Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Plutocracy in Australia

Dosing with the palliative
rather than offering the curing.
There are only 4,600 “high wealth individuals” in Australia with personal assets of $30 million or more, but despite making up just 0.04 per cent of taxpayers, these mega-rich people are shaping political policy. Among them are 49 on the BRW Rich List with assets of $1 billion or more (topped by Gina Rinehart with $14 billion).

Billionaire Clive Palmer is the most obvious example of Australia’s super-rich wielding influence. But Palmer is unusual in being elected. Unelected super-rich are exercising a strong influence on public policy with influence that thwarts the interests of ordinary Australians and undermines democracy. Reg Ansett used his political influence to shape aviation policy (the “two-airline policy”) in the postwar years. Bob Hawke was well known for his friendships with those at the top end of town, most notably Alan Bond. Dick Smith (57 on the BRW Rich List) has been a consistent public voice on the technicalities of aviation policy.

Also there have been the media families – Fairfax, Packer and Murdoch – all influential in their own ways.

Both Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest fronted up publicly against the mining tax, with Forrest in particular pumping public sentiment against it by characterising the tax as a threat to the jobs of average Australians. But the main political influence came from the mining lobby groups - and the very large and influential corporate groups that fund them. It was later disclosed that the mining industry (including the Minerals Council of Australia and major miners BHP and Rio) had spent a total of $22 million on a marketing campaign that killed off the tax and was cited as a factor in the ousting of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

One of the clearest examples of Forrest’s influence on public policy has been the introduction of a trial of the cashless welfare card, an idea he originally championed to combat Aboriginal welfare dependency. Yet his PR campaign to bring about a public inquiry into the iron ore production strategies of his larger competitors, BHP and Rio Tinto, was less successful. Tony Abbott had initially appeared to countenance the idea of an inquiry into Forrest’s claim that the two big miners were artificially inflating production in order to drive the price down and force out smaller players - such as himself. But then Treasurer Joe Hockey knocked back the idea, following on from rare public statements by BHP’s Andrew Mackenzie and Rio’s Andrew Harding. In this instance at least it seems corporate power has prevailed over individual power.

The very rich tend to live in a world apart from the rest of the population. Anyone who has travelled recently will have noticed that some airlines have scrapped first class – those who once rode first class now have their own private airplanes. No more do they have to share with lesser mortals the congested trip to the airport or the inevitable flight delays. They are less reliant on public services – public transport, public schools, public hospitals – than most Australians, and generally have less opportunity for social mixing. It’s hard to imagine that those living in such isolation could understand the needs of the other 99.96 per cent of Australians.

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