Dismantling Australia’s Decency

By Loz Lawrey

In 2014, some six months after the Abbott Coalition government came to power, a wave of community outrage found expression in the March in March rallies.

Some 100,000 Australians took part in protest marches at 29 locations nationwide to decry the new government’s right-wing policies and neoliberal agenda.

Organised on social media, March in March was in a sense a pop-up people’s movement, a grassroots response to a government which many progressive Australians perceived to be toxic to the common good.

As its online organisers sought to articulate and define what drove the collective outrage, the catchphrase “the people, united for better government” emerged as a war cry for the March in March movement.

One word which kept reappearing in those discussions, however (and later on placards at the rallies), was “decency”.

There was a prevailing sense that our national character had always been imbued with decency and that decency should always inform the policies enacted by our governments.

It was equally clear that our new government had little concept or understanding of the word, dismissing it as just another leftie snowflakey term like “empathy”.

Where had Australian decency gone?

Many progressives believe that decency in our country has been eroded and diminished over time and that its devaluation began in 2001 with the Tampa affair, a shameful episode in Australian history in which the Howard government abrogated its responsibilities to the United Nations under international law.

Several weeks later the Children Overboard affair served to normalise the demonisation of asylum seekers who, overnight it seemed, went from being innocent refugees in the public mind to “illegals” invading our borders.

Poorer, disadvantaged Australians, like asylum seekers, also became targets of ever-increasing government mistreatment (think cashless “welfare” cards and Newstart payment rates frozen since the 1990’s).

Meanwhile, the (mainly Murdoch) media worked tirelessly to reinforce the public’s contempt, using the well-worn tropes of “dole bludgers” and “lazy welfare cheats”.

In 2001, in response to a question from an ABC journalist on a Four Corners program about Australia’s working poor (who, despite being in full time employment, struggled to pay their bills and meet the cost of living), then Education Minister Tony Abbott planted a seed of contempt for the poor with this statement:

“Poverty is, in part, a function of individual behaviour. We can’t stop people drinking, we can’t stop people gambling, we can’t stop people having substance problems, um… we can’t stop people making mistakes, ah… that causes them to be less well off than they might otherwise be”.

Thus spoke the same Tony Abbott who in 2014 so contemptuously dismissed the concerns of the 100,000 Australians who marched in March.

His statement caused such outrage in Australia’s social services community that it can still be heard on YouTube today:

There it is – the old subtext of contempt for the less well-off that has underpinned the Coalition’s approach to governance throughout the Howard years and which truly found its champions in the right wing Coalition government Australians have been enduring since September 2013.

I once heard it expressed as an adage in a speech by a conservative accountant, who put it this way: “no one enjoys poverty more than the poor themselves”.

As with Abbott’s statement, the implication is that poverty is a choice, and that if you find yourself in dire financial straits, you have no one to blame but yourself.

This article, published in response to Abbott’s Four Corners statement, highlights some of the toxic fallacies that, to this day, inform Coalition ideology.

Abbott led a hollow-man government, one without empathy or consideration for those it considered to be not “having a go”.

It was clear to many that Abbott came to power and immediately set about implementing the antisocial free-market libertarian agenda of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA): business and profit first, the people and their needs last.

The common good? The public interest? Thrown overboard, for greed and profit.

The conservative agenda drives our nation relentlessly towards becoming more and more like Trump’s America where the rich are “winners” and the poor are “losers”.

In a land where the “winner takes all”, our poor find themselves excluded from enjoying the tiniest share of the wealth of our nation, a share to which, as citizens, they are surely entitled.

In Australia, our “social security” safety net has morphed into “welfare”, U.S. style. We’ve gone from “social safety net” to “alms for the poor”.

Public health and education are under constant attack as the Morrison government prioritises huge tax cuts to business while disenfranchising our needy and de-funding the NGOs that assist them.

Environmental protection? Addressing climate change? Let’s not go there.

This Coalition government, which treats human rights as an inconvenience, maintains a world view underpinned by an ideological disregard and contempt for marginalised and disadvantaged Australians.

Sadly, the citizens of our first world nation can no longer depend upon human rights remaining an essential foundation stone in our social democracy.

It could be said that, like human rights, decency has also been under constant attack these past twenty years.

Lies and misrepresentation have been blatantly deployed with ever-increasing arrogance by successive Liberal/National Coalition governments, from Howard’s “children overboard” (2001), to his “which party do you trust to keep interest rates down?” (2004) (nb. governments have no control over interest rates), to Abbott’s “no cuts to the ABC or SBS” (election eve 2013) to Morrison’s “Labor death tax” (2019).

This disregard for truth, for decency, for empathy, for social inclusion and equity is still evident in the strident shoutings of the now re-elected PM Morrison and the Trumpian rhetoric of so many of his ministers.

Could there be a more cruel and divisive slogan than Morrison’s mantra “a fair go for those who have a go”?

Organisers of the March in March 2014 rallies were amazed at the variety of messages and slogans on the placards of participants.

They knew thinking Australians were unhappy and angry at the Abbott government’s direction, but what took them by surprise was the variety of issues being raised.

It seemed as though people across the board from all social sectors felt negatively impacted by many of Abbott’s policies.

They felt personally affronted by what they saw as the contemptuous de-funding of so many public services that Australians have always held dear, in areas such as science, education, health, social security, environmental protection… even our own ABC.

They felt disgusted at the shameful normalisation of cruelty which underpinned Abbott’s regime of inhumane detention in offshore gulags, a regime of which our current PM “On-Water-Matters” Morrison was so proudly an architect.

They knew that this was the thin end of a very thick wedge and they sensed that the hammering-in had only just begun…

For six years since then, Australia has become ever more a floundering nation of diminishing empathy, leaving so many of its own behind.

And yet we still have both government and media telling us that that’s acceptable, that it’s quite OK to throw a percentage of us under a bus.

Why? Because some of us are unworthy, apparently.

The seed of contempt Tony Abbott planted in 2001 is now a tree.

And now, it seems, decency is lost.

Have so many Australians really forgotten what the word “decency” means?

Are we really now a decency-free Australia?

Nearly half the nation wonders: Why, Australia? Why the selfishness? Why the contempt for your fellows? Why the hatred of others? Why the increasing bigotry? Why did you re-elect this government without decency?

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