Advance Australia Fair

Looking for a new Australian settlement

The radical neoconservative agenda being offered up nationally is a replay of a past policy failure – the infamous Fightback! package that came to be known as one of the longest political suicide notes in history (something that its advocate, former Liberal leader John Hewson, acknowledges today). The latest leap to the right by the Abbott Government is also deeply unpopular. What is the alternative you might ask? Well it is time to rede fine what we mean by responsible and prudent government. The current obsession with generating budget surpluses shackles us to a neoconservative ideological prison door. It is a fiscal fetish that must be abandoned, as it perpetuates a myth that public debt is a great burden on us, and that harsh budget cuts are needed as the remedy. This is the great fiscal fallacy of the late 20th century, an era of policy malaise we must now move on from. In this century we need to return to a much more honest view about the role that government plays in capitalist economies, particularly the role that public policy and investment plays in generating growth and fairness. Inconvenient truths need to be told. Corporate Australia is not the source of all wealth. Wealth is generated by many sources in the private and public sectors, as well as by our households and communities. Corporate fortunes are tied to the investments that governments and households make to ensure that we are healthy, safe, educated and active consumers. Great interdependencies exist in the real world between the public and private sectors in places like Australia. Neither the free market nor socialism prevails here, but the mix is constantly changing, moving a bit to the left then sharply to the right over recent decades. The only observable extremism during this time is that which prevails now – an attempt by stalwarts of the right to displace the social democratic legacy with American-style neoconservatism. The neoconservative project is dear to the hearts of many in the leadership of the Coalition today. is is their historic opportunity to embed neoconservative policies and institutions in a way that displaces much of the welfare state – that set of institutions that evolved in the post-war period in the wake of the 1930s depression and the calamitous events that followed. Conservatives now deride the welfare state as a brake on growth, perpetuating dependency and discouraging initiative. The language of lifters and leaners seeks to recruit a constituency hostile to public support for those on the margins – those who should be helping themselves and not relying on government to provide solutions. And so government moves further to the right, distancing those who govern from responsibility for growing inequality and poverty. These are not a product of government irresponsibility but a product of idleness and lack of initiative – a deficit of entrepreneurial spirit. The policies that follow this line of thinking were well articulated in the last Federal Budget. Many Australians remain unconvinced and many are hostile to the great moving right show. Will the pendulum swing back, driven by the backlash against the Coalition’s radical program of funding cuts and dismantling public institutions? The polls suggest it will. As we ponder this possibility, we might ask ourselves what set of policies do we need to forge for a new Australian settlement – a vision for a sophisticated mixed economy that has the pursuit of fairness, shared prosperity and sustainability at its core. We, of course, must rediscover and reinvigorate Australian egalitarianism – the idea that we are all entitled to a fair go and those circumstances beyond our control place barriers in the way of this in Australia as elsewhere. Wealth begets wealth, concentrating great riches and influence in fewer hands. Our tax and income transfer systems reinforce this. At their best they can work to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and income. This is one of the great reform challenges of the 21st century – the establishment of a truly progressive tax and income-transfer system to halt and reverse the obscene concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Great public institutions must co-exist alongside great private ones. We cannot increasingly transfer responsibility for the delivery of health, education and community services to the private and non-government sectors. This hollowing out of the welfare state is excavating democracy, creating new avenues for corporate profit-taking where they should not exist and turning NGOs into quasi-government agencies – becoming disturbingly silent as they become increasingly integrated into complex serviceprovision relationships with government. This galloping corporatism undermines the ability of NGOs to be fierce advocates for the disadvantaged. Decades of privatisation have transferred many of our most profitable assets to private interests. We have lost the revenue streams generated by ETSA, TAB and the Lotteries Commission. We are paying a great deal more, rather than less, for our electricity and water as a consequence of privatisation. Much of our common wealth has been sold off, depriving us of the direct influence we need in shaping and delivering essential services – public services designed and delivered on our behalf for our collective benefit. If you worried about the perversion of all that is public and the adulation of all that is private, think about what might constitute a new Australian settlement. Debate it with others and then advocate for it. The alternative is more of the same – more neoconservativism, more neo-liberalism. Nothing is inevitable if you question it. Associate Professor John Spoehr is the Executive Director of the Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre at the University of Adelaide @JohnSpoehr