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Tea Parties are for Boston Harbour, not Port Jackson

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 11 March 2011

Australia is light years from having a US-style Tea Party in terms of influence, primarily because we do not have the same social cleavages given our past and recent efforts to balance economic competitiveness and compassion.

While the prominent conservative journalist Janet Albrechtsen declares she is "a fan of the Tea Party" to the extent that she thinks "that there was a lot of commonsense behind the concerns within many people within", and even suggests such a movement may be developing in Australia given growing opposition to the carbon tax, she has a poor understanding of the Australian experience.

Surely, Albrechtsen has enough intelligence and decency to hope that Australia does not create the same social cleavages that exist in the US which could encourage a similar movement to emerge here.


There are clear characteristics of supporters in the US Tea Party movement, as indicated by a 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll. On the one hand, they share many characteristics with the general population. Most of them described the amount of tax they paid as "fair", send their children to public schools, do not believe that Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and even think Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost. Most are also wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, Republican Party supporters, white, male and married, and describe themselves as "very conservative" and President Barack Obama as 'very liberal'.

In regard to the latter point, 90 per cent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction (compared with about 60 percent of the general public), while 92 per cent of them believe Obama is moving the country toward socialism (compared to about half of the general public). Of the Obama Administration, more than half of Tea Party supporters think it favours the poor, while 25 per cent of them (compared to 11 per cent of the general public) think the administration favors blacks over whites

Now where is evidence of such views being present or emerging in Australia?

While Joe Hockey indicates that the US experience with the Tea Party movement owes much to it now having very high unemployment, household debt, and default levels on household mortgages, a similar movement in Australia is unlikely because of historical differences in its societal development. Just look at our social achievements when compared to the US in terms of a fair and decent society. In contrast to the US federal system, the Australian constitution has been dynamic enough to allow the Commonwealth to gain greater influence in areas of policy that reflect commonsense in order to distribute resources in a reasonably fair way to all of its states and territories.

Whereas vast difference exist between US states in terms of regional wealth distribution and standard of living, Australia has managed to minimise such differences (although the plight of Australia's Aborigines are an important exception). As OECD data reveals, Australia has less inequality in terms of income than the US, lower levels of poverty, one of the most efficient and best targeted social security systems in the developed world, and better education scores in terms of student performance for 15 year olds in regards to science, mathematics and reading. Australia also has just 133 people incarcerated per 100,000 people (ranked 104th in world) compared to the US with 743 (highest in world).

It is our commitment to share the spoils of prosperity that will long differentiate Australia from the US and help diminish public anger and the prospects of a Tea Party movement.


I do not see signs of danger from either major political party in terms of abandoning such a commitment.

Sure the conservative side of politics is far more likely to oppose higher taxation, an environmental tax and so on, but there is enough diversity within that party that reflects the mainstream views and interests of most Australians. Through ongoing debate and a commitment to a fair society, Australia can remain a progressive society.

While some rave about the need to cut taxation rates further, Australia did introduce a GST to help pay for social welfare services as pressure for lower company and income tax rates persists.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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