The Fairness Myth



By Warwick McFadyen

Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

We kid ourselves if we believe it has an objective universality.

Fairness is the car you drive to take you somewhere where you want to go. You only get in when it’s to your advantage. It’s not called the altruism model; it’s called the turbo self-interest. When it suits the circumstances, it’s given a polish and paraded down the boulevard of splendid dreams.

Two recent high-profile drivers have been Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison. Proclaiming “fairness this’’ and “fairness that’’, both have been revving the engine, a little bit here at the traffic lights, a bit on the highway, in the carpark. It serves two purposes: to show people they are putting their foot down on accelerating fairness, and enriching their political fortunes by allowing others to believe them.

The tragedy might be that they believe what they say. Actually, to justify the effort involved, they must believe it. Otherwise, it makes a farce of both deed and word. And these blokes are not clowns.

In November 2015, Turnbull was selling tax reform. He managed to be both clear-sighted and blind. Or to go back to the car, he was, in effect, taking his foot off the pedal and then without knowing it letting it slip back down.

In one interview, he said: “Fairness is absolutely critical. Any package of reforms which is not and is not seen as fair will not and cannot achieve the public support without which it simply will not succeed.”

In another he said: “Fair is obviously in the eye of the beholder and people have different views on it. I think for Australians, fair means the burden of tax is borne by the best able to pay it. It’s a question of judgment.

“The test of whether any set of measures is fair is going to be whether people look at it and say, yep, that seems fair enough.”

Ah me o my. Fair speech may hide a foul heart, as Tolkien wrote. It may also hide a heart of stone.

Crudely, fairness comes down to priorities. Priorities come down to equations. Equations come down to numbers. Numbers equal votes. It’s the only equation that matters in this constant election cycle. Do the maths.

If as Paul Keating says when you change the government, you change the country, then what exactly is the country? If then its natural state is flux then the prime movers of fairness are impossible to define.

Of the recent budget, Turnbull said it would “be committed to fairness, opportunity and security. Ensuring that Australians are given the opportunity to get ahead, the economic growth that enables them to get ahead, to get a better job, a better-paying job, to start a business, grow a business, to realise their dreams.

“We’ll also deliver the security and the assurance, national security, we’ve been talking about, but also the security about essential services and essential government services – education and health.

“But above all, this budget will be a thoroughly fair budget. We are the nation of a fair go, it’s in our DNA and our budget will reflect that.”

Say it often enough and the lie becomes fact. So it is with fairness. What is true is that the more money you have, the fairer things become. The fair go is really a chimera. We are fed the mirage that the fair go can be seen and grasped – a dream wrapped in good honest work clothes. Try shifting the concept between economic stratum, those clothes get caught on the floorboards. The will to power trumps the will to selflessly help those less fortunate.

Those on welfare, in the framing of political discourse in this country, are criminals, ne’er-do-wells who have to justify their straitened circumstances to receive something, anything, to get by. Such has been the relentless use of “crackdown” to describe the treatment of the vulnerable that it has lost its tawdry and despicable connotations. A government is cracking down on those who are at the bottom of the pile? It is shameful.

As Michelle Grattan wrote: “As in all Coalition budgets, those on welfare get a kicking.”

Ben Spies-Butcher, Senior Lecturer in Economy and Society, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University, in The Conversation, wrote:There are harsh measures that include trials of drug tests, harsher breaching rules (that often leave recipients with no income), and even restrictions on accessing support for disabilities related to substance use.

“That reflects a very strong populist attack on some of the most vulnerable. It also reaffirms an important political dynamic in Australia: when we frame action for everyone (as we do with health, education and housing), it is much easier to achieve equitable action. And when action is focused on the very poor, the political instinct is to attack.”

No better example of this attack is to institute random drug trials for dole recipients. So the welfare system morphs into the police state. Three strikes and you’re on your own. And then what happens? Morrison and Turnbull are fond of the expression “mutual obligation”. It’s an easy way to wash your hands of a bigger problem. There is no fairness when one side holds the sledgehammer.

And the thing is, the hammer shapes the hand.

What is the most bombed-out, moonlike cratered piece of land in Australia? The moral high ground.

This fabled plateau offers dominion over the hordes below, those hapless, helpless souls who can neither see what should be obvious or heed the clarion calls of those on high. Pity their wretchedness.

A nation at one with itself would not be quarrelling over what its values, founded on a fair go should be. All now is dissonance. Some might call it robust debate, but it is not. It’s different scales, intersecting, and deaf to the other. There’s no grace notes of compromise of coming down a pitch or rising to meet another’s point of view. Ask the asylum seekers. Ask the Indigenous people across this nation.

The constant cacophony between voices across the political spectrum as to what constitutes Australian values shows that in truth there are no Australian values. Sure we can hold up mateship and giving everyone a fair go, but history shows otherwise.

Surely the place where examples of quintessential values of a nation would be in evidence is from what government does for its people. We are defined by our actions. Words, in the end, add up to nothing.

What values are defined in our treatment of our Indigenous people, asylum seekers, the homeless, the disadvantaged, those on foreign shores who depend on our humanitarian aid [which we’ve frozen, thus in effect cutting it] versus the colossal and obscene amount of money we spend (billions of dollars on submarines and Stealth fighters), in waging war to buddy up to allies, and in cementing the great dividing range of economic privilege?

What do we value most? That we’re all equal? We’re kidding ourselves.




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