Politics Opinion

United Australia Party's promise to wipe student debt is a con

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UAP's bankroller Clive Palmer is a notorious ultra-capitalist businessman (image via YouTube)

Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party wants to wipe all student debt. That "seems" awfully left-wing of them. 

It's typical of a trend in the conspiracist far-right to whet the appetite for working-class solidarity among a desperate voting bloc, while also delivering nothing of the sort. Where did this trend come from? What does it signify?

UAP’s specific policy promise is to wipe current student debt – over 60 billion of it – and to henceforth eliminate tertiary education fees. In Australia, free higher education was first secured by the Whitlam Labor Government in 1974. Theirs was a real Labor government, with a real Labor platform of policies. 

Hawke’s Labor government oversaw the beginning of the end for the reform in a dilution very typical of Hawke’s neoliberal approach, introducing a package of student-paid fees. This later progressed via incremental modifications into the current model: requiring students to pay their uni fees back in full via HECS. The Howard Government only completed the erosion of the no-fee policy as begun by Labor.

That policy shift is typical of a changed mainstream left/right paradigm: neither major party bothers much with questions of genuine social welfare reform. Calls for free tertiary education were largely palmed off to the likes of "far-left" parties like the Greens; we now expect to see them call for free education and for, say, conservative punters to sneer at them about ‘socialism and free stuff’. 

(Never mind the evidence, as discussed by UNSW Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs, that for every dollar of funding spent on university research there’s a tenfold return to the economy.)

Greens leader Adam Bandt recently remarked that Palmer "might be going around looking at other parties’ websites and picking up policies they have announced”. To be fair, Palmer has been promising free education as part of his policy platform since 2013.

But it’s a strange formation in the policy landscape for parties like UAP, who are otherwise pro-mining, anti-environment, socially ultra-conservative and, now, very conspiracist. Promises of lots of free stuff from parties like the UAP; it’s a growing development.

At the risk of sounding like the conservative pundit: how do they plan to pay for it?

Well, the Greens simply intend to tax billionaires and mega-corporations. UAP is saying something else altogether. Basically, they want to introduce a 15% export license on the export of all Australian iron ore. This represents a shift in Palmer’s approach, who was in previous elections against all mining taxes. 

But an economic assessment of this policy concluded that it’s a strangely myopic one, limited only to profiting from iron ore and based on the assumption that iron ore prices will never crash.

So it’s not a sustainable policy for revenue-raising, even if you accept that mining represents our economic future. 

(Mining represents the beginning of the end for our planet and it needs to be shut down immediately, not made more lucrative.)

If the UAP’s free education policy isn’t actually costed properly, it’s probably better considered in light of ideological changes that have transformed the conspiracist far-right. This political formation has made a raft of moves that appear left-wing but really aren’t. 

Another example: over the course of the pandemic we have seen fake unions flourish. They solely organise around anti-vax campaigns, as Queensland’s Red Union has done, offering little of the actual bargaining power of real workers’ unions and all of the ability to harvest collectivist will into hyper-partisan, individualist causes. Red Union’s run by a conspiracist anti-vaxxer with Coalition connections.

Red Union and associated anti-lockdown, anti-vax activist groups were spotted showing up at May Day events around Australia last weekend, forcing real unions to force them to the back of marches and denounce them. An organiser tells me that conspiracists were genuinely taken aback at their rejection from one May Day rally. It was news to them that they weren’t really unionists.

Parties like the UAP are entertaining a growing appetite for working-class solidarity and socialist reform among a base that doesn’t have the political language to realise what it’s asking for. The conspiracist far-right tells itself increasingly "black pilled" doomsday prophecies. Some of the only respites can come in the form of a counterbalancing hope: that is, radically socialist policy fantasies. 

Consider the QAnon fervour over "NESARA/GESARA". This is a fantasy scenario in which saviour Donald Trump is just about to wipe all debt in one fell swoop. A later addendum to this fantasy foretells that Trump would also deliver a welfare card for all true patriots, to take care of all their living expenses.

In short: debt erasure and a universal basic income. Pretty radical progressive policy stuff, outright socialist, if not even more radical. But the far-right proponents of these narratives don’t realise which way their dreams lean politically.

American QAnon adherents hope they’ll be saved by the radical far-left policy of a far-right ex-President because they are being crushed by economic hardship. They hope to be rescued. Theirs is a frustrated working-class desire to escape late capitalism; a shapeless dream, retarded by a drip-feed of bullshit distractions fed to them by conspiracists.

It’s a similar situation here. UAP billboards read like the political equivalent of tossing out handfuls of candy near a playground. 

Garish billboards promise the impossible, and according to economists, the completely irresponsible:

"Home loans capped at three per cent."

They actually can’t force private banks to adopt this policy. Not unless they nationalise the banking system. (More socialism.) Or if they pour Reserve Bank funding into private banks to artificially cap the home loan rate, which would lead to hyperinflation.

It’s not possible. It just sounds good to desperate people. It’s unbearably cynical.

But that’s to be expected for a party that’s accepted the "standard" of telling conspiracists whatever they want to hear in exchange for their attention. A conspiracist isn’t hoping to hear the finer details. They’re hungry for a dream outcome. They need never realise that their dream actually looks a lot like socialism.  They’ve never had that explained to him.

If only someone could cut through and inform them that a far more fleshed-out version of their dream policy platform is being offered by the Greens.

Tom Tanuki is an IA columnist, online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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