BRISBANE -- Killing Australia's poor is one way of getting the federal budget back into surplus, and the idea does have monetary merit.
In a satirical article published by a Conservative think-tank, Australian business lobbyist Toby Ralph advocated slaughtering about 20 per cent of Australians -- "a modest cull of the enormously poor" -- to get the nation back into surplus.
The suggestion follows alarming news the federal budget has taken a $7.5-billion hit since the last update in October.
With cold calculation, Ralph figured that with 20 per cent of Australians "decommissioned" we'd free up around $25 billion in recurrent funding in a plan with added fringe benefits.
"This bold initiative would rid us of indolent students, hapless single mums, lower-order drug dealers, social workers, performance artists, Greenpeace supporters and the remaining processing personnel in our collapsing yet heavily subsidized manufacturing industries," he wrote.
Ralph also noted that, contrasted with the fabulously rich, the enormously poor make little contribution to society. "They consume more than they contribute, putting tremendous strain on the national budget."
There was some outrage, but it was muted. The ruling Labour Party's Treasurer Wayne Swan described it as a '"disgraceful rant" but even he accepted that Ralph was a satirist.
Ralph's piece was a straight lift of Jonathan Swift's classic A Modest Proposal. Swift satirized cold-blooded 18th-century English economic rationalists by suggesting the poverty-stricken Irish should show some initiative and sell their babies as snacks for wealthy ladies and gentleman.
Ralph's piece didn't quite reflect the true spirit of satire, which is to amplify and exaggerate a line of thought to highlight its absurdity. It did, however, highlight just what a delicate financial position Australia is finding itself in.
In a fortnight, Swan will being bringing down a budget several billions of dollars in deficit after abandoning a pledge to bring in a $1.1-billion surplus.
The 2013 deficit will be spare change compared to the woes of the United States and many European countries.
But it does point to a sober realization sweeping Australia that a decade of good times is coming to an end.
Mining investment in Australia rose from 1.1 per cent of GDP in 2004 to 6.6 per cent of GDP by late last year.
Yet China, which consumes massive amounts of Aussie coal, is believed to be deliberately slowing growth, partly to stem inflation in a move that will reduce demand for our resources.
At the same time, Asia's economic giant is experiencing explosive growth in alternative energies, already claiming the title of the world biggest consumer of wind-powered energy.
Australians in recent decades have enjoyed a tremendous growth in living standards. Many working families now see a European holiday and two-car garage as essentials, not luxuries.
We might still be the envy of the world with a strong currency, solid banks and a largely corruption-free environment in which to invest. But few now expect the second decade of the 21st century to resemble the first when it comes to wealth accumulation.
As for Australia's poor, many of whom struggle on a minimum wage of about $16 an hour, they will find their circumstances even more strained.
But they need not fear being herded into charnel houses.
Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.