The Commission of Audit report released yesterday proves one thing: you can always trust the rich and powerful to defend their own interests at the expense of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. If the report’s recommendations are followed, which thankfully most of them won’t be, the minimum wage would be reduced from $622.20 to $488.87 and a single pensioner getting by on $421 per week pension would see her pension reduced to around $357. Meanwhile superannuation tax concessions, that primarily benefit high income earners and cost the government $27 billion a year, are untouched. This is apparently an “equitable” way to rein in government spending.
It’s disappointing, but it shouldn’t really surprise. The biblical prophets as far back as the eighth century BC identified the tendency for the powerful and wealthy to ensure they prospered, even if it was at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. At times this was the result of direct theft, oppression, and corruption in the courts, but more commonly it was an engineering of the economic system that allowed the wealthy to prosper at the expense of the poor. Israel’s economic system was built around Sabbaths. There was a sabbath every seven days, a day on which everybody, including the slave and the poor labourer, was to have rest. There was a sabbath every seven years, during which all outstanding loans were to be forgiven and all those who had sold themselves into slavery set free. There was a super sabbath that occurred at the end of every seven lots of seven years where all land was to be returned to its original families. Combined with laws of harvest, then ensured the landless got to participate at harvest time and reap the benefit of that, and laws of debt that required interest-free loans to be provided to those in need, the Sabbath system ensured a continual rebalancing of the economic order in favour of equity. The prophets rail against the rich and powerful because they simply ignored the Sabbath system where it was inconvenient.
This is I find the biblical text incredibly relevant. It reminds me that the interests of the powerful are served both through corruption and theft, and by otherwise good people who shape society and economy in ways that fit their own interests. The current ICAC inquiries reveal that sometimes the powerful continue to push their interests through corrupt behaviour, while the Commission of Audit report shows good people seeking to impose a poor vision by engineering the economy to their advantage. It’s a good reminder that there is no such thing as an objective view of how we should structure our economy. There are only ever interested views.
No one suggests we should go back to the economy of Israel. It structures were designed for an ancient subsistence agricultural society. But the underlying principles – that every person should have access to the bounty of the earth, provision for their need, be treated with dignity and respect, and that extremes of wealth and poverty would be militantly guarded against – should, in my opinion, also mark our economies. And as long as human beings remained the flawed creatures that we are, the rich and powerful will continue to seek to rebalance the economic order in their favour. They may have the best of intentions, but their perspective, like everyone else’s, is influenced by their starting point. This is why we need to be very clear about the type of society we want to be, and having identified our core values we need to be vigilant in guarding them. On this matter the Commission of Audit report represents a monumental fail.