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Issue #1590      April 24, 2013

Not satire, just the rant of the super-rich

Last week right-wing think-tank Menzies House published an article suggesting that a “modest cull of the enormously poor” would enable the federal budget to get out of debt, and avoid the necessity to impose special taxes on the super rich.

The article was described by its author, business lobbyist Toby Ralph, as a “satire”. However, not surprisingly it fell flat on its face and aroused widespread public anger. Ralph dismissed all criticism with lofty contempt, remarking that “some people want to be offended.”

Not long ago an episode of the ABC Chaser program also crashed amid public condemnation, because it suggested that children who were seriously ill should be allowed to die, rather than being provided with expensive treatment. But there’s a fundamental difference between the article and the program.

An essential feature of satire is that the views expressed are actually opposed by the author. Despite its gross insensitivity, the Chaser program set out – albeit unsuccessfully – to oppose the callous “bean counting” mentality that values money more than human life.

This mentality is also evident in the views expressed in Ralph’s article, but unfortunately those views aren’t opposed by the author, they actually correspond closely to the mindset of the corporate managers for whom he acts as federal lobbyist.

An ambiguous message

The article declares “In contrast to the fabulously rich, the enormously poor make little useful contribution to society. They consume more than contribute, putting tremendous strain on the national budget. A modest cull would strike at the root of our fiscal dilemma. If the least productive 20 percent of citizens were decommissioned it would release a recurrent $25 billion.

“ ... This bold initiative would rid us of indolent students, hapless single mums, lower-order drug dealers, social workers, performance artists, Greenpeace supporters and the remaining processing personnel in our collapsing yet heavily subsidised manufacturing industries.”

The least offensive interpretation of this ambiguous message is that the people mentioned should be “culled” by removal from the welfare lists, and that subsidising certain industries should cease, even if this means they subsequently collapse and thousands are thrown out of work.

An opponent of these views could easily have satirised them. But the Menzies House article was written by an industrial lobbyist who, like his clients, undoubtedly supports the massive “culling” of welfare lists, as well as elimination of industrial subsidies and removal of special taxes on the super rich.

That’s also the position of the Liberal/National Coalition, and now business leaders and organisations are chipping in. Although the Gillard government cut welfare spending by transferring single parents from the parents support scheme to the miserly Newstart allowance, corporate businessman Don Argus says welfare spending is increasing, and that’s unsustainable.

Business Council of Australia President Tony Shepherd has now issued a list of demands for the federal government, doubtless in anticipation that the Liberal/National Coalition will win office in the September elections.

Those demands include imposing a cap on the size of government, dumping the Council of Australian Governments, “considering” the introduction of nuclear power, increasing the foreign investment threshold from $248 million to $1.1 billion, opening up state-owned enterprises and sovereign wealth funds to private investment, changing the revenue-sharing arrangements between the States and the Commonwealth, and altering the tax system so that “people will have to fund themselves a lot more, and cannot rely on the state for everything from cradle to grave ... .”

Other BCA objectives, to be outlined in full-page newspaper ads, include changing the Fair Work Act (doubtless for the benefit of big business), and introducing a new series of productivity payments similar to the old competition payments.

A chilling euphemism

Toby Ralph’s article did not actually use the term “killing” with regard to the poor, yet that is an entirely feasible interpretation of the words “culling” and “decommissioning”. And after all, the article bluntly discussed “ridding us” of the very poor, not just removing them from welfare.

The physical elimination of people requiring welfare has been tried before. Bankrolled by the nation’s biggest corporations, Germany’s Nazi government executed disabled people, helped itself to national resources and finances in order to boost war production, and imprisoned or executed anyone who resisted.

Of course it’s unlikely that Australia will become a fascist state if a Liberal/National Party government takes office in September. Nevertheless, election of a Liberal/National coalition government would be a disaster for working people, and the message embodied in Ralph’s article is highly disturbing.

Menzies House was established by extremely conservative Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, who achieved infamy with his loathsome declaration that legalising same-sex marriage would lead to legalised bestiality. Hatred of homosexuals has always been a feature of extreme right-wing politics.

Bernardi’s former employee, Chris Browne, was editor-in-chief of the Menzies House publication when an anonymous article appeared on its website attacking Opposition shadow treasurer Joe Hockey for incompetence.

Browne subsequently resigned. The incident left the distinct impression that he is a member of Bernadi’s faction that wants to move the party into an even more extreme right-wing position than it now maintains under Tony Abbott’s leadership.

Tim Andrews, Browne’s successor as editor, defended Ralph’s article with the statement that it was “a satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s essay ‘A Modest Proposal’, and as such I don’t see any cause for persons to be offended.”

Apart from its insufferable arrogance, this remark was particularly unfortunate, because Swift’s bitterly ironic essay suggested that poverty-stricken Irish citizens could solve their problems by selling their children to the rich for a nice meal. Plenty of people would find that horrifying idea highly offensive.

Moreover, at best Ralph’s article comes across as a pre-election wish list for the Liberal Party, and at worst as an appeal to neo-fascism. Either way, it’s not satire, it’s just a rant from the super rich.

Oh by the way, another aspect of satire is that it’s usually intended to be funny. It’s doubtful whether anyone, even those who support the grim views expressed in Ralph’s article, actually laughed when they read it.   

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