Our Politics Are Like ‘House of Cards’

Words By Tim Dunlop
February 5, 2015
Having seen off Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the Abbott Government was meant to be the beginning of a two or three-term program of what Right-wing politics and media call “reform” -- the final push for wholesale change to the Australian economy and society along market lines. Instead they have seen Tony Abbott mishandle just about every issue he has touched. They have watched him go from tolerated least-worst option to one of the most loathed people to ever occupy the office. They’ve seen people gag over the Hockey Budget and watch helplessly as conservative governments in both Victoria and Queensland were removed after a single term in office.

So what the hell is going on?

In a recent and slightly crazed article for The Australian, Maurice Newman, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, said what almost no-one else associated with the Abbott Government has been willing to say out loud. The article itself is less a piece of analysis than a sort of right-wing dystopia; speculative fiction in which the world is run by a cabal of left wing operatives:

In the battle for ideas it is now clear the Left controls the commanding heights. In everything from the economy to sport, the prevailing direction is left. After decades of stereotyping, indoctrination and the clever use of language, Western voters have been conditioned to accept the beneficence of the state.

The Left, capital-L! Scary stuff.

Ok, so it’s basically nuts. But like a lot of speculative fiction there is an element of truth amongst the fear mongering and pearl clutching. Mr Newman’s truth bomb comes well into the narrative, but it is worth waiting for:

The Left’s victories have been hard won, cumulative and unsustainable, but woe betide any government today which seeks to unwind earlier excesses or restore fiscal responsibility through spending cuts. It will meet well organised, articulate and often hostile, opposition. Unwinding the welfare state carries perilous political risks as the Abbott government is finding out.

And there it is (emphasis added): “unwinding the welfare state”. At last someone has said it. That this is the end-game of the Abbott dispensation probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many people. Especially those who, like Mr Newman, cohabit inside the loop. Nor will it come as a shock to anyone who has been paying any sort of attention to the policy armageddon the Abbott Government has been trying to unleash, from cuts to various NGOs and other community organisations to his ongoing attempts to interfere with Medicare, to the Budget itself, which independent assessors have shown targets Australia’s poorest.

“when they say they want to “unwind the welfare state”, what they actually mean is cutting, undermining or otherwise damaging programs like the dole, Medicare or pensions”

But to have this open secret stated so, well, openly, is rare.

Certainly Mr Abbott has never used those words. Nor has Mr Hockey or any of the others on the back or front bench. I’d bet you a copy of The Road to Serfdom that if you asked the prime minister outright if it was his intention to unwind the welfare state, he would deny it fifty ways to Christmas (in fact, it would be nice if someone did ask him and pushed him on it).

Instead we’ve been treated to an endless array of euphemisms, from the “end of entitlement” to getting rid of the “lifters and leaners” to the more recent comments from Scott Morrison about being a “strong welfare cop on the beat”. And of course, the euphemism that gets trotted out more than any other, “reform”.

All of these are hints about what they are doing without actually spelling it out. Unwind the welfare state. You can’t unhear it.

So it is important to understand what people like Mr. Newman and the government he supports mean when they speak of the “welfare state” and what it means to “unwind” it, because this is what is at the heart of the political confusion we are currently living through. Conservatives such as Mr Newman like to pretend it is all about smaller government; about “cutting red tape”; about getting rid of “wasteful” government spending; about balancing the budget. They regularly mouth paens to “freedom”.

But these, too, are euphemisms. I mean, it sort of sounds ok — in fact, sensible — to say you want to cut waste or increase efficiency or decrease debt, doesn’t it? And “big government” sounds scary, so let’s do something about that too. Also freedom is great, so let’s go with freedom. Je suis freedom. If that’s what “unwinding the welfare state” is, then bring it on.

But that’s not what they mean — or if it is, only in a very limited sense. These warriors of the right have no problem with “big government” when it is dedicated to mass surveillance, deciding who can marry who, or the people we lock up in Pacific and Southeast Asian prison camps in the name of “border security”. They also have no problem spending billions on defence, buying things like submarines and fighter jets, no matter how dubious their capabilities. For these purposes, the bigger the government the better.

They also have no problem with “red tape” and “regulation” when it comes to entrenching the power of employers over workers. As you will remember, WorkChoices — about to be resurrected under another name after we’re softened up via a Productivity Commission inquiry — was hailed as deregulation but was actually a 1000-page document of new anti-worker regulation.

In addition, they have no problem with government spending when it is in the form of subsidies for businesses or corporate tax breaks. That sort of government spending is perfectly fine, and they actively resist attempts to “unwind” this sort of welfare. Government spending is also okay when it involves advertising their dubious policies or paying for parliamentarians to attend mogul-related weddings or buy books for themselves. In other words, they are quite selective in how they apply their criteria for what constitutes welfare and what doesn’t.

So when they say they want to “unwind the welfare state”, what they actually mean is cutting, undermining or otherwise damaging programs like the dole, Medicare or pensions. In other words, for them, the welfare state they want to unwind is the series of programs and institutions that many of us think constitute the pillars of a civilised society.

“Whether Mr Abbott even survives as prime minister until the next election is open to debate. But the fact remains he has instigated a series of changes to the fundamental nature of Australian society that were never put to the people”

In one sense, this is a legitimate approach to government. The argument is always about how government money is spent and decent people can disagree on where the line is drawn. As New York University Professor David Garland points out, what the “welfare state” is and isn’t has always been contentious. In a recent lecture he noted that:

Leftists always complain that it is too mean, too controlling, too moralising; that it is no substitute for a radical redistribution of wealth and property.

Rightists…complain that it is too generous, insufficiently disciplinary, that it undermines enterprise, demoralises recipients, creates an overbearing tax-and-spend state.

Welfare recipients themselves would likely prefer to have a decent job and they bridle at the humiliations and stigma that comes with means-tested benefits, and taxpayers complain that they are working hard to pay for others who don’t, and so it goes on.

As I say, reasonable people can disagree on how government’s spend public money and it is legitimate to argue the toss. What is not legitimate is that we have to read about their intentions in the seventh paragraph of a stray article by a government operative written in the second year of the government’s first term. If you are going to make the sort of fundamental changes to the nation’s governance that are implied in the Abbott Government’s agenda, then you should do it openly, in a spirit of active deliberation. But that is exactly what they have been unwilling to do. And the reason for that, of course, is that their plans to “unwind the welfare state” are incredibly unpopular.

Actually that risks misstating it. It is more that “unwinding the welfare state” violates what a large number of Australians think the state (democratic government) is actually for.

So the government’s much-vaunted “communication problem” isn’t that they aren’t very good at explaining their policies: it is that they can’t actually say what it is they are planning to do because they know people hate it, which means Mr Abbott and his Ministers have to run around talking in code and in circles instead of stating clearly what they mean, and they thus end up getting themselves in a mess.

Joe Hockey might has well have said Hey, look. We don’t reckon Medicare is a legitimate way to spend public money and we actually reckon everybody should look after their own health care by buying private insurance or, you know, dying quietly in a corner with no public help.

Instead, what he says is more like: You know at some point people are going to live until they are 150 and so we need to have a national conversation about how we are going to pay for the healthcare of people who live that long. 

That’s not a communication problem. That’s an honesty problem.

In a recent speech to the London School of Economics, Dr Philippa Malmgren, a former adviser to the US President, suggested that the social contract most western nations made with their citizens post World War II was essentially, we will make you rich. In other words, work hard and obey the law and we will manage the risks associated with unemployment, health, education and old age and we will help you, over the course of your life, to increase your wealth.

She argues that the austerity economics being inflicted on, particularly, the nations of Europe (and now, we might add, Australia) are a prima facie default on that social contract and that it is little wonder citizens around the world are losing faith in their governments.

In the case of Australia I would argue the promise of our governments — our social contract — was less we’ll make you rich than we’ll make you comfortable. Indeed, this was spelled out explicitly by John Howard just before his election in 1996 when he commented about wanting the nation to be “comfortable and relaxed”.

Some criticised his words at the time, seeing them as an attempt to recall the alleged “settlement” of the Menzies’ era, and there is some truth in that. Still, his words also resonated with many people and, I would argue, tapped into a fundamental sense of what Australians would like life to be and an implicit understanding of what the role of government should be in achieving that outcome.

“I would argue the promise of our governments — our social contract — was less we’ll make you rich than we’ll make you comfortable”

In other words, when we say we are the land of mateship and the fair go, we mean that we envisage a society in which people are free to make as much as they like — but that in the process no-one is left behind. We mean we believe in a certain level of equality and fairness and that we look after the more vulnerable, or the simply hapless, while providing a basic level of security and stability for all of us.

We mean, in short, that we believe in a welfare state, a place that accepts that even the most astute and hardworking of business people do not earn their wealth independently of the society in which they operate. That they rely to some extent on infrastructure that we have all paid for through our taxes, on an educated population of workers provided by state-funded education, and on the peace, stability and rule of law that we all contribute to and benefit from.

“Unwinding the welfare state”, therefore, is no small thing, especially, when you realise that “unwind” in this sense means remove. Or if you prefer, destroy.

Here’s the thing.

Since about the mid-eighties, western governments of all persuasions (left through right) have pursued policies designed to introduce the features of markets into areas previously exempt from such practices. Some call this the “competition state” and the internal reforms go hand-in-hand with the international reforms that have put states in greater competition with each other (globalisation). Former Danish politician Kristian Weise puts it nicely:

The competition state has developed alongside a new international economy, where it is increasingly believed that nation states compete against each other. The primary goal of the state is therefore to promote private sector competitiveness by implementing institutional reforms to mobilise labour, capital, technology and material resources for the competition with other states.

Some of these changes have been worthwhile, but it is no longer the eighties. Amongst other things, we have had a global financial crisis in which the logic of such changes — the relentless deregulation, the privatisations, the prioritisation of economic targets over social goals — was shown to be exhausted.

What recent events such as the Queensland election show — remember, privatisation of state assets was at the heart of the campaign — is that most people are fed up with the whole agenda and want a different approach. They are not against “reform” per se; they are against flogging the dead horse of the competition state.

But Tony Abbott wants to keep riding that dead horse. In fact he wants to pursue the logic of the competition state further than any prime minister before him, but he wants to do it without saying that is what he is doing.

Whether Mr Abbott even survives as prime minister until the next election is open to debate. But the fact remains he has instigated a series of changes to the fundamental nature of Australian society that were never put to the people before the last election and which have been kept shrouded in euphemism ever since.

In short, Mr Abbott has broken the social contract.  And for doing that, he, his party, and anyone else who seeks to do so should be held to account.

Tim Dunlop is the author of The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience. You can follow him on Twitter.

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