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Fortune risks running dry in the lucky country

Huge numbers of former middle class citizens across Australia are hurting but little is being done to address the issue.

While the majority of this group probably still identifies as middle-class, they’re also probably wondering what went wrong and when.

Back in 1981 when I received my first ever pay cheque, the take-home of $109.40 seemed like all the money in the world. Now many families on a combined income of more than $100,000 tell me they’re struggling to pay electricity bills for their large homes.

There are often two car payments, childcare, piano lessons, security fees, rates and charges, escalating insurance costs and of course the weekly grocery bill from our benevolent supermarket duopoly. It’s often a case of just getting on top of things for five minutes before you’re hit with the next bill – and that’s before the unexpected disaster, which is where the nation’s high-profile lack of savings really starts putting the pressure on.

Some people are in very high paying jobs, have a smart and lean small business model or have received a decent inheritance. For them it’s business as usual, but for the majority of the former middle class it’s all about surviving until next week.

Until now there’s been a pervasive feeling that Australia’s the Lucky Country and that times will come good again. But an increasing number of social commentators are feeling the wind blow from a different direction.

This week US Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen cast a pall over the rampant US capitalism of recent decades, claiming the trend of rising income inequality was “incompatible with American values”.

“I think it is appropriate to ask,” she said, “If this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

Tens of millions of former middle-class Americans are struggling while the nation’s elite controls a staggeringly high percentage of the country’s wealth.

Globally these days it’s just about as sinister, consider this: if global wealth was divided by world land mass, the bottom 50 per cent of the population would own Mongolia; the former middle-class would own Russia and Kazakhstan and the top 10 per cent would own everything else.

The price of one luxury yacht recently purchased by a third generation Australian billionaire could build the nation’s first industrial hemp (iHemp) processing plant and kick-start an industry that could generate billions of dollars for regional economies. Instead it will be guzzling up fuel and belching greenhouse gases as it occasionally takes the idle rich cruising around the Greek Islands.

I’d be the first to accept an invitation to party on Ios and Santorini, but there’s something radically wrong with the structure of our taxation system when there’s so much nation building we need to be doing yet so much extravagant wealth on display.

It hurts even more when data recently released suggests most of our top companies manage to avoid much of their tax obligation, while the former middle-class does the increasingly heavy lifting.

Most disappointingly, what we get for our PAYE taxes seems to be a PAYE taxpayer subsidised mining industry which boomed with financial largesse for a tiny fraction of our population and many foreign companies (the Minerals Council denies the figures touted by The Australia Institute claiming hidden subsidies to miners on a vast scale).

Our processes and structures of government are so riddled with incompetence, acquiescence to corporate interests and a lack of vision that pollies who try to have a go get ground into the dust.

Look no further than the current Ebola outbreak to confirm just how incompetent government systems and oversight really is, despite hugely expensive, unwieldy bureaucratic protocols and enormous wages paid to the people running these things.

If the very word ‘Ebola’ didn’t make people take a bit of extra care, I don’t know what would’ve.

I’m not the biggest fan of former state and federal independent MP Rob Oakeshott but a couple of recent opinion pieces he’s written offer some compelling insights from a bloke who was undeniably an insider during the last federal ‘hung’ parliament.

Like me, he sees the recent ICAC revelations as barely the tip of an iceberg of corruption and how big money does routine business in countries around the world. I hope the Royal Commission he’s calling for happens.

We need to have transparent decision making processes so our elected leaders can once again begin making decisions for the good of the people rather than the corporate interests that have highly-paid lobbying power, not to mention the potential to provide great jobs and consultancies long after the political career has ended.

Look at the current madness surrounding coal seam gas (CSG) extraction – this industry has destroyed natural ecosystems and way of life in vast tracts of the USA, yet because multinational companies can make vast profits selling our resources off-shore it’s happening in large parts of QLD and threatening some of the most productive agricultural areas in NSW.

This is one issue where we desperately need to adopt the “precautionary principle”; we don’t extract any CSG until we’re 100 per cent sure our vital aquifers won’t be contaminated. The transnational profits can wait – the gas will still be there if the process can ever be guaranteed.

Meanwhile, I think any company extracting CSG should include in its legal agreement to mine that the senior staff and board members personally sign ironclad contracts that any future contamination or problems with natural environments or peoples’ health will be fully recompensed by themselves, with suitable damages paid.

If the process is as safe as they say, how could they argue with that? It’s what they expect the people living near the wells to believe, after all.

Peter Andrews’ Bylong Valley farm has been bought to be ripped up for coal – a priceless natural laboratory showcasing more than 30 years of large scale real-life experimentation into the natural sequences which underpin our unique Australian landscape – all in the name of multinational profits.

The powers that be have let us become a dumping ground for crap imported food which runs a legal merry-go-round of ticking boxes on inane bureaucratic forms so it can enter the country “fairly”.

The same is true with petrol and diesel currently invading our shores; it’s cheap, second-rate and inconsistent, which is causing havoc with our national engines but no-one seems concerned enough to stop it happening.

Our inexperienced negotiators give away far too much in free trade agreements because our teams mostly consist of highly paid bureaucrats instead of hard-nosed experience businesspeople.

Our banks make billions and call on the federal government to invest in potential high growth agricultural industries but steadfastly refuse to put so much as one cent into such projects themselves.

We could lose even this crappy fuel supply if troubles worsen in the Middle East, but so far my calls to wealthy fuel companies have failed to conjure up even a tiny investment for our farmers to trial efficient broad-acre biofuel crops so we can at least have some plan for a strategic reserve in the worst case scenario – if we lost our national fuel supply people would be starving to death within a fortnight, yet there’s zero concern at a national level.

And here in regional Australia we have to scratch and scrimp and beg for the scraps and then dance like performing monkeys when we’re thrown a banana peel.

Despite this lecture on doom and gloom, things are generally pretty good in Australia – imagine if we can get our political apparatus to collect all those tax dollars from the non-paying profiteers, and then use them wisely – we really could be called The Lucky Country.

John Ryan

John Ryan is a former journalist and now executive officer of a local land and environment co-operative.