Turnbull, Rudd and Australian plutocracy

September 20, 2008

The Macquarie Dictionary defines plutocracy as "the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy". With the accession of Malcolm Turnbull, the richest person in parliament, to the leadership of the Liberal Party, this definition would seem to provide a pretty good description of Australian "democracy" also.

On his election to the Liberal leadership on September 16, Turnbull was careful to point out that he hadn't been born to a life of privilege. "I know what it's like to live in rented flats, I know what it is like to grow up with a single parent", wailed the multi-millionaire merchant banker-turned-politician.

Turnbull, who attended the elite Sydney Grammar school as a boarder, reputedly made his fortune by investing $1 million in the new internet company Ozemail in 1995 and then selling his stake for $60 million in 2001. He and his wife were estimated at being worth $133 million in 2005, according to the September 18 Sydney Morning Herald.

Wealthy as he is, Turnbull is not the only wealthy member of parliament. Parliamentary perks and pensions aside, many of Australia's "representatives" were independently wealthy before even entering parliament. And not just on the Coalition side of politics.

PM Kevin Rudd also grew up with a single parent after the early death of his father. While his personal wealth is rarely mentioned, he is married to a multi-millionaire. Therese Rein's personal wealth is estimated at around $60 million at least, earned mainly through "welfare-to-work" companies that she created.

Is it any wonder that with "representatives" like these, working people and their unions get a beating from both sides of parliament?

Not that the political outlook of our politicians is determined just by their wealth before entering parliament. Many former working people have been elected to "the house" only to turn their backs on their humbler beginnings and carry out the wishes of big business as earnestly as if they were one of the gang.

Of course many, on retiring from politics, join the gang soon after. Witness former Labor NSW premier Bob Carr, who took a job with leading investment house Macquarie Bank soon after leaving parliament.

It's also not as if the two-party system was any fairer for working people before we had a multi-millionaire as PM and opposition leader. Bob Hawke, for instance, while buoyed by his parliamentary salary, didn't enjoy such a large personal wealth while prime minister, yet his closeness to the business leaders (Packer, Bond and Ables, to name a few) while in office was legendary.

Hawke also oversaw the smashing of the Builders Labourers Federation and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots; a resume even John Howard would be jealous of.

Karl Marx, who with his collaborator Frederick Engels put socialism on a scientific footing in the 19th century, described bourgeois democracy — where the parliaments are popularly elected, but always seem just to do the bidding of the wealthy minority — as working people "deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent and suppress the people in parliament".

Although it's 137 years since Marx wrote those words, they still fit well today.

Marx championed a different kind of democracy and a different kind of state. He looked to the working people's state formed by the people of Paris during the uprising in the Paris Commune in 1871. All officials were elected and recallable by a majority of their electors; the old army and bureaucracy were smashed and replaced; all representatives received no more than the wage of a skilled worker. In this way, privilege was eliminated — working people themselves were the state, which acted in their interest, not that of capital.

As socialists of the 21st century, we continue to fight for the kind of state that Marx supported. Our modern inspiration is the communal councils and social missions of Venezuela — a democracy, as Marx put it, where "universal suffrage was to serve the people" and not the owners of huge wealth, whether in parliament or not.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.