2014 columns, Politics

Why #whitehousegate matters

by David Donaldson , May 26, 2014Leave a comment

Frances Abbott

 Pictured: Frances and Bridget Abbott launch their father’s successful 2013 campaign. 

Facebook and Twitter have, in recent days, been filled with outrage about Frances Abbott’s $60,000 scholarship to the Whitehouse Institute of Design. It’s not a great look: the Chairman of the Whitehouse board is an Abbott donor, other students were not aware of the scholarship, only one other person has ever received it previously, and it was not advertised. The head of Whitehouse is reported to have said to an anonymous staffer ‘something like “Do you know what this could mean to Whitehouse if [Abbott] gets in?”’ at the prospect of a Liberal win in 2013.

She has since been given a job with the Institute, and is the only employee not to have a job description. There’s also been speculation about Louise Abbott’s appointment to the Geneva office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade by former Liberal staffer Peter Woolcott (himself the son of former DFAT Secretary Richard Woolcott).

The Abbotts and the institutions involved maintain that the scholarship and appointment were entirely merit-based. Amusingly, for a man who spent much of the 2013 electoral campaign flanked by daughters and wife, Abbott has now stated that ‘families should be left out of it’.

But why does it matter? At face value, there’s not too much in it. The Whitehouse issue appears to be a case of lobbying. The Institute stood to gain from government accreditation for the courses they offer, and may benefit in future from government initiatives to cut red tape or reform higher education fundingThe courses have since received accreditation, and Frances was involved in this process, though the body in question – the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency – is independent and denies any political influence in their deliberations. Perhaps Abbott should have disclosed the scholarship as a pecuniary interest. But, as I wrote two weeks ago, at any one time a large number of companies are doing the same sort of thing. There is, furthermore, not much to suggest anything untoward in the case of Louise Abbott and DFAT – Woolcott is hardly the only civil servant with previous involvement in politics. So far there has been no smoking gun to show that anyone has done anything clearly wrong.

Rather, for many, it’s about what these stories represent. It’s not really about the women themselves. They probably are perfectly capable at doing what they do, and are trying to get ahead in the competitive world of jobs like anyone else.

Really, it’s about privilege. Discussion of the highly personalised politics of privilege rarely makes it off the university campus, but these revelations have really caught on thanks to a combination of their timing and the public’s low trust in the government. A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people – moves which just happen to weigh more heavily on young, poor and middle-income Australians – comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege.

The Coalition is ostensibly trying to create an Australia powered by ambition and hard work, in which too-strong social safety nets weaken our ability to create prosperity, and at any rate would be less important if we all increased our productivity. One of the problems with this idea, however, is that it assumes we all begin on equal footing, which is, of course, not the case.

Thus recent events, including the largely negative reception of the budget, revelations of people paying to meet with the Treasurer, and now this, have conspired to paint the Coalition not as the party of growth and prosperity, but as the party of the rich, the vehicle of vested interests, the supporter of the already-privileged. And it seems Australians are not buying the Coalition’s arguments. Post-budget polls show the Coalition trailing Labor by ten or even twelve points – incredible when you consider the gloom surrounding the ALP last year.

It’s doubtful these stories would have made much of a splash if Abbott were popular. But as it is, although there is nothing more than a general sense of unfairness with which to charge the government, Abbott’s depleted political capital has meant that #whitehousegate has only added to the perception, held by many, of a ‘born to rule’ mentality among the Liberals.

David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets @davidadonaldson.

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