Fair. As soon as Turnbull started peppering every statement about his 2017 Budget with the word fair, it was obvious he was responding to focus group results which said the main problem with the previous three Liberal budgets were that they were not fair. And, like an ideology that has sprung a leak, the Liberals were suddenly framed as ‘Labor-lite’, as if saying ‘we are fair’ and actually being fair were exactly the same thing. They aren’t.
I argue that the fact that the word ‘fair’ conjures a Labor frame is a bad thing for Labor and for this reason, Labor should stop using it. There are two reasons the word ‘fair’ needs to go. The first is that ‘fair’ means a completely different thing to each individual. Its subjectivity makes it a nice idea in theory, but a hopeless adjective in practice. The other reason is that the idea that a vote for Labor is a vote for fairness is actually working against Labor’s broader popularity by giving them a wishy-washy ‘vote for Labor because you’re a nice person’ vibe, when really, a vote for Labor is not just in the interests of being nice; it’s a good idea for self-interest too. Let me explain.
Back to the first reason; fair means different things to different people. We are taught as small children that to be ‘fair’, you must, usually begrudgingly, give up something you would have had otherwise. If you tell a four year old to ‘be fair and share that piece of cake with your sister’, the four year old automatically understands they’re giving something up in order to ‘do the right thing’ and ‘share’. The viewpoint that the four year old has on this situation (whether it be a resentment towards his sister eating her half of his cake, or a happy feeling inside that he gets to see his sister enjoy the cake he is also enjoying) is relative, dependent on circumstances, individual, cultural, value based, influenced by personality, ideological and all the messy things that are hard to measure about a person. Times this messiness by 22 million in the Australian electorate and then see why ‘fair’ is a stupid word because we all see ‘fair’ from a different angle.
I’m fairly sure that Turnbull, and most people rusted onto the Liberal Party, think any form of taxation is unfair. You hear them often talk about how much work the poor little souls have to do ‘for the tax man’. So, where you might see it as fair that a portion of a Liberal voter’s usually very substantial paycheque is sequestered each month in order to pay for government services which that voter may or may not benefit from directly themselves, the same person sees the same taxation contribution as theft – taking something they’ve earned from them and giving to someone undeserving. A ‘bludger’ who should be drug-tested at the Centrelink office, no less.
The whole idea of what is ‘fair’ is so complex, so misunderstood, so subjective, that any politician using the word who thinks they’re transferring a perfect meaning to everyone who hears it, is mad. I’m sure if you asked someone if they agree that ‘the budget should be fair’, they would, in the vast majority agree. But then when it comes to the nitty gritty of individual budget measures, that’s when their individual perspectives view the policy less so by the motherhood idea of what is fair, and more so by the human measure of ‘what’s in it for me’. Ask someone who is currently negatively gearing a property, or plans to in the future, if they think it’s a fair policy. Now ask someone who can’t afford to buy their own home. And this is just one obvious example. In summary, fair is great in theory, not so useful in practice.
The second reason is an even more compelling argument for Labor to give up using the word fair. As reported by Peter Lewis, no matter what Turnbull says in theory about his budget, or even what people think of the individual measures, there is an ongoing belief held by Australian voters that the Liberals represent the interests of the well off and businesses, and that Labor represents those less well off, including social, health, education and environmental policies.
Now, I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing for Labor, and obviously it’s why they do reinforce this frame constantly by reminding people that they’re for ‘fairness’ – such as not giving away $65 billion in a un-needed gift to big business when there are plenty of deserving people and projects in the community who need this government funding more. BUT, and that ‘but’ is in capitals for a reason: if Labor are going to appeal to a wider range of voters than those who already vote Labor, they need to, well, obviously, broaden their appeal.
If I were to simplistically generalise, I could venn-diagram categorise two groups of Labor voters: those whose self-interest align with Labor policies (because they are less well off, unemployed, young and needing education, sick etc) and/or are bleeding-hearts who were brought up to get a warm and fuzzy feeling from watching their sister eat half their cake and genuinely think it is government’s role to help those in need, and therefore Labor policies are the right thing to do, if you’re a good person who wants to see the world as a better place.
If Labor could just rely on these two groups to win elections, Labor would never have lost an election. In fact, if Labor are to broaden their appeal, it doesn’t do Labor any favours to frame their policies, particularly economic policies as ‘taking from the rich to give to the poor’. It doesn’t do any favours for Labor to frame themselves as ‘against the interests of business, and for the interests of the poor’ as there are lots of poor people who can’t see how being against business is good for their job prospects.
The truth is, Labor’s economic policies are good for the economy. As Wayne Swan points out, Hawke and Keating’s Laborism has been responsible for ‘26 years of uninterrupted economic growth’. The whole idea of Labor’s inclusive growth economic ideology (if you don’t know what I mean by this, read about it here), is that when more people are better off, we’re all better off. That is, when you share your cake with your sister, it’s not just because you’re a nice person, it’s because next time there is cake being shared around, you’re personally more likely to get a bigger slice from being smart about it last time. By sharing cake, there is more cake. You really can have your cake and eat it too. Ok. I’ll stop.
The point is, we all know that neoliberalism is dead, that trickle-down doesn’t work, that a tax cut doesn’t create jobs and that cutting wages is economic suicide. But, for some reason, the Liberals get away with doing all these things, whilst still holding onto the mantle of being ‘better economic managers than Labor’ – a paradox it is time Labor forcefully challenged. A big step in this direction will be resisting the argument that supporting ‘fairness’ is just about being a good person, and instead arguing that you should be a good person AND do the right thing for yourself at the same time. If Labor gets this message through, they can’t lose.