Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rich and not-so-rich wade in on the poor

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BRISBANE -- A fabulously wealthy Australian officially became a "National Treasure" last weekend, then entered a debate with the federal treasurer on whether we treasure too highly the opinions of those with great treasure.

Clive Palmer is a large, often amiable man who happens to be worth between $3 billion and $6 billion, a portion of which he hands out to charity annually.

Last weekend he officially joined the list of "Australian National Living Treasures" -- a club of worthy people including Nicole Kidman and Olivia Newton John -- whose contribution to the nation has been formally identified by the National Trust of Australia.

Palmer is without question a worthy Australian but he does, regrettably, bear a passing resemblance to one of those cartoon caricatures of the wealthy so popular in the Dickensian era.

Imagine him with top hat, a cigar and one boot firmly clamped on the head of a bedraggled worker and this generously proportioned mining mogul would easily pass for a 19th-century industrialist.

And that image has played a powerful if largely unconscious role in a debate that spluttered and hissed across the nation's multi-platformed media this week.

Treasurer Wayne Swan, in an essay in the highbrow publication the Monthly, prompted the energetic discussion by questioning whether the global gap between rich and poor had become a threat to Australia's "egalitarian spirit."

"Today, when a would-be U.S. president, Mitt Romney, is wealthier than 99.9975 per cent of his fellow Americans, and wealthier than the last eight presidents combined, there's a global conversation raging about the rich, the poor, and the gap between them," Swan wrote.

Swan noted his ruling Australian Labour Party was built by people with direct experience of the social tumult of the European Industrial Revolution. One of them, Andrew Fisher, literally worked in the coal pits as a child.

"It was an era in which technological advances were increasing average wealth dramatically but giving the benefits overwhelmingly to a fortunate few."

Australia, Swan argued, was a society in which wealth was more evenly spread and the nation's architects achieved their aims "by vesting the role of ameliorating poverty not on the aristocracy but in the democratic state."

A guaranteed basic wage, public health care, access to education and mass home ownership are all concrete evidence of their success.

But Swan noted Australian public policy is now being heavily influenced by people such as the above-mentioned Clive Palmer, whose opposition to a recently announced mining tax was vigorously aired throughout the nation.

Capitulating to vested interests and allowing wealth to amass disproportionately to them could easily erode the benefits of the past century, creating a "hollowed-out capitalism," he said.

The treasurer belongs to a party that has done more than any other to remove artificial protections, deregulate financial institutions and open up Australia to the import of global capital.

But he was still hit with heavy fire from a wide array of sources, some of whom unkindly suggested he might be more comfortable with the Occupy movement, camping out against capitalism in cities from New York to London.

It was Palmer who opened up the big guns, labelling Swan an "intellectual pygmy."

"It would be far better for the treasurer to face the truth that he personally doesn't know how the economy works, that he is just a puppet of the faceless men who give directions on what to do and say," Palmer wrote.

"I would say that, with his limited ideas, he could not make an impression on a cushion."

The poor, it has been said, will always be with us and thankfully so will the rich, who often act as massive economic engines for growth.

And in countries such as Australia and Canada, where people such as Edward Rogers III, deputy chairman of Rogers Communication, no doubt exert influence far beyond that of ordinary workaday Canadians, they are more than welcome.

But Swan has a point. Social democracies have made extraordinary efforts in the past century to civilize the uglier spirits of self interest essential to the success of a robust capitalism.

The rising gap between rich and poor opening up across the developed west may serve as a warning sign they're making a return.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2012 A13

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