Few of us can say we’ve ever had a week quite like Duncan Storrar’s. The sometime truck driver from Geelong has become, thanks to a brief appearance on Q&A, first a sudden folk hero, then the recipient of tens of thousands of dollars, and finally the victim of a smear campaign by News Limited papers. (It’s little wonder that, according to the organisers of the crowdfunding campaign, Storrar plans to escape Geelong until the media attention blows over.)
It’s a remarkable chain of events to emerge from a single, and simple, question: why are the relatively well-off the beneficiaries of tax reform when the working poor are not? Yet for all that Storrar’s question was praised for its directness and concision – for a while it seemed as though writers for Junkee, The Vocal, and Pedestrian were in a competition to see who could cover Storrar’s sudden fame more breathlessly – in the aftermath we’ve seen very little discussion of the taxation reform that Storrar so urgently wanted to discuss. Instead, we’ve had toaster memes, a feel-good crowdfunding campaign, and now, in the wake of revelations about Storrar’s past, which are being promulgated by certain media outlets, earnest, handwringing discussions about whether Storrar deserves to be labelled a hero or a villain.
This response tells us a lot of things about both the political and media landscape of Australia circa 2016. Most obviously, it shows that there’s a lot of goodwill for people like Storrar, as the astronomical success of the crowdfunding campaign amply demonstrates. It has also given us the ugly sight of an organisation that paid no tax whatsoever on its $67 million in net profit in the 2013–14 tax year forensically examining the tax affairs of a man who never proclaimed himself to be a paragon of virtue. But perhaps most disturbingly, it shows us just how deeply progressive activism in Australia has drunk from the well of political individualism.
At the risk of stating the obvious: Storrar’s question, no matter how frequently it was studded with the first-person pronoun, was not one about his specific situation. It was a question about tax policy and the redrawing of income thresholds. When Storrar drew upon the details of his own life, it wasn’t to beg for more money for himself, but to illustrate the difficulties that everyone in his position – in insecure employment, with a disability, on minimum wage or through unfair subcontracting arrangements – shares. At no point did Storrar ask for more money for himself. The implied demand in his question is for a more equitable tax system, one that would see a few more dollars not only in his pocket but in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of others, too. (Storrar’s follow-up interview with Wendy Harmer makes this even clearer.)
Thus to respond to Storrar’s question by showering him with money – so much money, in fact, that it may potentially impact his benefit payments and require the assistance of a financial manager – seems to misunderstand the nature of the problem, no matter how well-intentioned the many donors may be. No sane doctor would treat a patient with thousands of small lacerations by applying the finest, most luxurious band-aid known to mankind to just one of the cuts.
It’s clear that the organisers of and donors to Storrar’s GoFundMe page had only the desire to help out someone who had evidently experienced more than his fair share of difficult times. Yet to focus their efforts on this one individual – when, as Storrar himself made plain, there are very many others in situations as dire as his – demonstrates just how thoroughly the progressive left in Australia has abandoned structural analysis and class struggle for a politics of individualism. Pitching in to buy Storrar a $6000 toaster requires little sacrifice: five minutes of time and a spare $10. It’s an easy dopamine hit of righteousness and virtue signalling, and it comes with the bonus joy of hoisting a middle finger to the obliviousness of Kelly O’Dwyer for thinking a yarn about a $6000 industrial toaster would somehow be ‘relatable’. It won’t, however, make any material difference to the lives of the other Australians in Storrar’s situation – a much less tractable problem that would require collective action, redistribution of material resources to those in need, and radically overhauled governmental policies at the very least.
The focus on Storrar as an individual has also, perversely, lead to the character assassination now being performed on him by The Australian and The Herald-Sun. All acts of charity implicitly draw a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor: why give money to this person or this cause when there are others who also suffer? By showering Storrar with cash, donors implicitly labeled him as one of the virtuous poor who ‘deserves’ material assistance; it therefore should not surprise us that the more reactionary organs of News Corp would seek to discredit Storrar as a member of the ‘undeserving poor’ in order to discredit the left more broadly.
The very act of charity itself has a conservative pedigree – the very wealthy love charity and philanthropy because it empowers them to spend their money on the causes they personally deem important, rather than leaving the task of income redistribution to a democratically elected body of representatives. Charitable activities also serve to ‘wash clean’ the money produced through unjust social relations: who would be so churlish as to ask where the Warren Buffetts of the world acquired their wealth when they’re giving away so much of it?
The social codes around charity also serve to inoculate donors against criticism: while flaunting your charitable activities is considered somewhat gauche – a form of Phariseeism, for the biblically inclined – it is no great sin, while remaining quiet about one’s acts of charity is considered the height of good taste and discretion. This presents a pleasant double-bind for the wealthy: whether or not they give to charitable causes, their choices are quarantined from public criticism.
The many thousands of Storrars in Australia don’t need charity, as much as I’m sure that Storrar himself will appreciate the cash injection into his own precarious finances. They need something altogether more difficult to give: a taxation and income distribution system that protects the most vulnerable; a robust minimum wage that allows them to live a decent life in exchange for their labour; labour laws with teeth that prevent their exploitation by unscrupulous employers; a mental health system that actively seeks to prevent mental illness, especially in vulnerable groups; a strong and compassionate social safety net; more investment in vocational training; an evidence-based drugs policy that prevents addiction and doesn’t criminalise users; and, yes, a criminal justice system that seeks to rehabilitate rather than condemn those who fall foul of the law. Creating the conditions that would ensure nobody ends up in Storrar’s situation is a much more difficult task than giving small amounts of money to a crowdfunding page, but it’s precisely the sort of change that Storrar asked for.