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“We will decide what rights you have, and the circumstances under which you have them.”

Treasurer Joe Hockey has bluntly warned Australians that the days of governments saving businesses and jobs had passed, telling them, ”the age of entitlement is over, and the age of personal responsibility has begun”.

Mark Kenny “The Courier”, 4th February, 2014

So I guess, he’s also talking about this:

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce billed taxpayers more than $4600 for ”official business” travel to attend rugby league games, including the 2012 State of Origin. The revelations come as the Abbott government hinted it will tighten rules on politicians’ entitlements.

Mr Joyce, who was given free tickets to watch the 2012 State of Origin and NRL finals in corporate boxes, claimed flights to Sydney, Comcars and overnight ”travel allowance”, costing taxpayers $4615. His spokeswoman told Fairfax Media that attending the matches was legitimate ”official business”.

The Sydney Morning Herald November 6, 2013

But what exactly does Hockey mean by the “age of entitlement”? In the lead-up to the election, he used to refer to what he called “middle class welfare”. And, of course, those people on the dole need to forget any ideas of entitlement.

So, basically the Government’s subtext seems to be: We don’t owe you anything – get over it!

And in the debates about company bail-outs, middle-class welfare and work-for-the-dole schemes that message might be lost. Yes, we’ve been told over and over again how the Liberals believe in “small government” but like so many words that are used we often overlook their actual meaning. Does small government mean reducing the number of MPs or reducing their staff and entitlements? Of course not, just the number of public servants, because public servants are just a burden. You want to speak to a public servant? The Age of Entitlement is over! I mean, trying ringing Centrelink, they don’t even answer the phone, so who’s going to notice that there are less?

But let’s just remind ourselves of what words mean because, as I said before, when we hear them over and over they can lose their meaning.

Entitlement: the fact of having a right to something

Oxford Dictionary

So, is Joe Hockey saying that the age of having a right to something is over?

Ok, maybe I’m just being tricky with language by pointing out the actual definition of what he’s saying. Maybe we shouldn’t presume that Hockey means what he’s saying. After all, that’d be rather unusual for a Minister in the Abbott government. (Although one of their backbenchers, Sharman Stone was rather forthright.)

But it’s also the concept of corporate and middle-class welfare that probably needs to be questioned. Again, consulting the dictionary:

Welfare

  1. the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group.
  2. statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need.

When we talk about middle-class welfare, then we’re clearly either using the first definition, or we’re using an oxymoron. As I don’t think that many in or out of government wish to eliminate or reduce the health, happiness and fortunes of the middle class, let’s presume that it’s the second definition of welfare that we’re talking about. Therefore, if it’s the provision of the basic needs of people, then it can’t be given to those who have already provided these for themselves.

So, if we assume when people talk about middle-class welfare that they’re not talking about “welfare” at all, the use of the phrase suddenly becomes loaded. It implies that these people should not be receiving whatever handout, money, subsidy, tax relief being discussed, because it’s not welfare. We’re already being encouraged to think of it as government largesse and extravagant.

Economics is all about making decisions, of course, and all governments have a right to decide how money is spent. However, providing “welfare” is not the only role for a government in deciding who receives what.

When the government announced that it wouldn’t be supporting Holden or SPC-Ardmona, they were making a decision that has consequences. I’m quite prepared to have a discussion about whether it’s the right or wrong thing, but a decision like that can’t be defended with a glib, “the age of entitlement is over”. (With this government, I suspect that the age of reason is also over).

Similarly, just because a person is not on skid row is no reason to argue that they shouldn’t receive any assistance from the government for anything ever. We all pay taxes in some form or other – even if only the GST on what we purchase – and we have a right to expect something back. An entitlement, if you like. And as I said, who gets what and when they get it, is something that needs to be decided by government. Will the money be spent on a non-means tested baby bonus, or would the money be better used building another freeway or supporting the opera? Different people will have different priorities and will see some things as a waste. Whatever, people are entitled to expect that the government will be giving something back in return for our taxes. It’s a large part of what election campaigns are about. You know, that time when politicians sympathise about the cost of living pressures for working families.

Don’t expect anything from us is Joe’s message. Personal responsibility, he says. You’re not ‘entitled’ – unless we say that you are! And that includes what information we think that you should know and the broadband speed at which you know it.

And, by the way, if you’re earning less than $80,000, you’re paid too much!

 

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