Tony Abbott's vision of society as a market

Tony Abbott's policies reveal him to be in thrall to the voices of wealth and privilege, and for all his claims of conservatism, he is actually leading a party that does not believe in community, writes Tim Dunlop.

A society with "greater inequality" isn't a society. It's a market. (Image: AAP - edited)
A society with "greater inequality" isn't a society. It's a market. - (Background image: AAP - Tracey Nearmy)

Tim Dunlop ABC 'The Drum' 11 July 11 2013

Despite it being rather fashionable to say that Tony Abbott doesn't have any policies, the fact is, he does.

As Andrew Tiedt pointed out in a recent article, there's quite a few of them, even if many them have not been properly costed, let alone subjected to public scrutiny.

Let's look at some of what Mr Abbott is offering.

There are those policies aimed squarely at disadvantaging workers and the least well-off. So, for instance, an Abbott government would reinstall the Australian Building and Construction Commission and its draconian policing of Australian building sites. It would close down the Low Income Superannuation Contribution, which would leave the 3.6 million lowest paid workers in the country worse off, to the tune of around $4 billion.

Mr Abbott is working hard to distance himself from the memory of WorkChoices, but his workplace policies are already hinting at a move in that direction. The policy provisions he has released undermine collective agreements and shift workers back towards individual contracts, key elements of WorkChoices. They weaken the safety net provided by the current Better Off Overall Test (BOOT).

The Opposition Leader has hinted that penalty rates may also be dismantled, saying, ''I am confident that if the government were to back, for argument's sake, applications to the Fair Work Commission for adjustments in this area it may well be successful.''

There are those policies aimed at undermining the social services on which many rely and which help balance the needs of the wealthy against the least well-off. Like Campbell Newman in Queensland, the aim isn't to simply cut the services; it is to sack the people who run them and let them collapse from neglect. Mr Abbott said in his budget reply speech that he would get rid of 12,000 federal public servants. He has "strongly endorsed" Mr Newman's actions in Queensland.

Then there are those policies aimed at simply redistributing national wealth upwards. Thus we have the abolition of the mining tax and the cancellation of the carbon tax. Whatever other reasons are given for these policies, their net effect is to make the rich richer and to leave less money for surpluses, services and infrastructure investment.

To top it all off, there are the faux policies. Mr Abbott's "green army" and the rest of his "Direct Action" approach to climate change are nothing more than a charade, a placeholder policy that exists so that something can come out of his mouth when he asked about such things.

Such policies won't do much about climate change because:

The fact is ... Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion 'climate change is crap' or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it's cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the world.

That's not me saying that; it's Malcolm Turnbull.

Tony Abbott's "plan" for a low-tax northern development zone is speculative fiction at best, a sop to the likes of Gina Rinehart and other IPA luminaries who like to fantasise about two-dollar-a-day pay rates, minimal regulation and all the other accoutrements of the libertarian wet dream. (Click the link and read the document: the most generous description of it is that it is a plan to develop a plan.)

And speaking of minimal regulation, an Abbott government is going so far as to promise bonuses to public servants for cutting regulation, even making the reappointment of department heads contingent on this as a "key performance indicator". Of course, they are doing this at the same that a Queensland coroner's report has found that the death of three workers installing insulation batts was due in part to the lack of regulation of that industry, so you can't help but wonder what perverse incentives Mr Abbott's deregulation bonus scheme is setting up.

With few exceptions, Mr Abbott's approach to policy shows that he is in thrall to the voices of wealth and privilege and that, for all his claims of conservatism, he is actually leading a party that does not believe in community.

Of course, those on Mr Abbott's side of the political line don't characterise themselves this way. They prefer to say something like they are "the party of good economic management and individual responsibility". But "good economic management" is just code for neo-liberal policies that decrease taxes and thus cut frontline services. "Individual responsibility" is code for, you're on your own. Actually, it is barely code.

As Mr Abbott himself has said, "in the end, we have to be a productive and competitive society and greater inequality might be inevitable".

Well, bugger that.

A society with "greater inequality" isn't a society. It's a market. And a market isn't driven by values of burden sharing or a fair go. It is driven by power and wealth; it is a place where the strong prosper and the weak are blamed for not being strong enough. Why would any national leader just shrug and say "greater inequality might be inevitable"?


We don't even have to imagine what happens when countries shred the social contract in this way; we only need to look overseas. Mr Abbott's approach is the same one that underpinned Margaret Thatcher's view that there is no such thing as society, and that has allowed her current successors to instigate austerity measures that have kept Britain in recession for years. It is the same approach that has seen the United States become the most unequal developed nation on earth to the endless detriment of the national economy and the majority of people in it.

The issue isn't that Tony Abbott doesn't have policies. The issue is he that he does and that they are horrible. Or at least, they are horrible if your idea of a civilised society is one in which we aren't all increasingly left to fend for ourselves.

Tony Abbott says such inequality "might be inevitable". It isn't. It's a choice. It only comes about if our political leaders enact policies that make it possible.

Tim Dunlop writes regularly for The Drum and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter. His new book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, will be released August 26. View his full profile here.