A federal government, desperate to close the chasm between its projected spending and its projected income is discussing fresh imposts on superannuation, though not ones, it is said, that will impact negatively on ordinary working families. Former Labor whip Joel Fitzgibbon, fresh from operations as chief strategiser of the Rudd leadership fiasco, is initiating some resistance, pointing out that there are many families earning $250,000 a year in the western suburbs who are ''still struggling''.
''Coalminers in my electorate [in the Hunter Valley] earning $100,000, $120,000, $130,000, $140,000 a year are not wealthy,'' he said. He would consider changes to the taxing of superannuation at the ''very, very, very high end'' but would not brook changes that affect ''ordinary people like my coalminers living in the Hunter''.
Fitzgibbon may well be right in his way. As Wilkins Micawber put it in David Copperfield in 1850, ''Annual income £20, annual expenditure £19/19/6, result happiness. Annual income £20, annual expenditure £20/0/6, result misery.'' It can cost a lot to live in frugal comfort, not least in some of the higher-cost states where the price of a house is twice, in real terms, what it was 20 years ago, and these days, moreover, frugal comfort involves items such as mobile phones, pay television and communications equipment that did not figure in the household budget 20 years ago. Lots of people who are notionally well off believe themselves to be still struggling - yet to get their heads above water.
That's a perception politicians, and people playing politics, pander to. A good deal of the conversation about Labor's poor standing in western Sydney, or elsewhere, seems to turn on the idea that the modern family, already struggling, is being crushed by rising costs, that the economy is in some sort of downspin or otherwise grinding to a halt. All problems compounded by political games going on within the governing party, and paralysis and inertia on the part of the executive government.
Our government, it goes without saying, is struggling with massive and increasing deficits, weighed down by debt, and on the verge of doing a Cyprus, a Greece or an Italy. Putting the present lot out of its misery and restoring sound, competent and prudent government would be almost doing Labor a kindness, one might think.
It is frequently remarked that this sort of low national self-esteem causes amazement abroad, where Australia is seen as one of the very few countries doing well well, not only in its management through and out of the global financial crisis, but now, as at least some of the affected nations are getting back into stride. Our economy is growing, our unemployment is low, and consumer and investment confidence is high. If we have benefited both from measured pump-priming at the time of the crisis and sustained demand for our raw materials, particularly from China, we have also benefited from fairly calm and steady hands on the economic levers, not least as an unnaturally overvalued Australia dollar has caused differential pains and benefits around the nation.
This was a period which has seen wages increase, if modestly. There has been a property bust, of sorts, but it has been fairly well managed and without causing waves of evictions, distressed mortgage sales and families who are, strictly, trading while insolvent. The nation has also weathered several natural disasters and catastrophes without losing stride. Best of all, interest rates have been low, helping households afford housing, and prices increases have been modest.
Inflation has been low, whether in absolute, or relative terms. By absolute terms, I mean the price of a basket of goods and services, compared with the price of exactly the same basket at another time. Relativity involves the idea that needs change over time - so that, for example, the goods one needs to live in frugal comfort now include goods that, at another time, would have been counted exotic, luxury goods, ordiscretionary expenditure. Over the decades, accepted wisdom about how many cars, or televisions, or mobile telephones are necessary to a family have changed, though often, goods once thought essential have also dropped out of the list. Likewise, some prices increase, and at rates greater than inflation (electricity, for example). But the prices of many other goods (most imported electrical goods, for example) have fallen, sometimes dramatically.
The comfort of some families has also increased as the size of typical Australian houses has tended to increase - indeed more than double - even as the size of the typical family, or of the typical household, has continued to shrink. This has often meant that mortgage outgoings have not declined, even as interest rates, real or notional, have dropped.
There are many poor Australian families, particularly in single-adult households. Some find it very difficult to live on their income, even when net government benefits are considered. There are some regions, particularly in south-eastern Australia, which have endured some hard times as a result of local economic conditions or natural disaster.
But, for most Australians, and in most of Australia, it simply cannot be said that we are doing it tough. If we are, then in most cases that has been more a function of our having increased our spending habits in line with (or faster than) our income than because of the intolerable burden of extra essential costs, let alone government imposts or taxes.
Most Australians indeed are managing fairly well in the nation which has, over the past few decades, probably enjoyed the highest - or close to - overall standard of living of any nation on Earth, at any time.
[I have remarked before that this high standard of living suggests interesting things about the Australian national capital, which is generally agreed to have a standard of living about 20 or 30 per cent higher than is the average in any other region of Australia. There are, of course, mere suburbs - indeed ones in every state - better off than Canberra as a whole, but this is the only urban centre of such high averages. It may mean that the people of Canberra have the highest standard of living on Earth - something which puts in low relief the whingeing and the whining of some of the citizenry, and the low aspirations and talent of some of their representatives.]
Far from counting our blessings, sharing our good fortune, and even farther from applying some philosophy to what we could or should do with it, we dispute its size, deny our situation, and insist that our heads are only just above water. We also seem to insist that politicians empathise with our misery.
Labor is as bad at it as the Coalition - perhaps the more so since it fears that if it is accused of not ''understanding'' the problems of ''ordinary working families,'' this will be used as yet further proof of how much they are out of touch with reality. Indeed some Labor warriors strive hard to identify with battling families, insisting that faux-identification with the aspirational classes by Coalition representatives is a trick to transfer the real benefits to super-wealthy people somewhere else. That so many Labor political representatives are careerist suits, whose feel for the lives, wants and needs of suburban Australians is theoretical at best, adds a little guilt as a spur.
It is a consistent part of the modern Coalition attack on Labor that its representatives are no longer representative of the ''real'' Australian working classes, or even of the ''real'' middle classes, and that they themselves, and their individualist, as opposed to collectivist ethos, better reflects the way further material progress is to be achieved.
For both, it seems, if there must be some sense of common purpose, it is better expressed in large infrastructure - such as road, rail or perhaps broadband, or access to services, such as education, health and now disability care, that makes work and family life more accessible and secure, but which does not call on much in the way of family or public participation in life in the public square. The discourse remains stuck on meanness (resistance to paying for public services, especially by taxation), resentment (particularly at the imagined good fortunes of others, such as Aborigines and refugees, manifestly worse off than those doing the resenting), and selfishness (believing that one should not have to contribute unless there is some direct transactional quid pro quo.)
Add to this the persistence of popular beliefs - that the nation is overrun with inefficient and incompetent public servants (almost by definition not teachers, nurses, policemen and others grudgingly admitted to be useful), that crime is high and rising, that the jobs of ''real Australians'' are being taken by foreigners - and there is a formula for gloomy, pessimistic and fractious politics, and a continuing decline not only in faith in political leaders, but in the capacity of the processes of politics to be able to achieve any desirable form of change.
Politicians focused on appeasing an increasingly angry and moody ground are hardly capable of challenging them to lift their own standards and aspirations, or to focus on the sort of society we could have, instead of the sum of goods and services accessible to the individual citizen. Even less are they capable of articulating a vision of a society of active and outward-looking citizens, attracted to ideals of a different but better community. Nor can they, it seems, harness the energy and enthusiasm of thousands of people, young and old, looking hard for inspiration and even harder for organisation and leadership.
Some suggest that the depressing transactional, and increasingly bitter and polarised politics of the age, are inevitable. But it is remarkable that there have always been some politicians - a Barack Obama in the United States for example - who have been able to inspire and mobilise others, perhaps the more powerfully because those opposed to him have seemed so cynical.
Australia is very short of charismatic leaders right now - and, bluntly, neither Gillard nor Tony Abbott has ''it'', and, not having it, cannot confect it even with all of the advertising resources in the world. But the nation has never been short of people who have had the desire and ability to make a difference, and the very obvious gap might well inspire some more to want to make that difference in politics - potentially the most noble of professions. But they will never succeed if they simply pander to the good opinion Australians have of themselves, their false opinion that they are hardly done by, or the belief that there is absolutely nothing more they can be expected to contribute to the society and community that is at the base of their good fortune.
The beginning of that sort of political leadership is, probably, an admonition to voters about getting real. It's not, however, a message for transmission from the ivory tower, the Captains Club of Qantas, or Kirribilli House - but down in the public square, among the very people made to feel uncomfortable, but also yearning for something or someone who can shake the doldrums.