Who can af­ford a stake in to­day’s so­ci­ety?

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - BY RICHARD DENNISS

The Lib­eral Party of Robert Men­zies wanted all Australians to own their own home. The Lib­eral Party of Mal­colm Turn­bull wants us all to be land­lords. The times, they are a-changin’. Aus­tralia’s long­est-serv­ing prime min­is­ter set out, quite de­lib­er­ately, to give young peo­ple a phys­i­cal and fi­nan­cial stake in the coun­try. Men­zies saw hous­ing as a way to en­sure that the young were, quite lit­er­ally, in­vested in Aus­tralia’s fu­ture. He knew that peo­ple with 25-year mort­gages would be more likely to go to work, pay their bills and vote con­ser­va­tive. At a time when Aus­tralia was in­volved in the Cold War, and when ri­ots were com­mon in the United King­dom and the United States,

Men­zies also saw wide­spread home own­er­ship as an ef­fec­tive way to stave off “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ten­den­cies”.

But where Men­zies’ Lib­eral Party wanted peo­ple to put down deep roots in their com­mu­nity, to­day’s Lib­eral Party wants to keep peo­ple on their toes. It is not just the high price of hous­ing that pre­vents many from “set­tling down”. Over the past few decades Aus­tralian so­ci­ety, and the labour mar­ket in par­tic­u­lar, has been fun­da­men­tally re­shaped in ways that pre­vent work­ers and em­ploy­ers mak­ing long-term in­vest­ments in each other. Tra­di­tional ap­pren­tice­ships and no­tions of job se­cu­rity have, like the quar­ter-acre block with a Hills hoist, be­come a thing of the past. As have sick leave, an­nual hol­i­days and ma­ter­nity leave for a grow­ing army of ca­su­als, con­trac­tors, con­sul­tants and work­ers in the “gig econ­omy”.

Af­ter decades of labour mar­ket re­form to make Aus­tralian work­places far more “flex­i­ble” and decades of tax re­form to make in­vest­ment in rental hous­ing “more at­trac­tive” it is now much harder for young Australians to form the kind of tra­di­tional fam­i­lies that con­ser­va­tives of­ten like to ro­man­ti­cise. It is no ac­ci­dent that it is now vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for young fam­i­lies to re­pay a mort­gage on a sin­gle av­er­age in­come while one par­ent stays home to raise the kids. This is the in­evitable con­se­quence of those tax and labour re­forms.

It’s no won­der older Australians worry about the de­cline in “Aus­tralian val­ues”. And that con­ser­va­tive strate­gists seek to ex­ploit such fears and doubts. But what is re­mark­able is how lit­tle anal­y­sis there has been of what drove the “loss” of Aus­tralian val­ues. Or, more ac­cu­rately, what drove both the new be­lief in in­di­vid­u­al­ism and the grow­ing lack of faith in our demo­cratic project. Keep­ing peo­ple on their toes might help to stem wage growth, but it does noth­ing to unite a rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion in a shared na­tional project. Men­zies must be rolling in his grave.

While older Australians worry about the de­cline in Aus­tralian val­ues, young peo­ple worry about the de­cline in hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity, the de­cline in ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, the de­cline in penalty rates and the de­cline in the num­ber of full-time jobs for them when they fin­ish school or their in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive univer­sity de­gree.

Australians in their 20s didn’t grow up in the laid-back land of the sickie, the smoko or the long week­end. They grew up with their par­ents cop­ing with split shifts, un­pre­dictable hours and week­end work. It’s hard to vol­un­teer at the surf life­sav­ing club or coach the kids’ footy team when your work hours are “flex­i­ble”.

Aus­tralia has one of the high­est rates of pri­vate-school at­ten­dance in the de­vel­oped world. And most chil­dren grew up in a house­hold with pri­vate health in­sur­ance. The idea that if we all pay our fair share of taxes we can all ben­e­fit from high-qual­ity ser­vices seems utopian to a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with the idea that pub­lic in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion was “un­sus­tain­able” and that spend­ing money on the pub­lic health sys­tem was a “bur­den”. Univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors even talk about their “stu­dent load”, as if, with­out all those young minds to fill, the task of run­ning a univer­sity would be much eas­ier.

In ad­di­tion to pay­ing more for their ed­u­ca­tion than Australians did in the past, and leav­ing univer­sity with a debt that would have once been big enough to buy a house, to­day’s stu­dents get far less face-to-face teach­ing time than their fore­bears. The higher ed­u­ca­tion re­forms on of­fer typ­i­cally vac­il­late be­tween higher fees or the re­place­ment of yet more aca­demics with even more record­ings of old lec­tures. And to­day’s young peo­ple work­ing ca­sual jobs to get through univer­sity have never in their lives re­ceived an in­crease in award wages that was higher than the rate of in­fla­tion. Not once.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why young peo­ple have low ex­pec­ta­tions of both the pub­lic sec­tor and those in pub­lic life. Con­se­quently, and as the Aus­tralian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion knows, they are far less likely to en­rol to vote than older ci­ti­zens. And even if they do en­rol, they’re far less likely to show up to vote or for a democ­racy sausage.

It is easy to blame young peo­ple for not car­ing about the state of our democ­racy. But it is also easy for young peo­ple to blame their democ­racy for never car­ing about them. If they tuned in to the news, what would they learn? That univer­sity fees are to rise when the cor­po­rate tax rate is to be cut. That the mea­gre pub­lic sup­port they get dur­ing stints of un­em­ploy­ment be­tween ca­sual jobs is to be­come harder and slower to ac­cess. Or that a gov­ern­ment that says it can’t af­ford to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions can af­ford to sub­sidise the con­struc­tion of the enor­mous Adani coalmine.

If all young Australians got off their bums to vote they could swing an elec­tion. But vic­tim-blam­ing is not the an­swer. Imag­ine if the only ver­sion of pol­i­tics you had ever been ex­posed to in­cluded Kevin Rudd walk­ing away from “the great moral chal­lenge” of cli­mate change; Tony Ab­bott promis­ing no cuts to health, ed­u­ca­tion or the ABC be­fore pro­ceed­ing to pro­pose sav­age cuts to all three; and, of course, a ten-year Punch and Judy show be­tween Rudd, Gil­lard, Rudd, Ab­bott and Turn­bull. Is any­one sur­prised that young peo­ple might not be­lieve there is much to be gained from po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment? Are you go­ing to tell them they are wrong?

Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Ralph Nader once quipped that half of democ­racy is about just show­ing up. And any­one who has ever missed a meet­ing knows how dan­ger­ous it can be to be out of the room. So per­haps it should come as no sur­prise that, come bud­get time, a par­lia­ment

(that has only one mem­ber un­der 30, and knows young peo­ple are less likely to vote than older Australians) de­cides year af­ter year to de­liver some­thing ex­tra for the “grey vote” while lec­tur­ing the young about the need to search harder for jobs that don’t ex­ist, and save harder for houses they’ll never be able to af­ford.

Even the pres­sure to do some­thing about hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity has been turned into an op­por­tu­nity to de­liver more cash to the wealthy. Take, for ex­am­ple, the idea of “en­cour­ag­ing” older Australians with mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar homes and $1.6 mil­lion al­ready in su­per to sell their man­sions in or­der to “free up” more houses and “boost the hous­ing sup­ply”. What bet­ter way to help a young cou­ple strug­gling with the rent in the outer sub­urbs than to in­crease the sup­ply of man­sions in Toorak or Potts Point for over­seas buy­ers to snap up?

There is some logic to en­cour­ag­ing older peo­ple to down­size their res­i­dence. But to sug­gest that al­low­ing older Australians to tip some of their mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar cap­i­tal gain into tax-free su­per­an­nu­a­tion ac­counts is an ef­fec­tive or eq­ui­table way to help young peo­ple buy or rent a house is yet another cruel hoax.

The gov­ern­ment’s other big idea is to cre­ate the First Home Su­per Saver Scheme within the con­ces­sion­ally taxed su­per­an­nu­a­tion sys­tem. Peo­ple will be able to re­duce in­come tax payable by mak­ing vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions of up to $30,000 to their su­per­an­nu­a­tion, which they can then with­draw for use as a hous­ing de­posit. As with the idea of giv­ing tax breaks to those who sell their man­sions, the idea of con­ces­sion­ally taxed sav­ings ac­counts is as in­equitable as it is in­stinc­tively ap­peal­ing to con­ser­va­tives. The re­al­ity, of course, is that by of­fer­ing sup­port to avoid in­come tax, the new ac­counts de­liver the great­est ben­e­fits to the high­est in­come earn­ers. That should level the play­ing field.

Once upon a time the stan­dard post-bud­get head­line screamed ‘Beer and cigs up’. But in re­cent years it’s more like ‘Uni fees up, school fund­ing down’. While a con­ven­tional read­ing of an eco­nom­ics text­book would sug­gest we should tax emit­ters of green­house gas pol­lu­tion and sub­sidise ed­u­ca­tion, the alchemy of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics has some­how trans­muted those con­clu­sions into the idea that we should sub­sidise new coalmines and in­crease the cost of go­ing to univer­sity. And we blame the young for not tak­ing po­lit­i­cal de­bate seriously.

While Mal­colm Turn­bull didn’t pay for his univer­sity de­gree, since 1989 Aus­tralian stu­dents have been pick­ing up a larger and larger slice of the cost of their ed­u­ca­tion. While the orig­i­nal idea was that uni fees only had to be re­paid once a stu­dent started to earn more than the av­er­age wage, the in­come at which stu­dents have to start re­pay­ing their HECS-HELP debts has been de­clin­ing steadily, now reach­ing $42,000.

While we are reg­u­larly told that re­tirees who live in their own home need at least $50,000 per year to live “with dig­nity”, ap­par­ently young peo­ple, who may be rais­ing kids and sav­ing for a house on an in­come well be­low that, need to start re­pay­ing a debt that older ci­ti­zens never had to re­pay in the first place.

Of course, HECS-HELP re­pay­ments aren’t the only costs loaded upon the young. They are also pres­sured to buy pri­vate health in­sur­ance they don’t need to make it cheaper for older peo­ple who need it a lot. (Imag­ine if we made older peo­ple pay more for their car in­sur­ance to help keep prices low for younger peo­ple.) And young peo­ple must put 9.25% of their in­come into su­per­an­nu­a­tion in or­der to en­sure they can “fund their own re­tire­ment”. But they must also pay enough in­come tax to fund the re­tire­ment of those who didn’t have to save for their re­tire­ments.

The easy way to in­tro­duce new poli­cies is to phase them in slowly and to “grand­fa­ther” any changes so that they don’t af­fect any­one who is presently in a po­si­tion of power. Put another way, the easy way to in­tro­duce new pol­icy is to load up the fu­ture costs on peo­ple who can’t vote yet or who aren’t look­ing out for their po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests.

The cu­mu­la­tive im­pact of 20 years of such po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism is that the ne­olib­eral poli­cies of spend­ing cuts, fee in­creases and tax changes have been aimed al­most exclusively at younger Australians, while older Australians have been grand­fa­thered into rel­a­tive safety.

What has been cre­ated is a two-tier po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Thanks to the Se­niors and Pen­sion­ers Tax Off­set, a per­son aged over 65 pays a lower rate of in­come tax than a per­son un­der 35 who earns the same in­come. Our po­lit­i­cal class re­ally seems to be­lieve that it is tough for re­tirees who live in their own homes to make ends meet on less than $50,000 per year, tax-free. But the same peo­ple seem to think that the un­em­ployed are hav­ing the time of their lives on less than

The easy way to in­tro­duce new poli­cies is to phase them in slowly and to “grand­fa­ther” any changes.

$300 per week and that the min­i­mum wage must be kept from ris­ing lest we make Aus­tralia “un­com­pet­i­tive”. Mean­while, the gov­ern­ment now ex­pects wage growth to dou­ble over the next four years, help­ing to de­liver an even­tual sur­plus. So whose wages will do the grow­ing? Take a guess.

Not all baby boomers are rich. In­deed, many sin­gle women ap­proach­ing re­tire­ment don’t even own their own home. And of course the pa­pers are full of sto­ries about young peo­ple with enor­mous wealth that they in­her­ited early, made from their start-up or, not co­in­ci­dently, both. There are baby boomers who love to en­gage with new tech­nol­ogy and 20-year-olds who feel dumb when they use a smart­phone. There are young peo­ple with great at­ten­tion spans and older peo­ple who can’t fo­cus on one task for more than five min­utes. The idea that ev­ery­one born in the same decade has per­son­al­ity traits in com­mon makes as much sense as the as­tro­log­i­cal be­lief that ev­ery­one born in a given month shares some­thing mean­ing­ful.

While there is no doubt that the tax, health, ed­u­ca­tion and work­place re­forms of the past decade have hit the young hard­est, there is also no ques­tion that poverty and dis­ad­van­tage can be found across all age groups. But rather than poor young peo­ple and poor old peo­ple and poor In­dige­nous peo­ple work­ing to­gether to de­mand the abo­li­tion of tax loop­holes that cost the bud­get tens of bil­lions per year, skil­ful politi­cians have suc­ceeded in pitch­ing “the youth vote” against “the grey vote” in a per­ma­nent war over which dis­ad­van­taged group gets some crumbs from the $400 bil­lion bud­get feast.

Gen­er­a­tional la­bels play a key role in di­vid­ing peo­ple who might oth­er­wise work to­gether. It is the pol­icy equiv­a­lent of the De­pres­sion-era Hun­gry Mile, whereby des­per­ate ad­vo­cacy groups plead for “their” con­stituency, while cor­po­rate Aus­tralia se­cures a $65 bil­lion tax cut. La­bels such as gen­er­a­tion X, gen­er­a­tion Y and mil­len­nial are used to help to disguise struc­tural prob­lems as be­havioural traits. In turn, these la­bels also pre­vent large num­bers of Australians from fo­cus­ing on sim­ple ques­tions: Why doesn’t Aus­tralia have a wealth tax? How will cut­ting the com­pany tax rate help young peo­ple, or old peo­ple in need? And how on earth can some­one who earns $1 mil­lion per year pay not a cent in tax?

In the 15 years since the then trea­surer Peter Costello’s first In­ter­gen­er­a­tional Re­port en­cour­aged us to stop wor­ry­ing about peo­ple who are poor to­day and start wor­ry­ing about the peo­ple who might be poor in 2050, the cost of tax con­ces­sions for su­per­an­nu­a­tion has risen from $10 bil­lion per year to more than $30 bil­lion per year. Over the same pe­riod the age pen­sion has fallen as a per­cent­age of the av­er­age wage, and the un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fit of $267 per week is now so low that even the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Aus­tralia agrees it should rise.

De­spite the fact that politi­cians can get paid more for one night’s travel al­lowance than the un­em­ployed get in to­tal for a week, the un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fit didn’t rise in the lat­est bud­get. In­stead the poor­est peo­ple in Aus­tralia, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of whom are young, got another dose of lec­tur­ing. As de­tails of the plan to “crack down” on the un­em­ployed some­how leaked in the lead-up to the bud­get, the Ad­ver­tiser in Ade­laide ran with the head­line ‘Fed­eral Bud­get 2017: Lazy wel­fare bludgers to lose pay­ments un­der de­merit sys­tem’. On bud­get night we learned of a trial pro­gram in which un­em­ployed peo­ple will be ran­domly tested for drug use to en­sure they “de­serve” their mea­gre in­comes. If we want to start down that road, per­haps we should first drug-test politi­cians to en­sure they “de­serve” their travel al­lowances.

Iused to be un­em­ployed. And, even though no politi­cian called me lazy or a bludger, it was hor­ri­ble. The irony that the four years lead­ing to my un­em­ploy­ment had been taken up with study­ing the eco­nom­ics of labour mar­kets did noth­ing to cheer me up. (It did make some of my friends laugh, though.)

I fin­ished uni in 1992 and I was on and off the dole for well over a year. If eight years later some­one from Cen­tre­link had asked me to prove which weeks I had earned what amounts in, I’d have had no chance. There’s no doubt I’d have been is­sued with some sort of debt no­tice un­der this gov­ern­ment’s “data match­ing” pol­icy, but young peo­ple weren’t treated like that back then. Luck­ily there was no drug test­ing ei­ther. I have been safely “grand­fa­thered”.

De­spite hav­ing picked up an hon­ours de­gree in eco­nom­ics, I couldn’t es­cape the con­se­quences of the re­ces­sion we had to have. The na­tional un­em­ploy­ment rate hit 11% and the youth un­em­ploy­ment rate peaked at nearly 20%. No one, cer­tainly no politi­cian, called me a leaner. Or a bludger. Or any­thing else.

I worked ran­dom shifts at a petrol sta­tion, had bursts of work do­ing data en­try and, given the va­garies of pay rates and pay pe­ri­ods, wor­ried fort­nightly about whether my in­come was more or less than I had told Cen­tre­link it would be. No­body ever told me that my un­em­ploy­ment or un­der­em­ploy­ment was due to my per­sonal fail­ings. No one sug­gested I should spend even more money buy­ing a masters de­gree, and ab­so­lutely no one sug­gested that I bor­row money from my par­ents to set up my own small busi­ness. While such ad­vice would have been a use­ful way to de­flect blame for my predica­ment away from the gov­ern­ment and onto me, 25 years ago no one would have bought it.

The “ad­vice” handed out to young peo­ple by the con­ser­va­tives wor­ried about “Aus­tralian val­ues” would be laugh­able

if it wasn’t so po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful. In trans­lat­ing their folksy rants it is im­por­tant to re­alise that their ad­vice is not re­ally de­signed to help the young, who aren’t watch­ing the news. Rather, de­liv­ered on ra­dio sta­tions the young never lis­ten to, it’s de­signed pri­mar­ily to get the older folk nod­ding. But you can’t blame them for agree­ing: most peo­ple over 60 have never looked for work when un­em­ploy­ment was in dou­ble dig­its, or been “breached” by Cen­tre­link through bu­reau­cratic er­ror or pedantry. They have been grand­fa­thered.

Take Barn­aby Joyce’s sug­ges­tion that young peo­ple com­plain­ing about the price of hous­ing in Syd­ney should move to Ar­mi­dale where the rents are cheaper. The first point to note is that one of the rea­sons there are so many peo­ple bid­ding for houses in Syd­ney is that’s where the jobs are. If young peo­ple from Ar­mi­dale could find good jobs in their home­town, Syd­ney hous­ing would be more af­ford­able. The sec­ond prob­lem is that, thanks to all of the “crack­downs” on “dole bludgers”, if a young per­son moved from Syd­ney to a re­gion with higher un­em­ploy­ment, they would risk be­ing booted off the dole for 21 weeks.

Joe Hockey fa­mously told young peo­ple who were strug­gling to af­ford a house to get a bet­ter job. A more re­cent so­lu­tion, put for­ward by the prime min­is­ter, was sim­i­larly con­struc­tive. When ABC Mel­bourne ra­dio pre­sen­ter Jon Faine brought up the is­sue of hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity, Turn­bull replied, in re­la­tion to Faine’s own chil­dren, “Well, you should shell out for them. You should sup­port them, a wealthy man like you … You’ve got the so­lu­tion in your own hands … You can pro­vide a bit of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional eq­uity in the Faine fam­ily.”

Men­zies’ corpse must have done som­er­saults.

To­day, there are more than 730,000 un­em­ployed peo­ple in Aus­tralia, and the youth un­em­ploy­ment rate is above 15%. The prob­lem is not a lack of job-hunt­ing ef­fort from the young, but a lack of job creation by the old. The end­less train­ing and breach­ing, and now drug test­ing, of young peo­ple doesn’t cre­ate more job op­por­tu­ni­ties for them, but it does keep them on their toes.

Older vot­ers re­mem­ber that Australians once did “a good day’s work for a good day’s pay”. Younger Australians know that to get a job you of­ten need to work as an un­paid in­tern. Or do some un­paid “train­ing shifts”. And you might need to keep your mouth shut when the fran­chise you work for sys­tem­at­i­cally un­der­pays you or sim­ply for­gets to pay your su­per­an­nu­a­tion con­tri­bu­tions.

Once upon a time, older work­ers, a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of whom were unionised, would have stood up for young peo­ple who were be­ing ex­ploited. But while con­ser­va­tives claim to love the An­zac spirit, they hate it when peo­ple stick by their mates in the work­place rather than in bat­tle. In­deed, Aus­tralian laws against strik­ing and union or­gan­is­ing are now among the most ex­treme in the world. While many older Australians be­moan the loss of Aus­tralian val­ues, young Australians learn early that in a dis­pute with your boss you are of­ten left to look af­ter your­self.

As most young peo­ple know, bit­ing your tongue re­ally hurts. In the mid ’90s, af­ter fi­nally find­ing a se­cure job but com­pletely fail­ing to find se­cure hous­ing, I de­cided for once to give tongue-bit­ing a try, as the real es­tate agent from whom I wanted an apart­ment pa­tiently pa­tro­n­ised me. Yes, it was strange that a man with a shaved head was an aca­demic. Yes, it was strange that a sin­gle man might want a two-bed­room apart­ment. Yes, it was strange that I didn’t have a cur­rent res­i­den­tial ad­dress. (It was be­cause no real es­tate agent would rent me a house!) As a well-paid, al­beit bald­ing, pro­fes­sional with a tenured aca­demic job, I found it hard to look like a “more at­trac­tive” ten­ant than the other des­per­ate faces I saw at open in­spec­tions. I can’t imag­ine how much harder it must be for 25-year-olds work­ing in the gig econ­omy to con­vince some pa­tro­n­is­ing prop­erty man­ager to take a chance on them.

Much is made, rightly, of the ris­ing cost of hous­ing and its im­pact on in­di­vid­u­als and our com­mu­ni­ties. But what is hap­pen­ing in the hous­ing mar­ket is both a cause and a symp­tom of the broader changes to the labour mar­ket and the pro­vi­sion of pub­lic ser­vices.

There is no doubt that some fea­tures of our tax sys­tem, such as neg­a­tive gear­ing and cap­i­tal gains tax dis­counts, have made in­vest­ment in hous­ing an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion. But these con­ces­sions are not the pri­mary causes of in­equal­ity in Aus­tralia. They sim­ply work as a mag­ni­fy­ing glass that am­pli­fies the struc­tural in­equal­i­ties that have al­ways ex­isted in Aus­tralia. As the gap be­tween the rich and the poor con­tin­ues to grow, is it sur­pris­ing that those with the most find it eas­ier to snap up their third home at an auc­tion when they are bid­ding against peo­ple who haven’t seen a real wage rise in years?

Sim­i­larly, when the pro­por­tion of the na­tion’s wealth held in the hands of the top 10% con­tin­ues to rise, is it any sur­prise that the chil­dren of the wealthy find it eas­ier to scrape to­gether a de­posit with the kind of parental help rec­om­mended by the PM than a young cou­ple whose par­ents are still rent­ing?

Men­zies saw hous­ing pol­icy as a way to close the gap be­tween those with the most and those with the least. But over the past 20 years, changes in hous­ing pol­icy, labour mar­ket pol­icy, and tax­a­tion pol­icy have all served to deepen the di­vide be­tween rich and poor, cities and re­gions, and, in­creas­ingly, Australians from dif­fer­ent eth­nic and cul­tural back­grounds. While Men­zies sought to lock peo­ple into a com­mon goal, the mod­ern Lib­eral Party seems happy to

lock a grow­ing pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion out of the ben­e­fits of eco­nomic growth. What could go wrong?

There is po­lit­i­cal logic to the strat­egy of load­ing up young peo­ple with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of bud­getary pain: it comes with a dis­pro­por­tion­ately small amount of elec­toral pain. While squeaky wheels in the busi­ness com­mu­nity get the good oil of cor­po­rate tax cuts, young peo­ple get to rack up a much larger HECS-HELP debt (which is, of course, a good debt from the gov­ern­ment’s point of view).

It’s al­ways eas­ier to blame the vic­tim. Just as some peo­ple be­lieve that un­em­ploy­ment is caused by lazi­ness, and that do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is caused by nag­ging, some think it’s fair that young peo­ple who don’t stand up for them­selves in a democ­racy should suf­fer. But even if you think it’s OK for ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers to ex­ploit novices, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous what hap­pens to democ­ra­cies where large num­bers of peo­ple feel marginalised. Brexit and the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump are but two high-pro­file ex­am­ples.

Aus­tralia doesn’t have com­pul­sory vot­ing, but it is com­pul­sory to en­rol to vote, to at­tend a polling place and to lodge a bal­lot pa­per. It is, how­ever, be­tween you and your pen­cil whether you cast a valid vote or a vul­gar in­sult. That said, vot­ing here is far more preva­lent than in most coun­tries. And the high rate of voter par­tic­i­pa­tion has played a ma­jor role in mak­ing Aus­tralia such a sta­ble, se­cure and pros­per­ous democ­racy.

But just as cul­ture and pol­icy have chipped away at our high rates of home own­er­ship, cul­ture and pol­icy have been chip­ping away at our demo­cratic en­gage­ment. The AEC does lit­tle to en­force ex­ist­ing laws, and the par­lia­ment does even less to help young peo­ple, who move house far more of­ten than older peo­ple, to both get on the elec­toral roll and stay up to date. It’s OK to match young peo­ple’s Cen­tre­link file to an eight-year-old tax file, but ap­par­ently it’s not OK to send them a let­ter of­fer­ing to up­date their elec­toral en­rol­ment.

Twenty years of dereg­u­la­tion (or “light touch” reg­u­la­tion), pri­vati­sa­tion, con­tract­ing out, tax cuts, spend­ing cuts and wel­fare re­form have cre­ated a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent Aus­tralian econ­omy and so­ci­ety to the one that re­mains burned into the mem­o­ries of older vot­ers and politi­cians.

The eco­nomic ra­tio­nal­ists killed the cul­ture that once lauded a prime min­is­ter for celebrating a yacht-rac­ing vic­tory with the ex­hor­ta­tion that “any boss who sacks any­one for not turn­ing up to­day is a bum”. Imag­ine call­ing some­one a “boss” these days! They are our em­ploy­ers, and if we give them the tax cuts and in­dus­trial-re­la­tions re­forms they want they might even “cre­ate” a job for us. And imag­ine what to­day’s tabloid pa­pers would make of a young per­son who missed a Cen­tre­link in­ter­view be­cause of a big night on the piss celebrating a sport­ing vic­tory.

Young peo­ple and new ar­rivals are not to blame for the loss of Aus­tralian val­ues. Those val­ues have been killed by decades of sus­tained ef­fort from gen­er­a­tions of older politi­cians and busi­ness lead­ers.

Mean­while, a prob­lem of a dif­fer­ent and more di­a­bol­i­cal kind awaits fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. The sci­ence is quite clear: chil­dren leav­ing school to­day will ex­pe­ri­ence the harm­ful ef­fects of our cur­rent de­ter­mi­na­tion to burn grow­ing amounts of fos­sil fuel. How­ever, the long lag be­tween burn­ing coal and ris­ing sea lev­els means that, yet again, older Australians will be in­su­lated from the even­tual costs. They have been grand­fa­thered.

Men­zies’ de­sire to give young Australians and new ar­rivals a stake in their home, and their com­mu­nity, was not a re­flec­tion of so­cial­ist ten­den­cies but con­ser­va­tive ones. It also re­flected a con­cern for the fu­ture. Un­like the mod­ern Lib­eral Party, Men­zies saw the ben­e­fits of unit­ing the coun­try. Then again, he was try­ing to build some­thing. If all you want to do is main­tain the sta­tus quo, it’s much sim­pler to di­vide and con­quer.

But of course driv­ing in wedges is how you break some­thing, not build it. And break­ing up a co­he­sive so­ci­ety seems more like a rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal strat­egy than a con­ser­va­tive one.

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