Lucy Gichuhi on a visit to her home town, Nyeri in Kenya, in January

 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018    

NICK CATER                    

Kenyan-born Lucy Gichuhi could be the Liberal Party's perfect antidote to Labor's identity victimhood

Reading back copies of the Senate Hansard is seldom a moving experience, but Senator Lucy Gichuhi’s maiden speech last June is an exception.

Her journey from a cowherd on the slopes of Mount Kenya to becoming the first black African-born representative in the Australian Senate is a reminder that the fair go is still there for anyone prepared to take it. Race, gender or sexual preference do not determine your destiny in this country; you do.

“My father taught us to aim for the sun so we may land on the moon,” Gichuhi told the Senate. “I may not have owned a pair of shoes yet, but while dreaming of my future potential I discovered that poverty came in many differential forms…I realised that true poverty was when a person is unable to freely choose their own destiny. My role as a senator is to ensure in any way I can, great or small, that Australia does not slip into the latter form of poverty.”

The Labor Party badly needs a Gichuhi, not as it might imagine, as a trophy of inclusiveness but to teach it about the country it aspires to govern. Gichuhi could also tell them a thing or two about poverty. An absence of wealth is merely its most obvious symptom; its essence is an absence of the inner resource required to seize opportunities.

Poverty is not determined by postcode, as ALP presidential candidate Wayne Swan seems to believe. Swan, the Bruce Springsteen fan and now a Bernie Sanders tragic, has played a leading role in Labor’s embrace of the politics of envy. Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation was the title of a sluggish-selling book by Swan in 2005 in which he posited the fatalistic theory that one’s suburb was one’s destiny. It is an exercise in socio-spatial voodoo economics; if the spirits cast an evil spell on your suburb, you’re stuffed.

The answer to such diabolical inequality was, you’ve guessed it, the government. Taxes for the rich, welfare for the poor. The government should invest in skills formation and human capital, which roughly translates into programs that keep bureaucrats busy and the jobless unemployed.

Swan’s postcode theory has been augmented by a new concept: inclusive prosperity. It relies on the improbable assumption that the more government redistributes wealth the faster the economy grows. “Spreading the gain of wealth creation through inclusive prosperity and equity will give Australia a stronger economy,” Swan claimed two years ago. “Equity itself is a driving force for economic growth.” 

For the Coalition to win the next election, it must find a brighter narrative than this woeful, class-war refrain. If it can inspire ordinary Australians that the opportunities are there to be seized, and dispel the fatalism which Labor is happy to exploit, Bill Shorten will struggle.

The essence of that message was articulated last week by the daughter of Armenian migrants, Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW Premier. Gerard Henderson invited her to deliver the address at the Sydney Institute annual dinner, issuing strict instructions not to give a stump speech but say something about herself. For Berejiklian, a leader who prefers not use the perpendicular pronoun, that was hard. But she pressed ahead, delivering a devastating critique of postcode dogma along the way.

“People increasingly refuse to be bound by outdated concepts or preconceptions about how they fit into society, or where they sit in the pecking order of the economy, she said. “Socio-economic mobility is the new normal. When tradies can earn more than lawyers, millennials change career every few years, and with women taking on more than 60 per cent of all new jobs in NSW, we are seeing a realignment of the challenges and opportunities available to every person in every community across our state.” 

Labor had become “the manipulative entrencher of political division.” The Liberals, on the other hand, stand for something nobler, the dignity of standing on one’s own feet. “Every day I meet people from the widest possible range of backgrounds, occupations and postcodes, their views shaped by the most diverse experiences, but all driven by the same aspiration to build a better life for themselves and their community,” she said.

“I reject the political dogma that tries to define people by their occupation, postcode or background – a false class warfare that in 2018 is well and truly passé… We believe that aspiration and the work ethic cannot and should not be defined by class, but by attitude.”

In delivering this uncompromising update of Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Forgotten People, Berejiklian had an advantage over most of her Liberal colleagues; she did not have to check her privilege. At the same time she demonstrated the fatuousness of identity politics. Berejiklian and Gichuhi’s life stories are proof that gender and ethnic background matter far less in modern Australia than the diversity industry encourages us to believe. It is politically correct Labor, not the Liberals, that is fighting yesterday’s battles.

Gichuhi entered the Senate as an independent member. Over the summer she decided to join the Liberal Party, joining a growing group in the party room who are Liberals by conviction, not by tribe. 

 

“I remember the first time we found welfare money in our bank account shortly after our arrival in Australia,” she told the Senate. “We were terrified because we were not used to receiving money for nothing from strangers. All I knew was that the only time you get money is when you work for it. I said to my husband, 'We will have to return it.' I could choose to be a victim and receive a handout for a long time, or I could choose the more challenging but empowering road and find a job and learn how to balance work and family life.”

The Coalition seems reluctant to campaign on its welfare reforms at the next election, anxious that it might fall foul of Labor’s attacks on “fairness”. Gichuhi’s message should encourage the party’s leadership to think again.

The message is compelling: Labor thinks the fair thing is to leave people on welfare; Liberals know it is kinder to take them off it.

BELOW: Sky News contributor Gemma Tognini recalls her family's migrant experiences in the 1950s and 60s, from the MRC's Beyond a Joke event in Sydney on May 1. To see the full video, click here.

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2019 by Menzies Research Centre