Image for NATION: Aspirational? Don’t try to take us all for a ride, Mr Turnbull

First published June 25

Ageing chestnut mare, Aspirational, returns to the Canberra track, next week, in the lead-up to The Super Saturday By-election Stakes, to be run 28 July.  Aspirational, a J Howard favourite, now hopelessly long in the tooth, was always a baulky, flea-bitten nag, but her recent runs are shocking.

Aspirational is all over the track. The PM’s spin unit has injected the tedious buzz-word into every MP’s talking points. Are they aiming for a wake-up call, or hitting the snooze button? What exactly is aspirational? Ambition 2.0? Hope? No. Currently, it is a cover for increasing inequality.

Abracadabra! Hocus pocus! By the magic trick of lifting the “tax burden” (a Tea Party, TM, idea) or making our tax system flatter, less progressive and more unfair, aspiration will kick in. Take off.

Those who’ll benefit the most over the next seven years are the rich. Turnbull’s tax cuts skew the system in favour of the wealthy. And they are subversive. The government’s new flat marginal tax rate of 32.5% for all workers earning between $41.000 to $200.000 a year undermines our progressive taxation system. It flouts the principle of each according to his or her means.

Workers average $62,000 a year. The median is trickier although there is no excuse for the PM taking the question on notice. It can range from 47K to 55K depending what you take into calculation. Easy. But how to reward the wealthy at a time of alarming increases in economic and social inequality? Easy. Pretend you are rewarding the mythical aspirational worker.

Is Liberal hoop Turnbull guilty of reckless riding? His backhand whip action and his attempts to box in rival top jock, Labor’s wily Will Shorten create uproar. But can he put Bill’s weights up?

Turnbull is in the running for best venomous toad

“Slimy, insinuating and patronising” hisses the PM. It’s his best barb of the week. Turnbull is in the running for best venomous toad. His puffy eyes seem to fill with the milky white toxin which some toads produce from poison glands behind their eyes. He shouts. He bellows. He screams:

“This groveller, this man who abandoned workers while he tucked his knees under Pratt’s table.”

Turnbull is overcome by class hatred. ‘There’s class war all right,” US billionaire Warren Buffett reminds us, “but it’s my class, the rich class that’s making war and we’re winning’.

It’s the same, insane, snarling rage that ruined Turnbull’s pyrrhic victory speech, election night. Like Abbott, The Incredible Sulk, or his mentor, Donald monster man-baby Trump, a sore loser, Turnbull stoops to his “knees under the table” routine. It says more than he knows about himself.

Courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, whose Newspoll, which has installed itself as our national political oracle, Turnbull is reminded of two bitter truths each day parliament is in session.

As Tassie psephologist, Kevin Bonham, tweets, “Turnbull and Coalition lose an outright record 34 straight #Newspoll 2PPs, Bill Shorten 34 2PP wins in a row is the most for an Opposition Leader.”

Beyond desperate, the Coalition now tries to bribe the electorate with an over-hyped message about a “record” $140 billion of tax cuts, a mantra its ABC echo-chamber faithfully repeats. No matter those cuts are a long way into the future. Besides, aspiration, like grifting, is in its DNA.

“We’re not mystified by [aspiration],” the PM crows this week. “We recognise it, we embrace it.”

Turnbull’s turns puce. His face is puffy. He howls down deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek who doubts anyone refuses a pay rise, or a promotion just because they have to pay extra tax. She defends marginal tax rates which even The Grattan Institute says are vital to a progressive system.

Liberal Party internal polling predicts a Coalition rout next election

Mal’s a dead man walking. Liberal Party internal polling predicts a Coalition rout next election. To use the surgical meaning, toxic Turnbull will soon be aspirated; sucked out of politics entirely.

In desperation, the PM tries to buy us with tax cuts. Yet his dodgy tax cuts will favour the rich. “Class warfare” is a reproach from the right of politics, whenever an attempt is made to help workers, those on low incomes, or the rapidly expanding underclass. Now it’s his main strategy.

A real class war election will be triggered by Turnbull’s move to lock future governments into huge income tax cuts for high income earners, as John Quiggin, notes. The top twenty per cent of earners will benefit - that is people who currently earn $87K or more.

Workers on $120,000-a-year today will still pay today’s average tax rate of 29 per cent in 2027-28, unchanged from today. Yet tax rates for middle-income earners will continue to rise.

If you earn $36,000-a-year today, your tax will increase from 10-16 percent, a 6 percent rise. Consequently, workers on the highest incomes get to pay a lower share of tax.

No wonder class inspires much of the PM’s bravura performance in Question Time this week.

Keeping his class-warfare personal, the PM attacks Tanya Plibersek’s family earnings, an extension of his mantra that the Labor Party is made up of class traitors just out for themselves.

Our PM’s a class act. What a ham

“From the hard streets of Rosebery, with a household income of just under $1m, the deputy leader of the opposition says aspiration is a mystery,” he hectors. Our PM’s a class act. What a ham.

It’s a typical pick-on-Plibersek moment for a government which finds it uplifting to ridicule and publicly humiliate a woman. It’s a ritual that is, sadly, not just confined to the blokes.

Julie Bishop loves to mock Tanya Plibersek over such critical issues as Africa being a continent and not a country; or her knowledge of which of the Marshall Islands is now submerged due to climate change. Rebukes even echo the misogyny of the blokes in charge - in 2016, Bishop accused Plibersek of a “hysterical campaign of misinformation” about the government’s approach to Iran.

It’s inspiring, character-building stuff just guaranteed to make any woman feel equal and at ease. But it doesn’t stop with the put-downs. This week, Plibersek is even thrown out of the chamber when she attempts to table a transcript of the very interview which the PM is wilfully misquoting.

The transcript she offers would stop Turnbull’s mockery; correct the record - surely a reasonable and responsible action on her behalf. It is peremptorily disallowed by Speaker Tony Smith.

Her transcript reads: Honestly this aspiration term, it mystifies me. As if someone on $40,000 a year isn’t going to want to earn $100,000 a year because they’re going to pay a bit more tax. They’re going to get a lot more income, they’re going to pay a bit more tax.

I think it’s just an excuse and a cover for a government that is determined to give the biggest tax cuts to people like them, people that they want to look after at the big end of town. How is it fair that a surgeon on five times the income of a nurse gets a 16 times larger tax cut. Is that fair?”

Plibersek nails it. No wonder the government didn’t want the full text to appear in Hansard.

As for the PM’s guff about aspiration, that’s just a cover for injustice

At other times, the PM and his team of mostly old white blokes tell men to wise up. Lift their game. Abuse of women would stop if only blokes could just show women a bit more respect. Further idle flapping of the gums is also devoted to why so few women are Coalition MPs. As for the PM’s guff about aspiration, that’s just a cover for injustice; a lame excuse to rip off the poor.

Not even Turnbull believes his cynical rhetoric - an excuse for rewarding the rich based on the lie that the harder you work, the richer you get. Australia has always been a stratified society. It’s a place, moreover, where’s been no real change in social mobility since the 1960s, former ANU economist, Andrew Leigh’s research, concludes, confirming other, significant, academic studies.

Family background still matters. What is growing, however, is income inequality and policies which accelerate it. Decades of neoliberal policies have widened the gap between the haves and have nots, enriching the toffs while creating an impoverished, marginalised underclass.

Yet Turnbull’s riposte is revealing - and ultimately self-sabotaging. It’s a key note in the week’s all-in brawl over tax cuts and justice which plays out against news of Donald Trump’s decree to separate babies from their mothers while their parents are prosecuted for illegal entry to America.

Nearly 1800 immigrant families are torn apart at the US-Mexico border from October 2016 to February this year. In Brisbane, a solo mother is being torn away from her eight year old son, Giro, who is an Australian citizen, by Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs and deported to the Philippines.

It will be at least three years before she will get a chance to return to see Giro again.

Like Dutton’s (broken) Home Affairs and his supporters, Trump peddles the pernicious myth that undocumented migrants are a danger. A myth? The Poynter Institute’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact reports, “undocumented immigrants - (along with all other migrants) commit crimes at lower rates than the native born.”

Giro’s mother, Bernadette Romulo has lived in Australia with her children for 11 years. She works in aged care, pays taxes; contributes to her church community. Her son cannot leave with her because partial custody arrangements require that he not be separated from his father.

In reality, he’s just his playing to the gallery, or as commenters love to say, his “base”

Trump boasts it’s his tough zero-tolerance border policy, but, in reality, he’s just playing to the gallery, or as commenters love to say, his “base”. Immune to reason, impervious to all evidence of ineptitude, illegality, or betrayal of its base, a more suitable term for his devotees is “cult”.

Yet base is a perfect word to fit Trump’s hollow posturing. Like Dutton, Morrison or Abbott before him, he’s forsaking all decency and humanity to win votes by pretending he’s a tough guy. And everybody knows only tough guys are caring and protective. Alpha males rule. It’s a grotesque, dog eat pup, faux show of strength in a neoliberal theatre of unfathomable cruelty.

That theatre is even more terrifying because it operates in a void. Trump’s America does not care, writes Robert Kagan, It is unencumbered by historical memory. It recognizes no moral, political or strategic commitments. It feels free to pursue objectives without regard to the effect on allies or, for that matter, the world. It has no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself.

We are dragged along by our great and powerful friend’s coat-tails. Melania Trump causes a fuss this week when she chooses to wear a $52 Zara coat which says “I really don’t care. Do U?”

Melania’s coat is seen as she embarks on a plane to head to McAllen, Texas, for a surprise visit to the heart of the family separation crisis at the southern border. Could she be so heartless?

In a word, yes. Yet a torrent of apologies, excuses and semiotic glosses ensues, including a tweet from the POTUS saying his wife was heroically liberating herself from the tyranny of fake news.

He tweets, “‘I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?’ written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”

As if. Gertrude Stein points to the truth with elegant simplicity, “A rose is a rose is a rose”.

If fake news is a thing, so, too are fake tweets. Trump’s one big thing is to feed our mistrust.

... we are driven to blame aliens; enemy agents to appease our guilt

Above all, we need to demonise the other. Even as neoliberalism’s mainspring unwinds, its selfish competition and commodification of relationships vitiates normal social bonds of reciprocity, obligation and responsibility, we are driven to blame aliens; enemy agents to appease our guilt.

Pastor Peter Dutton, ever keeping us safe from terror, pipes up about the need to keep our “foot on the throat” of demon people-smugglers, terrorists and bad dudes with tats and facial piercings from Kiwi bikie gangs we must deport back to Nelson, Wellington or Christchurch.

It’s critical, he tells The Weekend Australian much in the same way that Christian Porter insists we pass the proposed espionage and foreign interference bill - a bill which he says is necessary to protect the Super Saturday by-elections, July 28, which could be sabotaged by foreign agents but he can’t say who, how or why.  It’s another excuse to silence advocacy groups and GetUp!

Dutton tells Coalition colleagues that Australia is in a “danger phase” with illegal boat arrivals. One act of compassion could “undo overnight” five years of hard work in “stopping the boats”.

His claim is preposterous. But who needs a reasoned case with evidence in an age of metanoia?

In the end, Trump rescinds his decree. Sort of. He tells an aide, Tuesday, that “it doesn’t look good politically”. Instead, children will be locked up with their parents, on bases, a practice zealously embraced by Australia despite Dutton’s repeated fake claims that we have no children in custody.

Refugee Council of Australia figures indicate there are seven children in detention facilities; 33 on Nauru, 180 in community detention and an estimated 3083 in the community on a bridging visa.

Since 2010, 40 asylum seekers have died in detention. This week, Home Affairs Minister Dutton bows to pressure and allows Ali, a 65 year old man, dying of lung cancer, to return to Australia.

As loyal US allies, we are still helping turn Afghanistan into a hellhole

Afghan refugee, Ali, has been interned five years on Nauru. As loyal US allies, we are still helping turn Afghanistan into a hellhole. Worse, grave allegations emerge that our forces have committed war crimes, amid a “complete lack of accountability” from the military chain of command.

Yet no-one can explain what Australia is doing in Afghanistan - apart from blindly following the US.  Even the US can’t say what it is achieving in its longest war in history and the costliest since WWII. It began as the Bush administration’s response to the September 11 attacks. It has cost over $1 trillion to date. Civilian casualties are fast rising under Trump’s “fight to win strategy”.  There were 10,000 civilian casualties last year with over 3000 deaths.

Trump’s push is as ineffective as his decision to drop the GBU-43, the mother of all bombs. What is certain is that the region has been the source of a flood of refugees which some estimate to number three million. The nation has the reputation of causing the greatest number of refugees in the world. Of those who do return, three quarters are forced by violence to flee again.

The brutal answer to the question of what we are doing is that we are creating refugees.

Similarly, few are prepared to make the link between our illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent flood of millions of refugees or those from Syria. Nor do we hear of the ways the US illegal invasion helped radicalise Iraqis; join al Qaeda in Iraq which would become ISIL and other groups. Easier to discover are estimates that around four million Iraqis were forced to flee ISIL.

We’ve helped to dispossess Afghans but we don’t want them here. Ali and his family were told “under no circumstances” would he be permitted to set foot on Australian soil. It’s a reversal of a Trump-like decision by Border Force and Home Affairs to deny all natural aspiration to humanity,  compassion or respect for international law regarding the unity and protection of the family unit.

The UNHCR reluctantly agrees to help in the relocation of refugees from Nauru and Manus to the US, reports Ben Doherty, in The Guardian, but “on the clear understanding” that vulnerable refugees with close family ties to Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.

This proviso is ignored. Our government’s aspirations do not embrace or honour UNHCR requests.

Amnesty International calls our policy a “human rights catastrophe”

Australia’s refugee policy is now a byword for brutality. Our Nauru detention centre which bears the Orwellian name of Regional Processing Centre is a place of medical neglect, hunger strikes, suicides and abuse. Amnesty International calls our policy a “human rights catastrophe”.

330 refugees and asylum seekers, including 36 children, remain in detention on Nauru. Our government tells them that they will never be able to settle in Australia or New Zealand.

Are they, too, entitled to aspirations? Perish the thought. Time to return to Turnbull’s stunt.

Turnbull blunders. Is derision the best way he can respond to a Plibersek, a politician who has the integrity and intellectual honesty to own that she is mystified by his vacuous cliché? Bad enough that he must fend off her challenge to his platitude, a challenge which goes to the empty heart of his sonorous oratory; all sound and fury and no conviction, but he makes a very bad call.

Aspirations are not all to do with working harder, earning more or “improving” your social status and it diminishes any leader to pretend otherwise. Mal’s quip and the Coalition’s subsequent mockery by reiteration ad absurdum of the word aspiration in Question Time are another poor call. The nation is again dismayed by his lack of judgement. In World Cup terms, it’s an own goal.

Far from embracing or recognising aspiration, the Turnbull government will be remembered for its ever lowering of ambition in its desire to act with compassion, justice or humanity. Or humility.

It has heartlessly abandoned and abused to the point of torture those we choose to call asylum seekers. They are refugees; desperate men, women and children, fleeing war, famine and disaster whose only choice is to seek out Australia by boat and throw themselves on our compassion.

Embrace? No embrace here. Aspiration? More like apathy and perverse indifference to our own cruelty and inhumanity. At present, we illegally detain, indefinitely, over two thousand refugees on Manus, Nauru, Christmas Island as well as those in community detention on the mainland.

Despite Aspirational’s Liberal pedigree, Mr Turnbull, you would be well advised to drop the buzz-word immediately. Send the flea-bitten old nag to the knackery. While you’re at it you should drop the attacks on Tanya Plibersek. Can the wisecracks about her household income or Bill Shorten’s dinners with the Pratts. People in glass houses need to aspire to a higher standard of debate.

Finally, it may be a radical step for you, but it’s not too late to recall the last stage of your tax cut policy too. Or scrap the plan entirely. Australian voters are not mugs. They can tell when they’re being taken for a ride.

*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.

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