Mark Latham's decision to forgo the generous superannuation available to him if he becomes Prime Minister - which spurred John Howard's surprise announcement - will rightly earn him applause. While his decision to sacrifice up to $2 million in super was designed primarily to highlight how comfortable our pensionable Prime Minister will be in retirement, he is mirroring the beliefs of the millions of Australians who say that money should not be at the centre of all our decisions.
Those who defend the generosity of parliamentary superannuation will no doubt argue that "if you pay peanuts you get monkeys", and the same argument is used to justify obscene pay-outs to business executives. Those who use the argument seem to apply it only to high-income earners. Are the poorly paid workers who care for our children accurately described as monkeys?
Newspoll research commissioned by the Australia Institute (pdf, 129Kb) shows that 23 per cent of Australians aged 30-60 have voluntarily decided to reduce their incomes in order to pursue greater fulfilment. It's true that most of those respondents opt for less stressful jobs, often with shorter hours, but there are plenty among them who would be willing to take on the great responsibilities of political life for its inherent worth rather than for a fat retirement package.
While millions of Australians have decided there are many things in life that matter more than money, until now neither political party has recognised what drives them and courted their votes.
It was gratifying to see that at the ALP conference two weeks ago Latham discarded his attacks on latte-sipping Balmain trendies who (like me) claim that we make a fetish of economic growth. He declared:
This is the paradox of our time. The economy has become more prosperous, yet people feel more powerless. Record rates of GDP have been matched by record rates of depression, loneliness and isolation.
A recent Australia Institute study of children's attitudes to money (pdf, 118Kb) shows that the kids know what he is talking about. While happy to have their fair share of "stuff", they are sharply critical of their peers who have too much money, saying they are greedy, fake and "up themselves".
Despite the relentless pressure on them to pursue money before all else, these kids imagine adult lives in which they strike a balance between a reasonable income and time for families and the other things that make life worthwhile.
This is the social conflict rending Australia. While the housing boom, luxury fever and ballooning consumer debt point to an era of hyper-consumerism, many Australians (and their kids) are recoiling and pointing the finger at the emptiness and social damage that unbridled money-hunger generates.
We know that 83 per cent of Australians agree that "Australian society is too materialistic, that is, too much emphasis on money and not enough on the things that really matter". This view is shared across all income groups except the very richest, where twice as many deny that we are too materialistic.
The "downshifters" who have deliberately reduced their incomes are from all segments of society. They are the ones reacting most immediately to the widespread anxiety about materialism, overwork and neglect of our relationships.
John Howard contradicts himself when he campaigns for "traditional values" and at the same time pushes for further deregulation of the labour market. More deregulation will make it more difficult for people to pursue Howard's
preferences for close and harmonious family life. It's hard for families to spend quality time together when dad is on a 10-day roster and mum is working split shifts mornings and afternoons. The kids know it, and they don't like it.
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