Entering the future with a backward look. Picture: Back to the Future
Entering the future with a backward look. Picture: Back to the Future

Are we voting for shared affluence or collective poverty?

In his excellent economic treatise Eat The Rich, US satirist PJ O'Rourke travelled the world to find out "why some parts of the earth prosper while others suck".

O'Rourke, who once wrote that he stopped being a socialist in his late teens when he realised he would have to give his golf clubs to a family in Zaire, travelled to Sweden where he found what he described as "good socialism".

He defined good socialism as a high-taxing philosophy where people's individual affluence was flattened out and equalised via the redistribution of personal wealth, funding a generous safety net and the provision of childcare, education and health services unseen in other countries.

O'Rourke's account of Sweden in the late 1990s is interchangeable with 2019 Australia, especially if the man most likely to win tomorrow's election, Bill Shorten, becomes prime minister.

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We are told by the ACTU and GetUp! that this is a contest between an extremist conservative regime and a forward-looking Labor alternative. I would describe this contest, instead, as one between an insipid conservative Government cowed into abandoning contentious policies, versus a backward-looking Labor alternative taking its taxing and spending cue from the Whitlam era.

Polling is pointing to current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten becoming our next prime minister. Lukas Coch/AAP
Polling is pointing to current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten becoming our next prime minister. Lukas Coch/AAP

One of the best exchanges of this election campaign came during the Leigh Sales interview with Shorten.

"Is it fair for a viewer to conclude that a Shorten Labor government will be at its core about the redistribution of wealth?" Sales asked. "That you want to take more from the wealthy and give more to people on lower incomes?"

"No, that wouldn't be right. What we want to do is have real change, because frankly, more of the same under this Government isn't good enough," Shorten responded in an answer that struck me as lame.

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Bill should have been man enough to claim the socialist mantle. The best example of this ethos has to be Labor's planned reintroduction of the $6000-a-year deficit reduction levy for high-income earners, even though there won't be a deficit anyway. Labor is promising to deliver a magnificent surplus of $23 billion within three years courtesy of its $154 billion in tax "savings", but will still tax the rich anyway in the name of reducing something that no longer exists.

The ability of Labor to run such a traditional socialist agenda has coincided with a collective loss of bottle on the conservative side of politics.

When it comes to traditional conservative economic reforms, the Liberals exited the dancefloor long ago on issues such as industrial relations and healthcare reform.

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The cumulative results of John Hewson's 1993 Jobsback! package and John Howard's overreach on Work Choices in 2006-2007 means the Libs are now terrified of campaigning on the question of labour-market deregulation, penalty rates or job flexibility.

Equally, Bill Shorten's brutally effective Mediscare effort at the last election mean the Liberals go into this election (and probably forever more) promising to do absolutely nothing about the ever-growing fiscal burden created by our open-ended health system.

Their trepidation has been eclipsed by the cowardly nature of Australia's business leadership, which is too afraid to campaign on anything that might generate some real economic growth for fear of appearing self-interested.

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And when it comes to the promotion of the Liberals' own across-the-board tax cuts, Scott Morrison has been afraid even to engage on the tax question. This is because his tax cuts have been recast by Labor as nothing more than an attempt to hand thousands of dollars back to people earning more than $200k, when in reality the Libs are offering tiered relief right up the tax scale, acknowledging the barely spoken truth that almost all of the tax paid in Australia is paid by rich people.

The irony of politics in this country is almost everyone professes to dislike government yet, if the polls are to be believed, we are set to elect one of the biggest governments the country has ever seen.

It is my hope that, if this occurs, our economy and our society will chug along, albeit framed around the fact that reward for effort as a principle is officially dead in Australia. The best example of that is the attack on franking credits.

The worst-case scenario is ending up, not like Sweden, but like Greece, where everything from public sector wages to government spending ran so unchecked, the end result wasn't shared affluence, but collective poverty. I guess that's what O'Rourke was getting at in Eat the Rich. When socialism works everyone prospers. When it doesn't everyone misses out.