There are so many professional fields – from politics and business to journalism – that require a knack for having the public pulse. At times, this can feel like a nebulous concept. The sum of chitchat at the school gate, confidences shared beside the bowling green or over Sunday yum cha.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke loved nothing more than walking through a shopping centre to bask in the parting crowds. John Howard was an enthusiastic regular on the John Laws talkback radio show, enabling him to remain grounded in what ordinary people felt. Since then, social media has replaced traditional media and even human contact for many of us. With that in mind, I recently took a trip through TikTok.
For the uninitiated, TikTok is an online platform filled with short video clips. In a complex world, it gets across simple messages, easily digestible on your phone. The fact that videos automatically play on repeat tends to create a hypnotic effect.
Right now, some of the most popular posts involve people decrying price gouging by the big retailers and the high cost of living. I was quickly drawn to a video from a user named “Sophie Danger” that has received 30,000 likes, 1,200 comments and been forwarded 1,300 times.
Captioned “We see through your games Coles”, it features a woman hovering by a shelf inside the store. The supermarket giant claims that a bulk pack of Mount Franklin lightly sparkled flavoured water has been discounted by 50 per cent. Sophie doesn’t buy it. “Here we go again, Coles, trying to dupe us all. Half price?” Then she peels back the flashy sales sticker, revealing that the original price – and thus the discount – is much less than the store claims. “No, it wasn’t. You absolute a—holes”.
Conversations around the community paint a similar picture of discontent. Café owners in Telopea tell me takings are down 60 per cent and people are switching in droves to the cheaper menu items. As I talk over the counter, an Asian-Australian lady overhears us discussing the high cost of living.
“It’s killing me,” she says through her face mask.
This year, I’ve written about how the decline in GP bulk-billing around Parramatta means many locals have to fork out $50 or $100 for a consultation out of their own pocket. The system, shuttling people between doctors and specialists, is inefficient and forces too many to pay beyond what they can afford.
Then there are the Uber drivers, modern-day equivalents of the traditional town crier. Typically accepting more than 100 passengers in a week, that’s 100 people they manage to impregnate with their views of the world. Recently, a driver expounded to me at length about the spiralling rents in his area of southern Sydney. Incredulous, he also pointed to a recent report that last financial year, some of Australia’s largest companies paid no corporate tax.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Singapore Telecom, which owns Optus, recorded $8 billion in total revenue but no taxable income. For its trouble, Optus is now looking for a new permanent CEO. Other companies such as Qantas and Virgin Australia had their profits battered by pandemic restrictions, affecting their tax liabilities.
Nonetheless, when ordinary people are doing it tough, you can readily understand the resentment at airlines that charge exorbitant fares or make it a living nightmare to redeem frequent flyer benefits. All while its former CEO Alan Joyce walks away with a reported $21.4 million for his final full year in charge.
It becomes obvious that this year’s referendum was always going to be a tough sell. And that hitching the Yes campaign to large corporate interests wasn’t smart (never mind the big money like Clive Palmer that helped fund the other side).
Politicians have to anticipate the zeitgeist – or at least move with it. After a bumpy year, the Federal Government has belatedly moved to support a Senate inquiry into the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths.
Global economic and supply chain factors simply cannot be used to price gouge consumers.
But more action will be needed in 2024 than simply show trials of corporate executives. Right now, so many families around Parramatta have transitioned to shop at Aldi.
They held back their purchasing fire for the Black Friday sales.
Or if you’re anything like me, trying to make a full chicken stretch across three nights instead of two.
Alan is a journalist and communications specialist. He writes a weekly column for Parra News.