Bert Kelly, 10 October 1975. Economics Made Easy (Adelaide: Brolga Books, 1982), pp. 127-29.
When I burst onto the political scene, Mavis, who was even then driving from the back seat, decided I should carve out a separate niche for myself on the political ladder. “You must propound a new philosophy,” she urged. “You must beat a new drum, blow a fresh trumpet. Don’t be like the rest of those political hacks, you must proclaim in ringing tones that you are interested in the well-being of people as individuals, not dull old policies and platforms.”
So we did just that. I made imaginative and moving statements to the electorate to that effect, but I must admit that they received the news with surprising equanimity. Then I tried the same line in parliament, and once, I remember with shame, in the party room, but my colleagues were utterly unimpressed. Then I found that nearly all of them had said something similar when making their maiden speeches, that there was hardly a member in parliament who had not proclaimed that he was more interested in people rather than in policies and platforms.
But I know that policies and platforms, and indeed, political parties, are (or should be) only interested in the welfare of people. For instance, Eccles is always pounding my ear about lower tariffs not just because he thinks that to lower tariffs is a good policy since it would encourage our limited resources to be used more efficiently, but because he knows that it would increase the people’s standard of living, so should make them happier.
Even those who want higher tariffs are activated by a desire to help people by creating employment and so on. The fact that they are talking nonsense doesn’t alter the fact that they are trying to benefit individuals as well as themselves.
I admit that the Member of Parliament who twangs the heart strings, who talks more about people than about policies, always attracts more interest than dull people like Eccles and me who plod drearily along the narrow path of economic rectitude. But in the last resort policies ought only to be about people, not political power for power’s sake or anything else, only people.
I have been reading some reports on poverty, and as I saw exposed the grim picture of poverty amongst plenty, I was tempted to throw up my hands in horror and say in anguished tones, “Let’s be done with politics and policies, let’s concentrate on helping the poor.”
This would certainly be a good thing to do. And I would appear a kind-hearted statesman and not a cheese-paring politician, as I do now, and this would be good for my vote at the next election. But governments can usually only help people by hurting others. We should remember that most of the resources to help people come from the average income earner. In 1972-73, over 50 per cent of personal income tax came from taxpayers with a net income of under $7,500. (The last figures available show that, in 1978/79, 48.4 per cent of the personal income tax collected came from people earning a taxable income of under $14,000.)
So it’s no good us bursting into tears while reading about poverty and saying that we must do something to help the poor unless, at the same time, we realise that we can only do so at the expense of others, many of whom are almost as poor as the ones we are trying to help!
And it’s no good trying to help the poor by giving them a bigger slice of the economic cake, if, by so doing, we destroy the incentive to make a bigger economic cake. Doing this may make poor people more equal and this may well be a good thing for the morality of the rich, but it doesn’t help the poor unless they get a bigger slice of the cake — this interests them far more than the knowledge that the rich are being made poorer. The experience of both Britain and Russia should be a warning to us here.
So while I have been reading about poverty, I have been trying to resist the temptation not to let my heart rule my head. Demonstrating a soft and sympathetic heart would be a good thing for my political image but poor people are more likely to be helped by those with hard heads than soft hearts.
But I admit it would be nice to have both.
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