Friday, 22 April 2016
Josh Bornstein writing in The Guardian on 13 April 2016 manfully tries to explain that which confounds us all:
How to explain the trainwreck that is the last three years of the federal government? The debacle poses a challenge that will dog journalists, policy wonks and historians for decades to come. The explanations for its dysfunction and sustained under-achievement are complex, but there are at least two distinct theories worth considering.
In Malcolm Turnbull’s second ministerial reshuffle in February, Alex Hawke was promoted to the office of assistant minister to the treasurer. In 2005, the then young Liberal office holder prophesied that conservative politics in Australia would move increasingly towards an American model. Hawke explained that: “The two greatest forces for good in human history are capitalism and Christianity, and when they’re blended it’s a very powerful duo.”
Can the relentless incoherence and incompetence of the current government be attributed to a particular blend of capitalism and religion that has found favour in the US? Perhaps…..
And yet, there is also a far more prosaic explanation for the mess.
The federal government is hostage to the campaign run by Abbott in opposition – a campaign had three essential features: it was ruthlessly prosecuted, very successful and, finally, completely and utterly irrational.
The opposition inculcated a state of perpetual crisis that was the envy of professional catastrophists the world over. The crises said to beleaguer the nation under a Labor government formed an impressively long list: the cost of living crisis, the retail crisis, the productivity crisis, the debt crisis, the deficit disaster, emergency low interest rates, sovereign risk crisis, the budget emergency.
None of the crises were real. Rather, they were a fiction borne of a political strategy designed to destabilise and remove the Labor government which, for all its faults presided over a stunning macroeconomic performance and successfully ducked a recession in the wake of the global financial crisis.
It is one thing to proclaim a series of crises. It’s another to promulgate the solution. The then opposition’s program was remarkably simple and painless: “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.” Critically, there would also be tax cuts.
Exactly how the federal government would cut taxes, reduce government debt and transition to a budget surplus, boost infrastructure and not cut major expenditure like health, education and the pension was never made clear. Nor could it be made clear. The laws of mathematics do not accommodate such idiocy.
Economic illiteracy can be masked by theatrical bluff and bluster for only so long. The government’s 2014 budget cut a swathe through its pre-election promises including gouging an $80bn hole in funding for health and education. Taxes weren’t cut; in fact, there was an attempt to raise a new tax – for visiting a GP.
The Senate kept the government to its pre-election promises and it has been stuck in a paralysing funk ever since.
In its short life the LNP government has levied more tax as a proportion of GDP than its predecessor. Government spending as a proportion of GDP has also increased, the budget deficit has more than doubled from its “crisis” levels in 2013, and gross government debt has ballooned by over $100bn…..
By January 2016, even conservative partisans at the Australian could no longer maintain the fiscal fantasy. Judith Sloan wrote: “I’m calling it here: the Turnbull government is a big spending, big taxing government with no real intention to pare back the growth of government spending, let alone cut it.” In other words, Turnbull continued where Abbott left off.
The wild irrationality that has infected the government has manifested itself in a series of government appointments. A climate science denier, Maurice Newman, was one of the government’s first, appointed to head its Business Advisory Council.
The appointment of Tim Wilson to the role of “freedom commissioner” was an Orwellian coup for the extreme right lobbyists at the IPA, effectively outsourcing Wilson’s labour costs to the taxpayer.
The man who specialised in the dehumanisation of asylum seekers and perpetuated the incarceration of children, Philip Ruddock, secured an appointment as special envoy for human rights. More Orwell…..
It sought to silence, intimidate and then remove the president of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs. It has enacted laws to prevent doctors speaking about the harm being inflicted on refugees.
There are the measures taken to silence NGOs including community legal centres who are banned from advocating for law reform. The work of environmental organisations including the Environmental Defenders’ Office has been sabotaged notwithstanding the government’s failed attempt to prevent environmental groups accessing the legal system. So much for the rule of law…..
Who or what is responsible for the government’s many other strange cultural and religious obsessions? Eric Abetz’s insistence on a link between breast cancer and abortion, notwithstanding the science that discredited this theory five decades ago. The attempt to ban the burqa in the confines of Parliament House. The campaign to water down racial vilification laws in support of the right to be a bigot. The havoc wreaked on investment in renewable energy as the government campaigned against “ugly” wind turbines. The many attacks on the ABC, culminating in a government black-ban on appearing on its current affairs flagship, Q&A. The attack on Safe Schools.
Endless fuel to stoke the fires of satire – perhaps – but there is another more disturbing dimension to these obsessions. The federal government almost always “punches down”. The coalition caucus is a toxic brew of fierce antagonism directed at minority groups, the disadvantaged and victims of discrimination.
Those targeted to be disadvantaged by its policies are invariably minorities, the less well-off and those with little or no political voice: those with the smallest superannuation balances, Muslims, cleaners of Canberra offices, food processing workers employed at SPC, the unemployed (the attempt to impose a six-month qualification period to qualify for unemployment benefits), children in disadvantaged schools (the sabotage of Gonski education reforms), the strenuous attempts to chisel lowly paid workers with intellectual disability out of backpay owed to them, the calculated and deliberately cruel infliction of injury on refugees fleeing war zones including Syria.
And let us not forget the attempt to wind back consumer protections against predatory crooks in our ethically challenged banks, championed by Turnbull’s key ally, Senator Arthur Sinodinos…..