Should Hockey's wealth be an issue?

Bill Shorten has wasted no time in portraying Joe Hockey as a cigar-puffing member of the economic elite, but Labor's array of career politicians hardly represent the struggles of ordinary Australians.

There is a certain clumsiness to Labor's 'cigar-chomping' characterisation of Treasurer Joe Hockey following the widely published photograph of him doing just that with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

The term is calculated to lump Hockey with privileged economic elites -- the '1 per cent' referred to by protesters in the Occupy movement -- who are out of touch with struggling Australians.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten recently said Hockey's "personal comfort in life has robbed him of charity, and I might say judgement".

It's a familiar style of attack, but is there anything in it? Is Labor any better?

Firstly, it's important to note that there are some dangerous imbalances in the Australian economy. There is indeed a growing number of Australians being left behind: the working poor, families in mortgage stress, unemployed youth, disabled Australians excluded from the workforce, and impoverished older Australians feeling the pinch of 'longevity risk', to name a few (An ideological war will ravage Australia, July 17).

The charge against "arrogant" Hockey is that he is out of touch with these people.

Hockey’s foolish remarks yesterday concerning fuel excise hikes made that point all on their own. He is technically right that less fuel is used by poorer Australians, but given our world-beating reliance on motor vehicles -- and the Coalition’s refusal to fund urban public transport -- his words were a kick in the guts for the outer-suburban 'battlers' who shifted their support to the Coalition during the Howard years.

During the Gillard years, the same battlers were whipped into a state of fear by partisan media coverage of Labor’s carbon-tax impost -- in fact, most of them were better off under that legislation due to benefit increases and income tax cuts. However, Labor’s monumental inability to get this message across saw them constantly accused of being 'out of touch' themselves.

In Hockey’s case it is the ad hominem attack that needs to be examined, and for one very specific reason. From a true 'battler’s' perspective, Australian politics is a clash between two teams of people, not one, whose 'personal comfort' gets in the way of sound policy.

The ad hominem attacks over wealth have been used for decades. In 1990 Prime Minster Hawke, himself known to be partial to a chomp on a cigar, joined a long-running attack on Alexander Downer's establishment background.

"Let us look at the shadow minister for trade, the honourable member for Mayo," Hawke said. "He is well known for his grasp of trade issues and his ability to place foot in mouth without displacing the silver spoon."

During the Hewson-era GST debate, Labor's Les Scott repeated the accusation against Gippsland Nationals MP Peter McGauran. "We know clearly what the honourable member for Gippsland is about. He is all about the goods and services tax. It is all right for him because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He does not have to worry about the people who really need the help.

"Honourable members opposite do not really care and they never have cared. That is typical of the National Party, and the Liberal Party runs along with it as well. They are trying to attack the people who can least afford it."

In 2001, again during a GST debate, Liberal MP Kay Elson turned the tables, telling Labor in parliament that one of its 'matters of public importance' concerning the "savage impact" of the GST was "ridiculous ... [all it] does is prove how much out of touch the Labor Party remains with real Australians and how little they have to offer".

She added: "How savage was the impact on Australian families when Labor, with the leader of the opposition as Minister for Finance, delivered home loan interest rates of over 17 per cent?

"I know from personal experience what a struggle it was. I had to take out a second mortgage under Labor and I had to raise eight children ... I have four adult children who have families and who tell me how much easier it is under this government than I had it under their government ...They are not silver-spoon children. They are good tradespeople, and hardworking."

Labor's critique cuts both ways. To play devil's advocate, if one accepts that Hockey's limited experience on Struggle Street  is a problem, then the Kay Elsons of parliament need to be valorised for having lived the life most people face each day.

It is true, as Callam Pickering pointed out recently (The conflict of interest killing housing reform, August 6), that Liberal MPs have more assets to declare than Labor MPs -- at least in the property sector. But does it necessarily follow that wealth makes these MPs more out of touch with struggling Australians?

Clive Palmer, the richest man in parliament, has demonstrated a wily but not inauthentic appreciation of what poorer Australians want or need. When he recently fumed that he was not elected to deprive pensioners of their weekly slice of chocolate cake, he surely struck a chord with many poor, older Australians -- despite his private jet, numerous sports cars and opulent homes.

However, what really dents the logic of Labor attacking Hockey for his "personal comfort" is the fact that it is not only money that buys such comfort.

It is 'comfortable', for example, to spend a minimum of four years at a top university studying law, knowing that Labor branch connections will shoehorn you into a job as an organiser with a union.

It's comfortable to rise through the union ranks, stepping in and out of taxis and hotels and often meeting colleagues in restaurants to discuss 'the workers'.

And it is comfortable to step from the position of union leader into a safe Labor seat, eventually lead the parliamentary party, and perhaps one day occupy the Lodge. (Hardly the kind of 'occupy' meant by the 99 per cent during their protests.)

Do we know anyone who has experienced such comfort, Mr Shorten?

Former Hawke-era environment minister Barry Cohen told me in 2010 that when he won his seat of Robertston in 1969, his side of parliament was full of teachers, engineers, doctors and, like himself, even small and medium-sized business proprietors.

The proportion of those kinds of candidates has withered in recent decades, and are increasingly being replaced with career politicians of the kind described above.

The problem Cohen was identifying is that people with similar life experiences to their constituents know very directly what it's like to be 'uncomfortable'.

Shorten is likely to attack Hockey's "personal comfort" as long as the current "unfair budget" crisis ensues. In truth, however, he should redouble his efforts to make his own side of the chamber less comfortable and more representative.