change slowly – but in terms of political economy it seems that the any left leaning ideas within the ‘commonsense’ of the electorate have been hollowed out.
One upshot from the mining tax episode seems to be that there’s nothing there any more for the left to appeal to. Here the government is with a tax to sell that’s a left wing populist’s dream. In fact it’s a quality tax, which will raise economic output whilst raising lots more revenue. Throw in the fact that it’s notionally levied on companies, not voters, and that indeed they’re the ones most likely to bear its incidence (in contrast to most other taxes like company tax for instance), that it falls disproportionately on billionaires and foreign companies and you can see its appeal to a left of centre Government.
Yet when Rudd emphasised its incidence on foreigners and rich people for a day or so, it didn’t seem to earn him any brownie points from the hoi-polloi to offset the explosion of outrage about the Politics of Envy by those whom God sent to lecture us on such things.
In any event the speed and ease with which vested interests have managed to turn this into a bleeding sore for the government suggests more than that the government could have done a better job both building the case for the new policy and explaining. That much is clear. But even if it had, something seems to have changed in the last decade or two.
Sometimes, like Krugman, I get surprised that the left of centre parties are so reluctant to score populist left points. After all, a viable left, one would imagine would be some alliance between its high and low brow adherents (with some obvious tension between them). Meanwhile it seems that the right has been very successful in, with their own brand of cultural nationalism displacing the politics of greater economic equality, particularly in the US but also in Australia. (Back in the UK, David Cameron seems to have a sunnier more productive take on such things, but it’s too early to tell how that experiment will turn out.)
I suspect that if senior political figures from the left were bolder and less apologetic in occasionally endorsing the populism of the left, those themes might get greater currency. God knows Howard’s advocacy in Australia did wonders for the nationalist populism of the right. But politicians are usually incremental, pain minimising creatures. Like dodgem cars, they buzz around trying to head for the open spaces, and when they find themselves boxed in, or worse still when they bump into something which seems solid, they head off in another direction.
Whatever happens, the unfortunate likelihood is that ALP leaders will lick their wounds vowing to antagonise the wealthy even less than they already have.