It’s not envy, it’s resentment

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had to do something, I suppose. Months of dismal polls, Cory Bernardi’s anti-climactic exit from the party, that hapless phone call with the new US president. The performance at Question Time yesterday can be read in that context: teeth-showing from a cornered (political) animal.

It is hard to tell who the PM was trying to intimidate/impress, given that his ‘social climbing’ sledge against Opposition leader Bill Shorten seems to be backfiring. Social climbing? Aren’t we all social climbers, in a way? Isn’t that the point of intergenerational mobility? Who even still uses that term as a sledge?

Let’s be real, though. It’s not like everyone now identifies with Opposition leader Bill Shorten. We know that all politicians have a seat at the rich man’s table. No matter who does it in parliament, calling one’s opponent a hypocrite/sycophant/parasite is self-sabotage.

What irks me is that the political right keeps running the ‘politics of envy’ line. It is not the first time that the Prime Minister invoked it. In 2015, he defended his Cayman Islands-registered investments by accusing Labor of fueling the politics of envy. Amanda Vanstone wrote about it in 2014 as did Andrew Bolt in 2016. It is often paired with class warfare, that other chestnut.

Breaking: most Australians don’t actually pine for a harbour-side mansion. They want reliable healthcare, good schools for their children, a bit of help with childcare and easier access to transport so they can get to work, job availability and security, affordable and decent housing, some certainty around their standard of living when they’re old, assurance that their grandchildren won’t burn to a crisp.

People want to live well and enjoy life. In no way does this necessarily mean that their standard of success is a bluechip portfolio, or that their aspirational model involves free tickets to premier sporting events. OK wait, no they do want those.

The points are these: 1) Australians don’t need the Labor Party to stoke anger and despair over the inequities in their life. They already have intimate knowledge about the disparities between their standard of living and those in power. They live them. 2) It is not envy that drives such hostility. It is resentment.

On the same day that Turnbull was having a spray about social climbing politicians, his government introduced a bill that would see under-25s shifted onto the Youth Allowance rather than Newstart, losing them $45 per week. They would have to wait four weeks before they can access this support. This in a time where home ownership and permanent employment are increasingly out of reach for an entire generation. This in a time where tax concessions for the wealthy continue to drag on revenue yet remain more intact than the benefits that people depend on to get by.

Envy is a way of blaming a hostile person for their own hostility. Not just ‘it’s not my fault that you wish you were me,’ but ‘it is your fault that you are not yet me.’ It is grounded in ancient superstition that wealth is a sign of pre-existing virtue. It is also acontextual, shedding no light on the conditions that people live in. It inflects malice on a reasonable expectation of fairness.

Politicians can scoff all they like about people they suppose to be envious. It always ends well when those in power ignore the resentments of those they govern.