Friday, November 14, 2014

Boomers booing at Gough’s funeral, retrospectivity and pauperism

By chance in Sydney last Wednesday, I thought I might as well go to Gough’s funeral at the Sydney Town Hall.  I didn’t have a ticket to get in, but reading online news reports that morning made me sanguine as to the worst case scenario: turning up only to be turned away. The reports were of quite a few actual ticket holders – not VIPs, but ordinary members of the public who had applied through a ballot – being turned away, despite having got there good and early.  For such a (legitimately) disappointed crowd, there would have to be an overflow event near the Town Hall, I figured.  And sure enough, despite nothing being officially announced or advertised, there was a video screen, and a gathering crowd, on the south side of the Town Hall.

I was a free-rider, in other words – which was, I now realise, a wholly appropriate status for the occasion. As for the general crowd, this carnival of the ticketless was always going to be a textbook occasion for crowd dynamics.  Possie sorted, I was squarely surrounded by baby boomers and still older generations (who may or may not have been a fair cross-section of the total crowd).   

Being a crowd-pooper anyway, and with 45 minutes before kick-off, I sat down on the paved ground and read a book.  A breach of (a) crowd-bonding etiquette, (b) funeral-respect etiquette, or more specifically, (c) overflow-funeral-crowd mob-think fever-pitch etiquette?  Who knows, but clearly I therefore didn’t join the boomers booing, at various perceived anti-Gough VIP attendees, as they walked in the doors (I couldn’t see who, but I couldn’t have cared either). 

When it comes to etiquette, the top-down model is redundant; the personal is the etique-able, I believe. In a very small way, the booing plainly emanating from my immediate patch may have been compensating for my tacit boycott of it, via a one-person sit-in (that wasn’t actually protesting anything, but crowds leap to conclusions like the proverbial).  Less personally, the fact that some of the overflow crowd at least, had gone to the Town Hall as legitimate ticket holders, and been rudely shrugged off, must have fuelled some of mob’s propensity to boo.

VIPs having ran the gauntlet, the even proper was commenced; those inside now presumably smug, while those of us in the locked-out rabble outside were now looking or thinking elsewhere to maintain the rage; none of the speechmakers appeared to be heckle-fodder. 

Of the speeches, I thought it interesting that two Xers got to give the seeming keynote ones – meaning Gough’s legacy.  Noel Pearson spoke the obvious, about Gough’s dismantling of  the Old Australia, although with too much I’m Making a Serious Speech thumping inflection for my liking. Cate Blanchett’s earlier speech was much easier to digest, but it did contain one tidbit that had me stumped – itching to reach for my smartphone to fact-check her, but you’ll be pleased to know I desisted from so doing until after the formalities (if that’s the word to describe being in the middle of a twitchy  boomer mob). 

Anyways, Ms Blanchett, who as I later found out was born in May 1969, said that she had Gough to thank for her free tertiary education, without which she wouldn’t be where she is today.  AMEN to that – but I just couldn’t work out how she’d got through a degree unscathed prior to the introduction of HECS at the start of 1989 (I didn’t, and I am five years older than her, albeit I was a positively ancient nearly 20 y.o at the start of first year, did a double degree, and took a year off to work mid-way).  From what I gather, Ms Blanchett did a year or two only of a double degree at my alma mater Melbourne Uni in 1987 and/or 1988, then dropped out and went to Europe for a year or so; thus indeed missing the introduction of HECS in 1989.  However, she then studied at NIDA in Sydney for the 3 years 1990-1992.  I would have thought that NIDA at that time was HECS-able, and so not “free”, but maybe it was an enclave holding out from the buccaneering capitalist Labor government of the time. 

Alternatively, maybe she was just referring to her 1987/1988 Indian-summer free year/s.  If so, I wonder if Ms Blanchett’s stated gratitude at her only partially-free degrees (if she had not dropped-out) actually refers to the doors that opened when she dropped-out and went to Europe as a HECS-exile.  This is the most coherent explanation I can find for her gratitude, although it may be drawing a long bow.  If this was the ultimate lesson, and price, of her free tertiary education, it is a thank-you speech that went way over the heads of most of the crowd.

A necessary disclosure here.  At the start of 1989, I was one year from finishing my Law degree, and after that, a further year from doing my Arts Honours year.  While I briefly considered dropping-out when tertiary fees were introduced, crudely and without distinction including those well into the degrees alongside those who could make a less loaded choice to pay or not, in the end I compromised.  I sucked it up and finished my law degree, albeit feeling cheated and demoralised.  Not paying to do my Arts Honours year was a fairly easy decision; as I could graduate with an already-banked, “free” pass degree; a far more honourable – and also life-changing – course.  I should also add that, had HECS been introduced prior to my starting university, I categorically would not have gone there.  And one more thing – I now toy with what could have been, had I, possibly like Ms Blanchett, dropped out of uni at the end of 1988, and gone to Europe as a HECS-exile. 

At this point, I’m sure a fair chunk of you are thinking that I should have just been grateful for an 80%* free tertiary education (* if you don’t count the aborted Arts Honours year).  Perhaps, but retrospectivity is an interesting psycho-political beast.

Hearing retired politicians recently cry “retrospectivity!”, when their Gold Passes are threatened with forward cancellation, and similar arguments being made to make negative-gearing for existing property owner-speculators sacrosanct makes me shake at the extreme sense of entitlement felt by some.  Or more specifically, by the boomer crowd in general (not just the mob outside Gough’s funeral). 

Certainly, if travel already undertaken on a Gold Pass, in good faith, is then billed at full cost to the pass-holder, then that’s retrospective. Likewise, if negative gearing is abolished mid-way through a tax year.  But I don’t think that either of these prospects is remotely on the cards.  Gold Pass holders will have the choice for future travel – they can pay for it, or stay at home.  Likewise, negative-gearing speculators will be able to either sell-up, or wear their future losses on an unsubsidised basis.  Meanwhile, back in 1989, I was in the position of being on the last stopover of a started-in-good-faith, long tertiary education “Gold Pass journey” – only abruptly to be held to ransom by my own government, and forced to pay dearly, just to get home.  Held to ransom is how I saw it at the time – it didn’t cross my mind to see the potential upside, such as going to Europe as a HECS-exile. 

In fairness to gravy-training boomers, no entitlement is ever painless to lose.  Indeed, the choice that inevitably comes after the end of the entitlement will perhaps always be subjectively disquieting, however rational it may look from above.  There used to be a quasi-science devoted to just this phenomenon, called “pauperism”.  Unfortunately – that is to say etymologically – defined in most dictionaries, the called pauperism’s operative meaning has veers well away from poverty-central.  If poverty is usually grinding and/or intractable, then the most common form of pauperism is comfortable poverty, as an alternative to paid employment.  Whether this is a chosen alternative is a matter of hot debate.

I was inspired to veer from Gough into pauperism by a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s treatise on the subject (in Richard Cooke, “Much obliged”, The Monthly, Nov 2014) p 28.  While the word sounds quaint, like it belongs in the era of workhouses and debtors’ prisons, it was still in use in 1950s Aboriginal policy in Central Australia, and often came up in the recurring debate/spot-fire over whether to ration (for free) adult Aborigines who were deemed capable of working.

Pauperism also has a fair overlap with entitlement-cancellation angst (aka faux “retrospectivity”) – so making the psychology of the Old Gold Pass brigade a case-study illustration of a pauperism’s newer variants.  Although no longer anchored to poverty as such, the moral hazard of classic pauperism is still there – the status quo is too comfortable; or conversely, the prospect of choice, in the wake of entitlement withdrawal, is too daunting.

Textbook pauperism sees its subjects choosing the lacklustre status quo.  Here, time is palpably ticking; their prospects go increasingly backwards the longer they delay making the better choice.  Pauperism is compounded zero-rate interest then, while a risk taken with alacrity can pay handsomely, or if not, allow time for return to equilibrium.  Time also counts in second, subtler way:  the person or system rationing the pauper usually envisages a time-limit on such sustenance – although this is rarely expressed

But even without this latter factor, there is a strong asymmetry in time-sense between recipient/pauper and provider – for the latter, pauperism is plainly evil, for being unsustainably open-ended, if nothing else.   For the recipient/pauper, however, the future is fairly abstract; pauperism is an encompassing present, a day-to-day reality with a myriad of challenges and choices.  That is, nothing but the status quo appears to be sustainable.

Back to Gough, this time-asymmetry is writ large.  His reform agenda’s three years in power were only partly undone later – free tertiary education leading the axing moves of  later governments calling “It’s time” on Gough.  Despite this swingeing attack to the belly of the best of Whitlamism (I think, anyway), in the public mind the Whitlam years have had a curiously long afterlife as an intact status quo. 

With free tertiary education now decades in the past, pauperism and open-ended entitlement are, from the outside, safely, or at least symbolically slain.  Yet from within, they are as functionally strong as ever.  Gough Whitlam’s genius was to perfect entitlement, and so to abolish the taint of pauperism for the boomer generation. Gen X’s unfortunate fate was to be the ceremonial sacrifice upon the altar of post-Gough economic rationalism.

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