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Australia is not good enough for politicians

Date

Michael Short

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 

83 comments

  • Well written observation Michael. How naive and gullible of some Australians to simply fall for the "sky's falling" rhetoric continually pushed by the LNP. Fortunately some of us are able to read between the lines of lies and slogans, let's just hope there is enough of us come the next election!

    Commenter
    Peter
    Location
    Carrum Downs, Vic
    Date and time
    July 05, 2014, 12:21PM
    • I agree Peter. Thank you, Michael.
      There is no better way to show this government for the fraud that it is than beinag able to have a close look at objective data on Australia.
      The lies that come out of this LNP government is appalling.

      Commenter
      Jump
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 12:40PM
    • "Australia enjoys some of the best living standards in the world. So why do our politicians constantly claim the sky is falling down?..."

      Why? Because much of that standard of living today is propped up by borrowed money which at current rates is costing us $1000000000.00 per month in interest alone. Have you ever heard of a Ponzi scheme? Well, that describes our current situation. Living high on the hog, borrowing like there's no tomorrow and with an ageing population and with everyone becoming dependent on the public purse for this high standard of living - it's all bound to end in tears. There are none so stupid as those that deny future reality.

      Commenter
      rob
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 1:40PM
    • It's pretty easy to say this is just something dreamt up by the LNP - I'm pretty sure Wayne Swan was ramping up the rhetoric around sustainability of the nations finances last year too??!! He just didn't have the political will to do anything about it!! We do have to make changes if we don't want to leave our kids picking up the tab. At the moment we rely on far too few to contribute far too much. I agree with the writer that Superannuation has become a wealth creation device rather than merely a private pension - the incentives to save through Super are completely excessive.

      Commenter
      David
      Location
      Ormond
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 2:11PM
    • Hi Peter

      Given the level of communication by many, I have serious doubts they actually understand what Abbott is actually about. Perhaps my post will help to clear their heads of Coalition dogma for the gullible, but I have no high hopes at all.

      Commenter
      Pen of hrba
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 2:11PM
    • @rob - Thanks. But the main object of government is to do it realistically - not with all of these take-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich schemes (the so-called trickle-down effect), as they have been consistently shown to be very ineffective. Sure, pay off the bills. I don't mind a personal tax increase. It's the easiest way (a progressive tax) to fix some of the problems, but the sheer mention of that is taboo in these 'faux do-gooder' economic climates.
      Other possibilities have been suggested by economists and journalists on these pages over the last few months, yet all have been totally ignored in favour of the rubbish that the government puts forward.
      Rob - I know we've got to pay the bills, and I would suggest that most of us do too. BUT actively stomping on the heads of the disabled, aged and so forth? Surely you can see that is not good for the social fabric of society? (It only lines the pockets of the greedy top 5 per cent)

      Commenter
      Jump
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 2:23PM
    • Does the government ever read excellent columns like this? The suggested solutions (of where to find revenue) have been talked about endlessly here and elsewhere, even Turnbull mentioned the superannuation tax dodge, but this government seems intent to ONLY listen to the IPA and big business lobbyists, both of whom are "owned" by foreign shareholders and not even part of the Australian governments job description or the oath they took.

      Commenter
      jusme
      Location
      Hunter
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 2:28PM
    • Yes we need more political honesty and better journalism. So Australia heads the list for environmental care? you wouldn't believe that given the relentless negative campaign from the Greens and ALP and the lefty media. If you listened to the left side of politics you would think Australia's environmental protection and management was the worst in the world. Why do these bloggers not see the rampant, embarrassing hypocrisy of their comments and the lies of their political masters?

      Commenter
      enough is enough
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 2:46PM
    • EiE - probably for the same reason you 'choose' not to see any bias on your part, I guess. Human nature, (often clouded by self-interest).

      Commenter
      Jump
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 3:47PM
    • Rob, well one way to fix that, tax those who Michael suggests. Inequity is the catch cry for this mob and Labor weren't much better,but at least they attempted.
      Conversely, this mob encourages the great divide.

      Commenter
      A country gal
      Date and time
      July 05, 2014, 3:52PM

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