A NASTY UNDERCURRENT in political debate that has been tangible for some time now raises the obvious question: what is government even for? It seems that too many people — voters, commentators, and MPs — have lost sight of what the institution represents, and what role it should play in Australian society. Do we want a high-tax regime that doles out services? Or is government a niche manager and facilitator to otherwise be kept from people’s lives?
I’ve been moved (finally) to write an article of this nature by — of all things — a dogfight on Twitter with a supporter of Clive Palmer that lasted more than 24 hours; it wasn’t especially nasty until close to my third and final attempt to terminate the conversation, by which time she (I think it was a “she” – you can’t be sure with Twitter) had turned abusive against “LNP agents” like me when I refused to start championing her tinpot single issue in this column. After trying wit, sarcasm, an outright declaration of a cessation of proceedings and then giving her both barrels in shooting down her silly arguments — all to no avail — I ultimately told her to piss off.
It’s an obscure way to open my remarks, I’ll grant you; but this kind of conduct — this time on Twitter, which seems to empower people to behave like anarchic oaves without courtesy, ethics, or restraint — is getting to be far too prevalent in our national discourse for my liking. It seems that away from the pristine pages of some of the more reputable organs of journalistic record, it’s not possible to be “honest” or “sincere” any more when discussing politics without being offensive, and it sometimes seems that if you’re not being as insulting or as insidious as possible, then you are not considered to be prosecuting your objectives in an effective manner at all.
It is true that there are a number of people in Australian politics for whom I have little or no personal regard, and readers know that I am upfront about this (Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard, Christine Milne and Peter Slipper being the most obvious). By the same token, there are others who I like enormously on the personal level, and have great respect for — Malcolm Turnbull springs to mind — but with whom I have serious problems from time to time about his stances on certain issues, and who this column has taken to task once or twice (not recently, and not since he stopped agitating against Liberal Party policy).
Even so, a colleague baled me up after one of those columns a couple of years ago: I must really hate Turnbull, he said. Not at all, I replied, making remarks very similar to those I have just shared here. I’ve met him a few times, I said. He’s a really great guy, I said. We agree on most things but differ on a few others we each feel very strongly about, I said. My colleague listened very courteously, a huge grin appearing on his face. “Go on, admit that you hate him,” he said. After all that, I had to be lying: nobody who had taken Turnbull to task as I had — legitimately — could possibly regard the man with anything other than contempt.
This focus on the politics of personal debasement is becoming a national obsession (and if my remarks on Rudd, Gillard, Wayne Swan et al tar me with the same brush then I must plead guilty). Yet this is all part of a broader cocktail mixed around deeper attitudes to politics and government, which is why I’d been mulling over talking about these things well before the Twit from Twitter exhausted my patience yesterday.
If we think back to the last Parliament, there are two images seared into the national conversation that sum all of this up.
The first is a group of anti-carbon tax protesters who travelled to Canberra — some of them from very far away — to confront Julia Gillard over her broken carbon tax promise. They carried placards. “Bob Brown’s Bitch,” one read. “Ditch the Witch,” read another. Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott met with the protesters to support their demonstration.
Later (and in defence of the grub Slipper when his position as Speaker was threatened by the revelation of filthy text messages he had been sending) Gillard rose in Parliament, and gave a confected speech filled with mock outrage and invective aimed at Abbott. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” it began, which was ironic in view of the sexually explicit and disgusting material Slipper had been sending by text message to his associates. That speech went viral, defamed Abbott, and earned Gillard a poll boost from people who heard the reported punchlines, but weren’t even interested in the circumstances in which the speech was made to make a balanced or informed judgement.
All of this — part of the political hurly-burly as it is — is merely superficial.
What it points to, however, is an increasingly aggressive and less civilised manner by which politics are practised in Australia — and, in turn, this points to the issues that the contest is being fought over.
And this, ultimately, raises the question I posed at the outset. What are politics and government even for?
Right now, a conservative government is readying to deliver its first budget since taking office.
It follows a period of Labor government — latterly in alliance with the
Communist Party Greens — which left a slew of expensive social and socialist policy packages on the statute books and the federal government’s balance sheet in an appalling state of disrepair, with the national debt slated to rocket above half a trillion dollars within four years of its electoral demise.
Treasurer Joe Hockey has spoken often of the government’s need to end “the culture of entitlement” and whilst I agree, the remark is incendiary in terms of the modern ALP’s standard narrative that “Labor governments build; conservative governments cut to the bone.” It isn’t as simple as that and such a mantra is intellectually dishonest, to say the least, but into the equation come assessments of Abbott as “Dr No” which will be followed, as sure as night follows day, with depictions of Hockey as Scrooge and the Grinch.
There are really two models for governance, and two only, and whilst that will sound to some (like the fool from Twitter) as being incredibly closed-minded, it is the case that most ideas of governance — even those that might be termed “out of the box” — generally fit within one of these two templates.
The first (represented in Australia by Labor and the Greens) involves high real taxes and the accrual of significant national debts to fund new social welfare initiatives, to expand others, and to advance causes in the name of being “progressive” that its intellectual elites and other champions of non-traditional visions of democratic society are wont to push. All of this runs parallel to “crackdowns” on “the rich” to get them to “pay their share,” a proportion that never seems to have been realised irrespective of the increases the Left are able to inflict on that pilloried patrician faction.
The second (represented in Australia by the Liberal Party and reflected, in varying degrees, in the Nationals and Clive Palmer’s outfit) centres on reducing government, cutting taxes, empowering people to take responsibility over their lives and fostering the expansion of choice for everyday Australians to exercise rather than government doing so on their behalf by decree.
As a result of the first of these models, the current Coalition government has assumed office to find a carbon tax in place that damages industry and imposes soaring costs on consumers; a mining tax that is so poorly designed as to raise no money, albeit with a string of electoral bribes (schoolkids’ bonus, superannuation top-ups for low-income earners, etc) contingent on the enabling legislation remaining in place; a package of Education funding (Gonski) that will cost tens of billions of dollars but is not tied to improvements in educational outcomes, and will likely be used as a reservoir to fund the pay claims of teacher unions; the National Disability Support Scheme, which will also cost tens of billions of dollars simply over the initial rollout of its trial stages; various schemes to pay unionised workers in a number of sectors (child care, government cleaning contractors etc) substantially more than their non-unionised counterparts; a bloated, inefficient federal public service stacked with ALP appointees earning an average of $150,000 per annum; a raft of so-called Green schemes also slated to cost tens of billions of dollars; and the Commonwealth budget haemorrhaging red ink at the rate of nearly a billion dollars a week: this money has to come from somewhere, and right now, it is being borrowed from China.
My list covers only the headline items. I know it’s incomplete. The items in it are enough to make the point.
And still early in the latest incarnation of the second model, the path to its implementation seems fraught.
The obvious major target requiring urgent redress is the state of the country’s finances, yet the method by which politics is increasingly practised in Australia — vitriolic, personal and by no means constructive — sees the new government locked out of the most obvious targets for abolition.
Abandoning the so-called Gonski reforms is a no-brainer, but having flirted with just the suggestion of it, Abbott and his Education minister Christopher Pyne surrendered their handsome “honeymoon” lead in most polls in the face of a vicious onslaught from the union movement and the ALP, and have spent the months since tracking even-stevens on average in the reputable measurements of public sentiment. It is clear that this can’t and won’t be attempted again.
Abandoning the National Disability Insurance Scheme is another: a noble idea that is almost totally unfunded in terms of provision by the Commonwealth to pay for it, the ALP’s chief mouthpieces in the Fairfax media even admitted prior to the September election that when fully operational this scheme would cover just 130,000 people nationally (although there was discussion in other forums about how 15% of the Victorian population might be able to be hooked onto this expensive new welfare drug). The political atmospherics of any attempt to squash this program (or even trim it) remain unclear. But it’s a fair bet that the tens of billions of dollars it will cost are unlikely to be recouped by abolishing it.
Yet Abbott and Hockey were elected in a landslide, in part, because they won the national argument over the so-called “debt and deficits” issue: that is, simply stated, that they convinced a majority of Australians that the country faces a budget emergency.
You bet it does. But those same voters who were convinced of the problem also form part of the bellicose bloc hellbent on shouting down some of the best options for fixing it.
It is true that a potential co-payment regime on otherwise bulk-billed doctor visits set at $5 per consultation failed to elicit the outrage a similar measure did when the Hawke government tried to introduce it in 1991. Even so, unless the charge extends to public hospitals they will be overrun with fee-evading patients, defeating the objective of using the charge a) as a patch on the budget, and b) to discourage ambit use of Medicare for insignificant minor medical symptoms. And even if that hurdle is overcome, the measure is only projected to raise about $700 million per annum, and hardly solves the wider budget issue on its own.
Australians object to higher taxes and charges and hikes in their cost of living expenses that were imposed on them by the Rudd/Gillard government.
Yet so ingrained is the culture of entitlement when it comes to things tax dollars have been paying for (and seem set to pay even more for) that to talk about modest cuts to family tax benefits, or deferring the pensionable age, or abandoning schemes that haven’t even started (Gonski and the NDIS) or looking at things like the First Home Buyers’ Grant is akin to high treason.
The country can’t afford any of this, and the fact remains — as I fervently and passionately believe — that allowing people to hold onto more of their own money through a lower tax take, allowing them to decide where, how and on what their money is spent, with government as far removed from day-to-day life as possible, is the soundest and best model of governance there is.
But the country is in a mess, largely because we’ve spent years robbing Peter just a bit too enthusiastically to pay Paul, and now that something has to be done about it, nobody wants to shoulder the burden.
Instead, we yell at each other; pick fights over “issues” that descend into abuse, whilst the real issues are unaddressed; and our politicians spend more time on dumb stunts and chasing photo opportunities than they do producing intelligent and/or workable ideas that might resolve the root cause of the problem.
Clearly, three into two does not go. Yet that, it seems, is what voters want: their fistful of dollars in one hand, with the other clasping their hip pockets closed to the government to render that handful of handouts irrecoverable.
Ultimately, the bill has to be paid if the order is placed.
Model A — the socialism and class warfare of Labor and the Greens — was clearly unpalatable to the electorate. Model B, whose big moment comes in early May with the budget, isn’t looking like receiving the rapturous reception it might have expected either. What gives?
The animosities and the alliances, the friendships and the enmities, the corrupt bastards and the honest toilers: politics and politicians in every shade and hue, both ugly and glorious.
Readers, you tell us: what do people want? What are our institutions of politics and government even for, from the perspective of community and individual expectation? Because as things stand now it seems they want it all for nothing, and irrespective of whether you sit on the Left or the Right, that approach — quite clearly — is a one-way ticket to nowhere.