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The politics of envy

By Sarah Burnside - posted Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Recently, Education Minister Julia Gillard unveiled a plan for an “education overhaul” to review the funding for all Australian private and public schools. The Australian noted that Gillard's emphatic statement that “this is not about taking money from schools” represented a desire to “avoid a repeat of the divisive 2004 election campaign debate about private school funding that destroyed Mark Latham”s leadership”

Former ALP leader Mark Latham was pilloried in 2004 for inciting a “politics of envy” in calling for redistributive funding of schools. His plan to divert funding from 67 elite private schools to needy government schools was slammed as a “private schools hit list” – terminology recently revived by Coalition education spokesperson Christopher Pyne. Then-Prime Minister John Howard suggested that Latham's educational policies were “based on class and envy”. Similarly, former teacher, writer and campaigner Kevin Donnelly argued that the ALP schools policy was “guilty of the tall poppy syndrome – let”s attack those schools that achieve the best academic results and that promote values that parents want”. Journalistic wisdom, citing the 2004 election as an example, holds that the ALP is vulnerable to indulging in the “politics of envy” and must guard against such tendencies if it is to enjoy electoral success. Anthony Ashbolt, a senior lecturer in politics, has subjected this “perplexing myth” to analysis, concluding that the policy had been electorally popular and that a combination of Liberal Party spin and soundbite reporting had buried it. In particular, Ashbolt charged that the ALP had mistakenly “managed to convince itself of the mythology surrounding its electoral loss”.

The expression “the politics of envy” requires unraveling. Such language is arguably symptomatic of the way real and substantive concerns about the kind of society we live in are reframed by the right in terms of personality, character and “values”. The reframe is powerful; arguing in favour of envy would appear as difficult as opposing hope, faith or charity. The identification of ideological difference with mere character flaws not only reinforces the banality of contemporary political debate. More dangerously, such reframing draws the life out of the arguments of the social democratic left. If a desire to create a more egalitarian society boils down to mere envy, then social democrats can be nothing more than a group of jealous people with an inexplicable inability to appreciate the fine things that capitalism has to offer their fellow citizens. Rather than a commitment to see all Australia’s children receive an optimum education, the ALP is characterised as having a (seemingly irrational) dislike of private schools. Tony Abbott queried Gillard’s call for an inquiry into schools funding, warning voters: “You can’t trust these people. They don’t like private education…if they’re re-elected, as sure as night follows day, they will try to cut private-schools’ funding."


Similarly, former Opposition leader Brendan Nelson has suggested that the ALP simply disliked the well-to-do. Nelson criticised the Rudd government’s first budget in 2008, which introduced means testing for the baby bonus, tighter thresholds for family tax benefits and an increase of the threshold for the Medicare levy surcharge to $100,000 per year for singles and $150,000 for couples. For Nelson, these measures were an attempt to “appeal to the politics of envy and resentment”. Nelson charged not only that the ALP had “always been opposed to people who do well”, but used extraordinarily emotive language in concluding that the Party had a “deep-seated vendetta” against them. The debate thus shifts from ideological ground to that of personality flaws, allowing the Liberals to avoid enunciating their own position in any depth by effectively accusing their opponents of mere mean-spiritedness. The real debates that underlie these issues – differences as to conceptions of the nature and extent of the state’s role in providing education and health to citizens – remain stagnant.

Some parallels can be drawn between the accusations of “envy”, “resentment” and “dislike” leveled at aspiring educational and tax reformers and the now-ubiquitous charge of “elitism” favoured by commentators such as Janet Albrechtsen. Thomas Frank, a journalist and editor of The Baffler, has written perceptively of the success of the Republican Party and its allies in linking liberals (in the American sense) inextricably with snobbery and elitism in the public mind. In his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Frank notes that a repackaging of social class was effected in America using the notion of a “liberal elite”. Such a notion, he argues, is “not intellectually robust”, has “never been enunciated with anything approaching scholarly rigor” and falls apart “under any sort of systematic scrutiny”. However, the trope of the elite liberal remains a powerful tool to sidestep ideological difference in favour of illusory generalizations as to personality. Frank cites a particularly instructive passage by the right-wing American writer Ann Coulter, who simplifies liberals as follows: “They promote immoral destructive behavior because they are snobs, they embrace criminals because they are snobs, they oppose tax cuts because they are snobs, they adore the environment because they are snobs”. 

Parties of the right, on the other hand, have learned how to portray themselves as down-to-earth, abandoning or downplaying the patrician outlook of traditional upper-class Tories. John Howard’s self-assessment as “an average Australian bloke” appealed to a longstanding egalitarian instinct that has resonated throughout Australia’s history. That the kind of egalitarianism offered by Howard was one of character and personality rather than of economic equality sits comfortably within a Liberal Party tradition that eschewed class divisions. Professor of Politics Judith Brett noted in her 2005 Quarterly Essay Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia, Howard’s promise to govern “for all of us” echoed Robert Menzies’ commitment to the “forgotten people” of the middle classes and his conviction that: “We don’t have classes here as in England”.

In addition to sniping from the Liberals, Gillard has recently been criticised by Latham himself for wasting time on “stunts and trivia”, most notably the MySchool website, and for “putting politics ahead of policy”. In particular, Latham charged that Gillard had fallen prey to a “special kind of cynicism” in delaying an announcement of $11 million in funding for disadvantaged schools for 18 months, then releasing it “when she faced a PR battle over MySchool”. The MySchool website has been problematic for the left; the Australian Education Union has slammed national NAPLAN testing and its members have refused to administer them. The Union is supportive of the funding review announced last week, however, with federal president Angelo Gavrielatos calling for a new funding system to “ensure that the Federal Government meets its primary obligation to adequately and appropriately fund public schools”.

If the ALP accepts that redistributive policies on public education will inevitably constitute electoral poison, it will grant control of the debate to those who would deny the inherent value of substantive equality. Gillard would do well to refuse the reframe and respond vigorously in rebutting knee-jerk responses about “the politics of envy”.






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About the Author

Sarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She tweets cautiously at @SarahEBurnside.

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