Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Public policy debate in our nation feels a little sullied and shackled by a deficit of perspective.
For many years, people elsewhere have been prepared to risk death to have a chance to approximate a lifestyle many in Australia might undervalue and perhaps even take for granted.
On almost every measure of the fundamental elements of a good life, one in which individuals have the opportunity to explore their potential and the very marvels of existence, Australia is the envy of the world. Life expectancy is higher than in most nations. Infant mortality is lower. We do not die in epidemics. Our lives are not threatened by unrest and civil war. Most people who want a job have a job. Abject poverty is rare. We have clean water and food security. Our children have access to education. There is universal healthcare. We have a social security safety net. This is but a fraction of the list.
The world’s leading public policy research agency, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has just released its Better Life Index, which compares the richest nations’ social and economic outcomes. Australia topped the 34 nations overall, easily outstripping the US and a number of European countries, and had the highest ranking on health, safety, environmental care and civic engagement.
Yet the political rhetoric here would have one believe the place is on the brink of catastrophe.
The notion, for example, that we are in a ‘‘deficit and debt crisis’’ requiring crimping key wealth-creating services like healthcare and education, along with an emergency increase in taxes and payments, is fanciful. It undermines consumer confidence and is thus a drag on the economy. It is even more of a shame because, as a number of election promises are seen to have been abandoned in the name of this false ‘‘crisis’’, community disdain for the political process has been fuelled.
Yes, the budget needs adjustment to bring it back towards balance over the economic cycle. And yes, government debt has increased and should not be allowed to become unduly big.
But, listening to Canberra, one could be forgiven for believing our national fiscal situation has spun out of control at the hands of big-spending, big-taxing governments that have left us with a crippling, unconscionable debt. That is simply not true. Australia does not have big governments. When measured against the economy, both sides of the budget – taxation and expenditure – are among the smallest of those of any industrialised nation. Incidentally, in its final year, the government of John Howard took a bigger share of tax than did the final government of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, notwithstanding the rhetoric that the Coalition perennially stands for lower-taxing government than the ALP. That is not a criticism, just an observation.
Nor it is true that Australia has a debt problem. On the contrary, we have one of the lowest debts, when measured against the economy, and therefore our capacity to pay, of any industrialised nation.
This is not an argument per se for higher taxes and/or spending, but it is to say that there is much more flexibility in our situation than is currently being perceived, and there are policy options that do not involve the sort of measures so many find unfair and ideological in the 2014 Federal budget.
Nor is this column an argument for complacency, for there are many things requiring reform in Australia and many people who lack equality of opportunity. For the past four years, for example, I have written a national weekly column, The Zone, which examines and promotes arguments for change across a range of policy areas (the archive is: theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone).
Rather, this is a suggestion that we ought to adjust our focus, lest we undervalue or even forget how much progress has been achieved and how much opportunity has been created. Despite the contemporary notion that there is a need for remedial policies, the underlying state of the nation is robust and a handsome and coveted starting point for economic and social policy development.
Our political and public policy debate should be about making a great nation even greater by building on collective strengths, not by undermining civilised protections and supports for weaker or marginalised individuals.
The Coalition government talks about the end of the age of entitlement and the start of the age of responsibility - both noble notions that could have sparked community support. But the moment appears lost. The federal budget and its architects are as popular as a turd in a lunchbox precisely because they have failed to end some of the most egregious entitlements for the relatively wealthy, while cutting support for some of our poorest citizens.
Most Australians are egalitarian; few are motivated by pure greed or by prospering at the expense of those less fortunate, yet politicians so often seem to appeal to populism and base desires.
Where is the end of the multi-billion-dollar fuel subsidies to mining and agriculture? Australia is almost alone in using taxpayers’ funds to subsidise private speculation, usually by relatively wealthy people who don’t need or merit such support, on property and financial assets, yet where is the end of this "negative gearing"? Why are outrageously generous tax concessions being continued on the diversion of extra funds into superannuation, another distortion effectively reserved for the relatively wealthy? Where is the end to loopholes that allow big companies to barely pay any tax despite benefiting from publicly-funded infrastructure and profiting from selling goods and services to citizens who pay their full and fair share of tax? (At least the government is starting to make the right noises on this one.) Why is the government restoring the ability of financial planners to obscure how much of their clients’ money they deduct in charges and receive in commissions?
One of the cornerstones of decent debate about public policy, surely, is a realistic and rigorous presentation of facts. And ensuring such perspective is a primary responsibility of our political leaders. Sadly, the age of undue entitlement seems far from over, and the age of political responsibility yet to truly begin.
Michael Short is editor of The Zone. @shortmsgs