There’s a great scene in Tim Robbins’ film “Bob Roberts”, a pseudo-documentary about a populist right wing politician, where Robbins says to his audience “Ladies and gentlemen, why can’t you get ahead?”
It’s a great line because it captures the heart of populist conservative rhetoric. Do you feel like life is hard? Want to know who to blame? Well, I’ll tell you.
In recent times both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have come out with ill-thought-through, lazy, populist rants against the unemployed. To somebody like me, with a steady job, it is easy to hear it as white noise, so common is the theme. Once every few years, like clockwork, Labor or Liberal, we are fed the same cliches and divisive language.
When you’re on the dole, it’s not so easy to block out the white noise. Because when you’re unemployed you know just how powerless you are, how little ground there is to give, how thin the line is between having a home, food, clothing, and not being able to afford them. When you’re on the dole, every cruel, lazy lie about the unemployed that drips like KFC grease from the lips of cynical manipulative self-serving politicians or journalists is a punch in the guts.
I have a theory. You can tell how civilised a society is by the way it treats the people whose votes don’t matter.
Any politician will do the right thing by the majority of people. Any politician will make the easy vote-winning decisions and suck up to the voters in marginal seats and make concessions to groups who have the power to really affect the outcome of the next election. Any politician can do the right thing when they are convinced that it is popular enough for them to do it without risk. That doesn’t take any kind of courage or strength of character.
But the mark our politicians, and by extension, our society, for we as a whole must live tarnished in history by the imprint of those we have elected, the mark we all leave on society will be told by the way we treat the people whose votes don’t matter.
The way we treat the refugees who come to our shores with nothing, fleeing horrific wars and cruelties. Our commitment to give equal rights to homosexual couples, even though it will lose us more votes than it gains us, because it is right. And the dignity and kindness with which we treat the unemployed, even though they do not have the money to support us, even though they are not large enough in number for their votes to swing an election; even though popular opinion is against them.
We have the choice, every day. We can feed the half-arsed generalisations that we hear around us every day; that the unemployed are lazy; that they are a drain on society; that it is their own fault and that we have to be tough with them and crack down on them and punish them and do everything we can to make their lives more miserable for the crime of losing at the competition.
Or we can refuse to buy into the lie. We can stand against the view that is common and stand up for what is right.
That is the mark of a civilised society. That is the legacy that we should be looking to leave to future generations. To have them look back and say that we were a society who believed that being kind to the weakest and most powerless members of our society was our duty.
That is the courage we should expect, demand from those we consider worthy of the privilege of leading our country.
It is time we raised our expectations and stopped allowing our politicians to get away bullying for votes.