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I Do Not Think 'Aspiration' Means What ScoMo Thinks It Means

In the epic film 'The Princess Bride', the villain Vizzini exclaims “Inconceivable!” whenever his dogged pursuer (the Dread Pirate Roberts) evades another deadly trap.

Eventually Vizzini’s sidekick, Inigo Montoya, confronts him: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I feel the same way these days about the term “aspiration”. It’s suddenly become a major buzz word in Australian politics. I hear it over and over. But I do not think it means what the pollies think it means.

The Prime Minister thinks aspiration is good, and we should all have more of it. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg paid tribute to “aspiration and enterprise” in his budget address. Mr Morrison praised aspiration again in his election night victory speech.

And now several Labor politicians have also discovered its virtues. Deputy Leader Richard Marles argued recently that Labor will have to “embrace aspiration” , and emphasise “hope” not “handouts”, if it wants to win a future election. Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers also wants to reclaim aspiration, as does Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. And whether it’s promoted by the Coalition or by Labor, business-friendly columnists are just loving all this newfound respect for entrepreneurship, drive and ambition.

But what does aspiration even mean?

The Cambridge English Dictionary provides two definitions: 1. “something that you hope to achieve.” 2. “the noise that is made when air escapes”.

Well, there’s certainly a fair amount of the latter in the chambers of Parliament (most of it hot). But let’s stick to the first definition: something to aim for in life.

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The real meaning of 'aspiration'? (Image: Getty)

Ask a group of typical Australians what they hope for, and you’ll quickly get a long list: a decent life, economic security, a loving family, a friendly and safe community, a good environment, good health. Perhaps winning the lotto. Are those the dreams the pollies are endorsing? Not exactly.

Particular groups of Australians have more specific aspirations. Newstart recipients aspire to be able to pay their rent and buy groceries next month -- from payments that haven’t increased in real terms in more than two decades. Women aspire to be treated equally: including being paid the same as men (instead of 14 percent less). Young people aspire to grow up in a planet that isn’t unlivable and war-torn because of climate change.

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So there’s no shortage of aspiration around. And I don’t think it ever went away -- certainly not from any of the political parties’ platforms. After all, elections are precisely about parties advancing competing ideas for how to make things better. That’s aspiration with a capital ‘A’.

Raise Newstart? Inconceivable! (Image: 20th Century Fox/AAP)

Meanwhile, for a government that supposedly worships aspiration, this one actually spends a lot of time telling many Australians to abandon theirs. Newstart recipients, in particular, should stop complaining and get a job. Increasing their benefits, the Social Services Minister said, would only advance the aspirations of drug dealers and pub owners. (Although she did later say those quotes were "misleading").  Students should stop needlessly fretting about the climate and get back to school. Public servants should stop aspiring for a bigger raise, and be happy with two percent.

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By the way, the Prime Minister recently ordered those same civil servants in their own work to prioritise the concerns of “quiet Australians” -- as opposed to “organised and well resourced” special interests that make noise around the Canberra bubble. In other words, it’s okay to aspire… but please do it quietly.

You know the drill. (Image: Comedy Central)

It’s clear that in its current incarnation, “aspiration” has taken on a meaning far removed from the dictionary definition. In short, this word does not mean what you think it means. It’s become code language for “celebrating and helping high-income people.” When the Coalition pays tribute to its aspirational supporters, or Labor frets about losing the aspiration sweepstakes, the idea is not to make everyone better off: including Newstart recipients, low-wage workers, depressed regions.

Aspiration now means to get ahead of other people, to not have to apologise for it -- and then to be rewarded again with tax breaks that skew the distribution of income even further upward.

Here’s one potent example: Labor’s proposed crackdown on huge tax loopholes for financial investors and owners of negatively-geared investment properties was apparently “anti-aspirational”. That’s code for “it would have been bad for a small but influential group of mostly high-income households who raised a big ruckus.”

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Given that revenues from closing those loopholes were to be allocated to strengthening health care, investing in transit, and -- maybe -- raising Newstart benefits, it was actually a highly aspirational plan. And there’s no convincing evidence that it cost Labor the election: paradoxically, electorates with more people getting franking credits and negative gearing subsidies were less likely to vote for the Coalition. The policy’s failure, if it had one, was not a lack of ambition. It was, perhaps, inadequately prosecuting (in the face of well-funded and vociferous opposition) the argument that it was a sensible and fair thing to do.

Note to pollies.

In Australian politics today, aspiration is no longer about having great ambitions, and trying to achieve them. We’ve all got aspirations. We all want something better. There’s nothing novel about that.

Instead, the current infatuation with aspiration is aimed at legitimating and reinforcing the privilege of an already lucky minority.

The virtue of aspiration can certainly be reclaimed by those who aspire to build a fairer and more sustainable world. But first we’ve got to remind Australians what the word really means.