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  • Writer's pictureDamon Young

The political rhetoric of "mum and dad"

I've a piece in today's Canberra Times: 'When politicians speak of 'mum and dad', they don't mean normal mums and dads'.

Obviously, this phrase has an important purpose: to remind citizens that investment and commerce are not purely corporate. It introduces a suburban, familial atmosphere into an otherwise mercantile landscape. You too, says the unspoken pitch, could become one of these petty bourgeois capitalists, enjoying modest rewards from modest investments.

But this purpose is usually cankered, because it obscures inequality, suffering and other social ills. The "mum and dad" phrase suggests benign domesticity and humble ambitions; it shifts focus to visions of well-meaning striving, where toil translates into deserved rewards. Reality is more fraught.

Rental income, for example, is usually a tool of the wealthy. Spruikers of its egalitarian effects tells us that three-quarters of landlords have incomes under $80,000.

Even if this were true, it would still be misleading. The median gross income for a single Australian is roughly $56,000, putting the average punter only a little closer to the magical $80,000 figure than they are to the full aged pension. More importantly, that $80,000 is after tax deductions, including those for negative gearing rental properties – their incomes are actually much higher.

Income itself is only part of the picture. Some landlords with low incomes are able to survive on their seemingly meagre cashflows because they have significant wealth. On paper they seem to be dinky-di battlers but actually they may have, as the ABC's Michael Janda put it, "several investment properties, and possibly have a substantial share portfolio or bank balance as well". They have the option to sell their assets at any time – an option the poor do not have.

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