Turnbull and Morrison: Conservative incumbency 101

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Why it is almost impossible to dislodge the false assumption a man in an expensive suit is a competent leader, by Ingrid Matthews.

This month, 1,400 voters told Fairfax-Ipsos polling that Malcolm Turnbull is preferred prime minister, Treasurer Scott Morrison has a positive approval rating and the Coalition are better economic managers. If that seems beyond comprehension, read on.

It is almost impossible to dislodge the idea that an expensively-suited conservative man is a competent leader. The false assumptions rest on the primary principle of free market theory, which is "rational self-interest". The theory says that individuals aggressively pursue and hoard wealth and power for themselves (competition), and that this is a natural and logical thing to do (evolution).

This is code for an "evolutionary paradigm". It is social Darwinism at its worst. Those who accumulate the most wealth and power are successful and hard-working. The rich are virtuous too, because reward is commensurate with effort. The poor are, therefore, lazy and wicked. Sloth causes poverty, because reward is commensurate with effort.

All this was a lie before the majority of adults could elect those who make the laws which regulate the distribution of power and resources, and it is a lie now.

Meritocracy was a lie when women were disenfranchised at law, and when marriage meant subsuming legal personhood and thus the right to own property to a husband, because biology. Meritocracy was a lie when black people were chattels at law, with no legal personhood and when slave-owners were compensated on the legal principle of just terms for compulsory acquisition of property by the state.

Today, we are more likely to see big mining compensated to leave fossil fuels in the ground – to preserve life on earth – than to see just terms for the dispossession of First Peoples. That the biggest lie of liberalism persists in 2017, after wave after wave of feminist and civil rights and gay pride movements, is a function of incumbent power.

C21 laws are made the same way C18 laws were made

It is laws passed by parliamentarians that authorise squandering billions of dollars on fossil fuel subsidies for the mega-rich, like Andrew Forrest. In 2016, the Parliamentary Budget Office costed a Greens proposal to partially abolish the fuel subsidy. It came in at around $4.5 billion savings per year. That is a lot of just terms compensation for a country devastated by mining.

It is negotiations by parliamentarians that see millions of dollars thrown at Senate crossbench pet projects so the government can pass vanity legislation like the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Act. That "productivity" claim is thoroughly disproven, by the way and construction worker deaths have since increased.

It is governments that make decisions, like buying back copper infrastructure, like the $11 billion transfer from the public to Telstra shareholders, which has butchered the National Broadband Network. The same expensively-suited man responsible for that mess is now publicly brawling with big coal. He may as well have a HIT ME sign stuck on his back.

Why would energy CEOs stick to a coal-decommissioning timetable when the Prime Minister is practically begging them to take our money? Would it be a breach of the Corporations Act s181 to say no? They are real businessmen, unlike the bloke who likes to imply that he woke up one day and discovered himself teleported from the boardroom to the Lodge.

All these policies transfer public resources to private interests. And if laws that enrich wealthy corporations and shareholders are bad, laws regulating people on the margins are worse. The case for income management was never made out – it was always John Howard trying to save his government and seat. He lost both, but Northern Territory First Peoples live under his oppressive regime to this day.

The case for compulsory drug testing has not been made out. Of three million claims in 2015-16, fewer than 1,000 fraud cases were referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. The case for cashless welfare is not made out either. The flaws in the evaluation process render its results largely meaningless. Indue, the fortunate recipient of the cashless card tender, is reportedly a vehicle of Nationals Party dynasty the Anthony family. And, predictably, for paternalistic poor-hating policy, the paw-prints of billionaire serial meddler Andrew Forrest are all over it.

And still we believe

Transferring resources from public to private interests is as old as private property itself. The doctrine of estates is the cornerstone of English land law. The ‘e’ initialising ‘estate’ signals private ownership (like ‘esquire’ does). An estate is private property carved out of the state, or public lands. As with all peoples, the values of English culture are coded into their language. The difference between Mr Cook and Mr Cooke, between Messrs Greene or Brown or Middlebrooke, was their proprietary interest in land.

Lockean philosophy explains this by cultivation. When a man (in)vests his "hard work" in the soil, he derives a right from it and to it. He may sell the harvest for profit, although not at exorbitant mark-up to a starving man. That would be immoral, like these people.

Secularisation was not yet ascendant in Locke’s day (1632–1704) and he conceived of the earth as gifted by god to all. The commonwealth is thus land (and resources) held in common. Commonwealth signals wealth and well-being (health), the social contract between government and citizen. Health and wealth, then and now, are inextricably linked and the primary English value is that land is the source of wealth.

So, the commonwealth is the state, and a man, through hard work, privatises a parcel and creates his estate, his living, his wealth. Through this process, he became a private property-owning legal person, "earning" the right to vote. His elected representatives, literally the House of Commons, then pass the laws which regulate distribution of power and resources. Such reward for hard work was exclusive to free men.

This is Westminster liberal democracy. Its public-private divide still permeates our thinking. It underpins how domestic violence (private — a man’s property right) does not rate as urgent a response as one-punch killers or terror attacks (public — any man could be harmed). The former hurts far more people than the latter, but the law is designed to not rate it.

None of this is sophisticated or subtle. The model is basic, binary, brutal. It is so obvious that much hard work is expended on obscuring its obviousness, by those who benefit from a structure that underlies all our institutions, public and private, government and industry, religion, media, family and marriage.

Why the history lesson?

Because Fairfax-Ipsos polling reports that Malcolm Turnbull is preferred prime minister and Treasurer Scott Morrison has a positive approval rating. Both men are terrible people, overrated and overpaid. Their government botches climate policy, demonises poor people, presides over human rights abuses and falling wages, callously disregards a grieving family in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

The illogic of aggressive pursuit of wealth and power, the codification of rational self-interest into our language and laws, demands that these men care for nothing and nobody but their own. This is their template for success and our instruction manual too. If it is almost impossible to dislodge the false assumption that an expensively-suited man is a competent leader, this is why.

Ingrid Matthews is a sessional academic who teaches law and human rights. You can follow Ingrid on Twitter at @iMusing or via her blog oecomuse

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