Propaganda for austerity through the ages

The lead-up to Budget 2014 has been nothing if not an emotional roller coaster.

In preparation for what no management-speak euphemism can disguise as anything but savage cuts, the tax-paying public have been encouraged by treasurer Joe Hockey to see ourselves variously as over-indulged children for whom the Age of Entitlement must end, shirkers not prepared to do our share of the “heavy lifting” associated with keeping a national economy intact, or self-centred narcissists reluctant to think in terms of “we” rather than “me”.

It’s as though society has suddenly become an amalgam of The Biggest Loser, Super Nanny and The Hunger Games, with unruly welfare recipients and pensioners fighting it out for the sake of our perennially threatened long term prosperity.

In reality, this sort of bluster has been the refrain of governments since the first national budget of sorts was handed down by Robert Walpole in England in 1721. More than 130 years before that, the Poor Laws had established the notion of the deserving and undeserving poor, and the ruling class has more or less being rapping on that theme ever since.

Margaret Thatcher made an art form of it in the 1980s, evoking the Bible to justify starvation rates for the unemployed. In a 1988 speech she declared, “‘If a man will not work he shall not eat’ wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians.” It could only be interpreted as a death threat to the unemployed.

Her contemporary in the US, Ronald Reagan, preferred the patriotic angle, concluding his 1983 Budget address with an argument for cuts on the basis that “the American people – you – have worked wonders that have astounded the world. We’ve done it … in good times and bad, because we’re a people who care and who know how to pull together.”

Taking a bit from that and a bit from JFK with a lot of wet lettuce thrown in, Hockey came up with “I ask Australians not to judge this budget on what they get or on what they lose today. This budget is about our future as a nation. It is about the we, not the me.”

To give him his due, Hockey has generated some important new clichés for the ruling class’s pro-austerity arsenal. They will take their place alongside “strivers not skivers”, “hand up not hand out” and the perennial appeals to “tighten our belts”.

No doubt they will bore us, but unfortunately for Hockey they won’t fool us.