Suppose you are a government whose major rationale is to advance the economic interests of a minority of the electorate.
That minority consists of large and small business, the self-employed, the professions, wealthy salaried people and those who make the majority of their income from invested capital. Maybe 25 or 30 per cent of the populace at most.
You have a big problem, notwithstanding the fact that your constituency is vastly powerful, both economically and in terms of its capacity to manipulate information.
To get elected, you need more than half the votes, yet the great majority of people, if they voted on the basis of economic interest alone, would not vote for you.
This is the perennial problem of parties representing the privileged minority throughout the democratic world: the Republicans in America, the Tories in Britain and the Howard Liberal Government in Australia. And their solution is always the same: use social isues to divide and conquer.
They do this by trading on a phenomenon once neatly summarised by the great economist JK Galbraith. Forgive me if the words are not exact, but they are close enough: ''Not all conservatives are uninformed, but most uninformed people are conservative''.
The point is, there are two major types of conservatives: (A) the ones who resist change because it threatens their entrenched privilege at the top of the economic heap; and (B) those who are frightened of change because they lack the skills to cope.
In order for the type A conservatives to maintain their political power, they must distract the type B conservatives with non-economic issues.
So they pander to populism. The marginalised, the ill-educated, the embittered who are doing it tough and those unsure of their capacity to cope with change, are easily aroused to prejudice.
Type A conservatives are the ones who own the Liberal Party. Type B conservatives are heavily concentrated in rural and regional Australia, and the Coalition has to win them back from the likes of One Nation.
So the government plays to prejudice - against alleged ''elites'' (as though they are not themselves the true elite), unemployed ''job snobs'', lesbians who access IVF, single mothers, the ''aboriginal industry'' - to cite just a few examples. Scapegoats and distractions must constantly be found.
We saw another textbook example from the Howard Government yesterday. Ministers Downer, Ruddock and Williams - Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Reconciliation and Attorney-General respectively - held a joint press conference to bag the United Nations.
It was all jingoistic populism (remember, as Samuel Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel), directed squarely at inflaming the nationalistic prejudices of uninformed right. They might as well have railed about ''one world government''.
This was necessary because the ''real'' economic interests of the battlers in the outer suburbs and the regions are damaged by the escalation of petrol prices - in part due to the government's broken election promise that the GST would not push fuel prices up.
The government needed a distraction, as surely as it needs that windfall revenue from petrol prices to help fund tax cuts for their wealthy core constituency at the next election.