The budget has shown us we still have plenty of concern for others

Max Jeganathan writes for The Canberra Times about this year's Federal Budget.

In our age of individualism, somehow our concern for each other won’t go away. Nietzsche condemned empathy as “a weapon in the hands of the weak” and condemned Christianity for introducing it into Western ethics. However, a glance beneath the surface of our opinion polls suggests that though we care little for our political leaders (The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader currently sport matching negative approval ratings), we continue to care about each other. Government activity that tends to attract bi-partisan support and broad public support is often targeted to those in greatest need.

Beneath the post-budget headlines that focus on inflation, the $300 energy discount and the Opposition Leader’s counter-proposal to cut immigration, sit a suite of far less prominent (and let’s be honest, less interesting) budget measures that have barely registered a mention: Extra help for veterans and their families, an increase in Rent Assistance, caps on medicine prices and increases in aged care and childcare wages. Such announcements don’t attract our attention because they are less controversial.

But there’s another reason. They’re rarely opposed. The opposition might quibble a bit, but it’s likely that these will quietly sail through parliament unopposed.

Post-budget opinion polls indicate that public political sentiment is rife with lukewarm indifference and mild skepticism. However, the government’s social policy credentials remain relatively strong. Measures to help low-income households, pensioners, veterans and their families, are widely supported even though around 3 in 4 Australians believe the budget – as a whole – will leave them no better off.

Similarly, when the government announced its revised tax cut plan, polls showed that even though only 1 in 3 expect to benefit personally, almost two-thirds of Australians support the package. Again, the changes redirect support to lower-income households. Even the ‘teal independents’ – representing the relatively wealthy folks of northern Sydney, leafy Melbourne and Perth’s waterfronts – support the revised package.

This subterranean streak of concern for others is enduring and refreshingly non-partisan.

The budgets of both the 2012 Gillard Government and the 2014 Abbott Government reduced support for many low-income households. Collective public sentiment was grumpy and both governments suffered pronounced political bleeding. Some have even criticised this budget’s un-means-tested $300 energy rebate, making the case that it should have been higher and given only to poorer households.

In the 1990s, a small research team in Italy noticed that monkeys who saw a person grab a peanut experienced the same brain activity as when they grabbed one themselves. The study heralded the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ – cell systems in our brains that fire when we see or think of someone experiencing something. It launched our modern understanding of empathy, which means to ‘feel with’ or ‘suffer with.’ To use the Bible’s vivid phrase for it, it’s about ‘carrying each other’s burdens’.

In his book The Master and His Emissary, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist contends that modern society exists not because of our inventions, industry or markets, but because of ‘inter-subjectivity’ – that is, our capacity to empathise. It’s not just left-brain utility-hunting that got us here, but right-brain empathy.

When we read of a single mother struggling to put food on the table or journey with someone fighting a terminal illness, we don’t just watch. We feel. We don’t just sympathise; we empathise.

We ‘feel with’ them.

Some of their pain becomes ours. On some level, we carry their burden. Empathy doesn’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good start.

Don’t get me wrong. Our public square isn’t particularly kind. And there’s plenty of vitriol, conceit and individualism to go round. But thankfully, there are deeper anthropological currents that float our boats. Our moral artillery is ancient, practised and perhaps more resilient than we think. The polls are onto something good, but it’s in the fine-print. There will always be burdens, but it appears we are still, on some level, willing to carry them for each other.

Max Jeganathan is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. He was a policy adviser in the Rudd-Gillard governments and is undertaking a PhD on the ethical foundations of political liberalism.