The two party system

polling-stationHere is the latest guest post by my mum, @KayRollison. This is partly in response to my post from yesterday and the responses to it, and partly just because mum is really good at explaining politics based on her wealth of knowledge about what has happened in history.

Why is it that we still hear intelligent and otherwise well informed people lamenting the dominance of the two major political parties in Australia? If only there were more Independents, they cry. Or more minor parties. If only MPs could vote as they like – or as their constituents direct them – instead of being bound to vote as their party decrees. Then we’d have much better government. I’m not making this up; I heard it again just the other night.

As Winston Churchill said in 1947:

‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’

Similarly no one pretends that the two party system is perfect or all-wise either. But having two major parties, each potentially capable of forming a government is also better than the other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Back to Politics 101. In the Westminster system, you need a majority to form a government. So in a parliament full of independents, how do you form a government? Do you go round asking each of the 150 members whether they will support you? Since there are no parties, who gets to do the asking? Is it like in N.F. Simpson’s Resounding Tinkle, where someone knocks on your door and asks you to form a government – ‘he’s working through the street directory’? And do we just hope that the 76 Independents who will support you (after the knock on the door) on introducing a carbon price are the same 76 who will support you on raising the Newstart allowance? Maybe, but then maybe not. It’s called political instability. Or maybe chaos. Ever heard of the phrase ‘herding cats’? It certainly isn’t coherent and long term political action.

OK, so this is the reductio ad absurdum of the position, and maybe that’s not fair. So what about several small parties, and some Independents? You’re the leader of the largest party, so you get to try and form a government. This is roughly how it worked before there were two major parties. And how did this work? Well I’m pretty familiar with how it worked under one Thomas Bent, Premier of Victoria 1904-9. He was terrific at it. It’s called support in return for concessions. Pork barrelling, in other words. You vote for my government, and I’ll give your electorate a bridge. And if you can bring a few friends with you, I’ll make it a railway. I promised at the last election to regulate the sale of alcohol. Don’t like that idea? Well we can easily change it. You made a promise to your electorate? That’s tough. Maybe we could do something about freight rates. Where are you from again? Didn’t work so well in bad years when there wasn’t a surplus to play round with. And government was maybe a bit less complicated than now, but you get the picture.

It’s true some parliamentary democracies operate on a multi-party system. And all of them have to negotiate coalitions to form a majority government. So after electors have voted for the party that represents what they want, that party has to compromise with another party that wants something different. We can see how well that is working out in Britain at the moment. The Lib Dems sold out to the Conservatives, who, being the larger party, are calling the shots. I feel for (sort of) all those Lib Dem voters who thought they were getting something quite different. And did Liberal voters in NSW really expect an alliance with a party that promotes hunting in national parks?

Sometimes a single party may not have a majority in its own right, but can attract enough Independents to form a government. Sound familiar? Labor doesn’t have a majority, but it’s not a minority government; you have to have a majority to govern. And how well is this received or understood? Shock horror seems to be the usual response. But such arrangements in a multi-party system are routine. Is that what we want here?  

I should say that I have nothing against the Independents currently in the Federal Parliament. If their electorates choose to elect someone without a party affiliation, that‘s their business. But it’s only the unusual circumstance of a hung parliament that makes them so important. Unless someone needs their support, their chance of concessions is pretty slight, whether it is on the roads and bridges front, pokie reform or any other issues.

So if you want a government that can get done what it has been elected to do, then it’s a good idea to have only two major parties to choose between. You know what you’re voting for and your party is either elected, or it isn’t. It either does what it says it will, or has to produce a very good reason for doing something different. Of course you won’t ever find a party who does everything you want exactly how you want it. So you make a choice. Which party offers the policies that best align with your values most of the time?

We normally have a variant on this system in Australia. The conservative side is a coalition between the Liberals and the Nationals and each needs the other’s preferences to get a majority of seats (except in Queensland, where it’s one party. And isn’t that working well). On the progressive side the ALP either gets or falls short of a majority of seats with Green preferences. You may or may not like the outcome, but what better system can you suggest?

Of course the Greens are unhappy with this arrangement, because they would like to replace the ALP as the major party of the left. None of this ‘keeping the bastards honest’ rubbish. But with one seat in the House of Representatives, and a handful of lower house seats across the states, this is looking a very big ask. So if Greens want progressive policies now, then they have to compromise with the ALP, however much it hurts. After all, they aren’t going to get anything from the LNP. Criticise all you like, but keep that basic fact firmly in view.

Of course parties require their MPs to vote as the party decides on legislation. How else can a government put its program into effect? Yes, this can make it difficult for individuals who may feel their party is wrong on an issue, and in most cases parties could afford to be a bit more flexible than they usually are. But in general, the principle of party discipline is essential for the system to work. Can you suggest a better way?

Given that our two party system requires two parties, why is it that being a member of one is so frequently seen as such a bad thing? Membership makes a statement about what you believe. It gives you a way of influencing party policy. It doesn’t mean you are uncritical – it just means you are committed to the general stance of the party. Of course there are party members who are tools. You find them everywhere. There are party members that are just in it for what they can get out of it – like pre-selection, having powerful friends, or making business contacts – but there are lots of members who just want to make a difference.  Of course political parties are influenced by special interest groups as much as by members; surely you don’t need me to tell you about the role of pressure groups? And yes, there are other ways of making a difference, as Get Up, for example, is showing. But in a society where apathy generally rules, the effort it takes to be a party member should be admired, not denigrated. Decisions are made by those that show up, as President Bartlett says in The West Wing.

It doesn’t take a lot of votes to change a government. By all means change your vote – for sound reasons based on an analysis of both parties’ policies. After all, it’s intelligent and well informed people I’m talking about here. But before you bag the two party system, be very careful what you wish for.

By Kay Rollison

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Dead, buried and cremated

WorkChoicesYesterday mum joined Twitter (@KayRollison). Today she’s contributed this fantastic guest post about the Liberal’s industrial relations policy. I told her Twitter would be good for her! Enjoy!

Just as well I didn’t put any money on it.  I could have sworn that the Liberal industrial relations buzz words for the 2013 election campaign would be labour productivity. But I was wrong. The buzz words turn out to be union power.

I must say I’m surprised at this. It’s not that I didn’t expect the Liberals to have an aggressive industrial relations policy. After all, deregulating the labour market and destroying the union movement are their main reasons d‘etre. And sure enough, Josh Frydenberg has come out on cue with some proposals for ‘workplace reform’ that promote individual contracts, openly attacking the award system and the unions’ central place in it. It sounds a lot like Workchoices. Frydenberg hasn’t commented further, but Alexander Downer has. And he says the reason we need this policy is ‘union power’.

So why am I surprised? Because it sounds a lot like Workchoices. And we know Workchoices is ‘dead, buried, cremated’, because Abbott told us so.

And I believed him? No, of course I didn’t. I just thought the Liberals would come up with something a bit more subtle. Something that didn’t automatically evoke ‘your rights at work’: the image of a women playing happily with her kids until she gets a phone call from her boss saying come in to work now or I’ll sack you. Remember that one?  I thought they’d go for something that didn’t look like Workchoices so that it would be easier for Abbott to look less like he was lying. Silly me.

It is ludicrous to suggest that the country is groaning under the burden of union militancy. As these posts on Grog’s Gamut show, not only hasn’t there been a wages breakout, there hasn’t even been a massive increase in days lost in industrial disputes. Downer is worried about militancy in the construction industry. And yes, there was a strike by construction workers recently – the Grocon strike by the CFMEU. One whole strike! The sky is falling.

So is there really traction in an anti-union campaign? Maybe. After all, the sort of information that Grog provides isn’t very well known; when did you last see something like that in the mainstream media? Most people find it easy to dislike unions, even when they are getting the benefit of improved pay and conditions which unions have won. We regularly seem to hear of unions these days when they’re fighting to save the entitlements of union members whose companies have gone broke. And the union movement will fight an individual contract policy whatever the slogan, so the Liberals lose nothing there by calling a spade a spade. And then there’s all the bad publicity for unions, as in the HSU (real, if you mean Kathy Jackson) and AWU (made up) scandals. But even so, most voters don’t have a memory of real union militancy, which much weakens the scare tactic value. It’s so eighties.

I thought labour productivity had a much better ring to it. You can pretend that you care about the economy and the national interest. It doesn’t sound like union bashing. After all, better productivity must be in everyone’s interest. In fact, labour productivity is a complicated matter, as this further post by Grog shows. In Liberal hands, of course, it just means doing more for less – ie, fewer workers with less bargaining power, leading to poorer pay and conditions all round. It isn’t really any different to ‘union power’ and the dreaded militancy – it just sounds better.

So why go with union power? It’s partly that they can’t help themselves. Say the word ‘union’ and they see red; subtlety flies out the window. And unions do stand in the way of their cherished policy objectives. Moving even more of the share of national income from wages to profits is, as I said above, a central plank of Liberal policy – what they believe in and what their corporate supporters expect from them. And there is also a strong political motive. If you destroy the union movement, you weaken the Labor Party, perhaps fatally. (I noticed that along with the proposal for voluntary voting, the Queensland LNP wants to stop unions contributing to political parties. They say they don’t want corporations contributing either, but there’s nothing about rich individuals – go figure.) And who cares if Abbott has to back down on all that dead and buried stuff? Lying hasn’t been a problem for him so far.

But labour productivity might still get a run. It’s too much to hope that the Liberals have looked at the most recent productivity figures (see Grog’s Drum article) and concluded that they really can’t mount a decent argument on them. Or that they’ve read the Productivity Commission’s opinion that the mining boom has depressed productivity. When did mere facts get in the way of union bashing? It couldn’t be that they understand that labour productivity depends on management capability. Or that they have come to the realistic conclusion that labour productivity is a very partial economic indicator, and that multi factor productivity is actually a much more useful measure. Definitely too much to hope for. Labour productivity will pop up. You wait.


The Politics of Welfare

AbbottLondon

With all this talk about Jenny Macklin and her comments about living on Newstart, it is time that we talked about what might be in store for our country should Abbott become Prime Minister. Here is the latest guest post from my mum, Kay Rollison.

The mainstream media, almost without exception, accept that Tony Abbott will win the election due this year. But they are not telling us what we might expect from an Abbott government, and nor is Abbott. So we can only speculate. What we come up with might not be what Abbott and his media friends will tell us when the opposition get round to making election promises, but it’s what will likely drive a LNP government – because it always does.

First some caveats. What an Abbott government can get will depend partly on the politics of the Senate, unless they have a majority there, which seems unlikely. The Howard government was a big spender and Abbott’s view of the economy – in so far as he has one – seems to owe more to Howard practices than to the economic rationalism favoured by his party. Maybe his mentor B.A. Santamaria also influenced his thinking. Or maybe he just has no idea. Don’t expect economic consistency.

The LNP, at least in theory, supports small government, with low taxation and balanced budgets. Not only are they happy to cut government spending, they will have no choice but to cut government spending if they aren’t going to increase taxation. One area they are likely to target is welfare. They have a track record on this – see the 2006 Welfare to Work changes. It is also what other conservative governments such as David Cameron’s British Tories are doing. When they have no new ideas of their own, they copy their mates. What do you think Abbott was doing in London in December –aside from hiding out from the Ashby judgement? And we have some comments from the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey which show support for welfare ‘reform’: his ‘end of the age of entitlement’ speech in London in April 2012, and this tweet in support of Cameron’s proposed changes.

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Before we get on to what those changes entail, it’s important to remember that the deregulation of the Australian economy, which is supported by both sides of politics, involves a hands-off approach by government, which is left with only crude tools like unemployment to keep down inflation. Both sides also accept that deregulation means there would be losers and that there must be a ‘safety net’ to support them.

So what’s the difference on welfare between Labor and the LNP? Well at the moment, not very much. But there will be large differences if we go down the British Conservative path – as I have no doubt Abbott will do. We already have his statement from the 2010 election campaign that he would like to see dole payments stopped to able bodied people under 30.

The British Conservatives are singing from the same songbook as Hockey did in his ‘end of the age of entitlement’ speech. At the time, we sneered at what Hockey said, because just then, the LNP were busy opposing the Labor government’s attempt to strip back an outrageous piece of Howard era middle class welfare – subsidies for private health cover for the rich. And then there is Abbott’s ridiculous paid parental leave scheme which would pay the wages of well off women taking maternity leave. It seems the Liberals think the middle class are entitled to government support.

But this isn’t about middle class welfare. What David Cameron has in the gun is what he calls the culture of welfare dependency. Cameron is back on the old furphy we have seen so much of in years past – the unemployed are dole bludgers, who need to be forced to find a job. It’s the ‘strivers versus the skivers’. The Conservatives are offering voters a choice between spending public money on ‘hardworking families’ or ‘people who won’t work’. Sound familiar? The main proposal is to cap the amount of welfare a family can receive to ensure that it is less than the average earnings of working households. They also intend to institute tougher tests for disability support. You can read more about it here. The Conservative government expects to save billions of pounds by this – and you can’t do that without hurting the most vulnerable members of society – the very ones the safety net is supposed to support. The sad part is that Britain has an average unemployment rate of 7.9%, and the rate is much higher in some regions. Where are the unemployed supposed to find a job –given that the Thatcher government destroyed the British manufacturing industry and no one since has found a source of jobs to replace it?

The Howard ‘reforms’ assumed that the unemployed, some people on disability pensions and single parents with children over the age of eight could find part time work if their benefits were cut. Abbott will follow Cameron further down the ‘work not welfare’ road. There’s his ‘green army’ for a start. But we know that much part-time employment is casual, poorly paid and has poor working conditions. Tough luck, as far as the Liberals are concerned. And there is no guarantee that even part-time work will be available. So it will mean more futile job applications, more breaching, more misery.

So, under the Liberals, we would have an even more draconian approach to welfare than the one we have now. Everything about the British approach fits with what we know of the Liberals. Remember the Paxtons? I can just see what the LNP election spiel will be like. And will they ensure that government stimulus increases the number of jobs? I don’t think so.

Labor has a real chance to differentiate itself on welfare. It is true that they accept the safety net argument, and treat a level of 5% unemployment as normal, and even desirable to curb inflation. It’s true that they are starting to bring out ‘dignity of labour’ card, as if being in work was a virtue, and being unemployed a moral failure. On the other hand, it is reasonable to be concerned about welfare dependency, and children growing up in jobless households. If you want to generate and sustain a permanent under-class, that is the way to do it.

Merely abstaining from bashing the unemployed would differentiate Labor from the LNP. Labor is looking to increase the Newstart allowance, acknowledging unemployed people need proper support. But they could go further, with a whole of government approach to poverty. This would include better health and education for poor people, better access to vocational training, and perhaps most importantly, better pay and conditions for part-time work and a decent minimum wage. People should not be condemned to stay in the welfare system because they have no other alternative. Let’s cut back on some of that middle class welfare to fund a fairer society.

Labor needs all the support and encouragement we can give it to take the road that is socially responsible, and ultimately better economics. After all, look where austerity is getting the UK.


Is there life after neoliberalism?

You might have recently read my mum’s guest post about Hugh Stretton’s book – Australia Fair. That post received some great feedback. Here is the follow up post:

Is there life after neoliberalism? Yes there can be, says Hugh Stretton in his unfairly neglected book, Australia Fair (UNSW Press, 2005). I recently wrote about the general argument of this book in Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton. Here, I’m going to look at the specifics. But just to recap, Stretton argues that the neoliberal economic reforms of the past thirty years – floating the dollar, reducing tariffs, privatisation of public assets, lower taxation and spending cuts – have not brought the economic gains claimed for them. And he says they make for greater inequality. There have been a few improvements since he wrote in 2005, but not many. Mostly, things have got worse. He argues that a rich country like Australia should be able to assure a comfortable living for all citizens, and outlines a program involving both the public and the private sector to achieve this. Interested?

It’s not possible in a short review to do justice to all that Stretton is suggesting, or to include all the for and against arguments, reservations and complexities he mentions. For this, you must read the book. Furthermore, the policies that make up his program are inter-related, though I am mostly discussing them separately. His writes in a somewhat idiosyncratic style, and though he tries to keep his economic discussion simple, he loses me sometimes. Please forgive my oversimplification.

Stretton begins with ‘work’, because in his argument, full or fairly shared employment should be the main purpose of economic policy. He says that ‘every consideration of economy and humanity should drive us to see that there is paid work for everyone who wants it.’ But having given up most of their power to control the economy in favour of free market prescriptions, the only way governments can control inflation is by sustaining a significant level of unemployment. This is not only disastrous for those experiencing it; it results in less production, less demand and less investment. It also means a higher welfare bill – and/or the demonization of the unemployed, even though there are no jobs for them. Furthermore it often results in an increase in working hours for the employed, not always paid, which in turn affects their quality of life. Achieving full employment depends on other parts of his program, so what he is advocating is quite complicated. It seems to be a combination of stimulating demand, including increasing some benefits, increasing some public employment and stimulating some private employment, particularly in the housing industry.

Stretton has had a long involvement with housing policy. He considers housing a right in a rich society like Australia, alongside the right to education and health provision. (This is the sort of ‘stuff’ Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly think Americans who voted for Obama are so remiss as to expect.) Here Stretton addresses the situation where as part of the neoliberal agenda, the Commonwealth has cut funding to the States for new housing investment, and States have sold off most of their existing stock of public housing. This has been replaced by a first home buyer grant and rent allowances to poor tenants who have to compete in the private rental market. The result of simultaneously cutting the supply and subsidising the demand was to raise prices, as first home buyers bid against each other for a limited stock of moderately priced housing. Waiting lists for public housing are years long, and homelessness continues to grow. His solution, which rather elegantly pays for itself over time, is to give Commonwealth money to the States who contract private builders to build good quality but relatively modest housing, half of which is for sale or rent to working families who pay full cost or rent, and half as welfare housing. If full employment reduces the numbers on welfare and increases the number able to pay market rent, then this proportion can change. An increase in public housing acts as a dampener on the private market, and everyone gains except those who are hoping for a large capital gain when they sell mum and dad’s house at an inflated price.

The next issue is what Stretton calls ‘children’, but is actually parenting. He asks how we can best bring up children and respect parents’ right to choose either paid employment or staying home to care for their young children. As things stand, women usually end up doing the unpaid housework in addition to paid work, and children end up in less than satisfactory child care. He agrees that family friendly work places may help, but argues that in addition, there should be a parenting wage equivalent to the basic wage available on a means tested basis to one parent so they can stay at home if they wish. He knows the arguments about rorting the system, but considers that the social good of the proposal outweighs the possible abuses.

In both health and education, Stretton argues that the Howard government favoured private over public provision, and allowed the latter to decline. The Rudd/Gillard government has made a start on these issues. There are some moves to fix the buck-passing between Federal and State governments, and the private health insurance rebate has been cut for some rich families. Stretton would have abolished it altogether, and spent the money on the public health system. He would also likely approve the Gonksi proposals to fund the public education system properly.

More surprising to me, he is also highly critical of current superannuation provision; he quotes another historian’s conclusion that ‘the privatisers of superannuation have presided over the creation of a league of parasites on a scale not seen since the close of the eighteenth century.’ Transparency, which is the best we are offered in relation to fees and charges, is not enough; he argues there should be a public superannuation scheme alongside the private ones to add some genuine competition. I find this chapter technical and difficult, but his general drift is clear.

On the environment, he says: ‘The neoliberal change of direction to greater business freedom, less public production, less government and steeper inequality could have been designed specifically to disable our environmental management.’ He outlines a ‘green program’ which is perhaps now somewhat out-dated, but more important is his warning of the further damage to equality that climate change and greedy consumption of resources could bring.

I also find Stretton’s chapter on managing money difficult, and guess that he might well revise the details post the Global Financial Crisis – which can only have confirmed his general critique; ‘the real fruit,’ he says, ‘of 25 years of well-intended blundering should be to discredit the economic theories on which the mistaken expectations were based.’

He has had a stab at costing his program, and suggests ways of finding the money. And here, you have to decide on whether he is unreasonably optimistic, or whether, as he argues, Australians really might support a program that offered better services and a more equal society, even if it meant higher taxes and forgoing some luxury consumption. It would take ‘guts and ingenuity’ to try, and of course leadership – which has so far been leading us pretty much in the wrong direction.

I do not know of any other book that not only offers a reasoned critique of the impact of neoliberal economic policies in Australia in the last thirty years, but also offers an alternative set that could just work. If only there was someone who would try them.

Kay Rollison


Australia Fair, by Hugh Stretton

This is another guest post by my mum, Kay Rollison. Mum writes a book blog and this review of Hugh Stretton’s book, Australia Fair, is a great edition to my blog. You can find more book reviews at What Book to Read (www.whatbooktoread.com).

This book came out in 2005, and as far as I can remember, attracted remarkably little interest. Hugh Stretton is one of Australia’s foremost thinkers, and he has an international reputation for his work in the area of values in the social sciences. Though he started off teaching history – at Oxford, then Adelaide University – he finished up as a researcher in economics. This book is a work of political economy; it looks at how we got into the political and economic trouble we are in, and what we might do to fix it. Stretton argues ‘that we should be doing whatever it takes in our changing historical conditions, by old means and new, to keep Australia fair’. And this was before the GFC. How could such a relevant and important book be overlooked now?

In this post, I’m going to look at what Stretton says about how we got where we are, and in a later post I’ll outline what he thinks we could do about it.

It’s actually quite easy to see why the book was largely ignored. It takes a lonely stand against the economic orthodoxy accepted at the time by the Labor Party, the LNP and most economic commentators. It sees the changes to the operation of the economy, started by the Hawke-Keating government and pursued further by the Howard government, not as great and necessary reforms that have benefited all of us, but as an abdication of the power to control the economy for the general good. Stretton wrote too early. It’s only since the GFC dented confidence in the free market’s ability to deliver a fair society that such arguments are again being entertained. Well, he certainly makes a good one and it’s time to look at it again.

Paul Keating, Stretton says, brought about a U-turn in Labor economic policy. Instead of using the state to pursue full employment and balanced development, Keating gave up the power to do this. As well as removing most tariff protection, he ‘reduced the regulation of business, privatised some public services and slimmed others to cut their costs, maintained some unemployment to restrain inflation, shifted taxation downward from the highest incomes, and thus increased some inequalities.’ Stretton says that Keating knew that this would hurt some citizens, and accepted that there would have to be a safety net that provided good health care, welfare and education to those left behind. He argues Keating’s motivation was good, that he believed such changes would result in optimum foreign investment, employment, growth, and low inflation. The wealth thus produced could be used to compensate the losers.

I well remember how inexorable this program seemed at the time, particularly as most commentators endorsed it. Labor values seemed to be disappearing, but what was the alternative? Once the process had begun, LNP governments, state and federal, would only take it further, and so it proved. In the face of frustration and impotence on the economic front, Labor activism shifted to the identity issues of gender, race and sexuality – important in themselves, but cutting across the economic divide of the haves and have nots. Other activists turned to the battle over conservation of heritage and biodiversity, and joined the Greens. And some of us withdrew from politics altogether. A pox on both your houses.

Stretton agrees that for some of the time – when for example the business cycle is in an up-swing, or there are (or were) short term profits from asset sales (or there is a mining boom) – some of these good things have happened. But he argues that the downside has been greater than any benefits. Our current arrangement, he says, ‘trusts production to private enterprise and market forces with minimum public aid or regulation. Government’s role is to rescue the resultant losers and correct the misdistribution of income by tax and welfare means. In practice that has become so expensive for an under-employed and ageing population that we don’t do it very well.’ He deals with specific downsides in the chapters about what might still be done to correct the situation in areas such as employment, housing, health and education, income and natural resources. But as a quick summary, the downsides include unemployment, rising numbers on welfare, a smaller tax base to pay for welfare, unaffordable housing, less effective public services (cut to trim costs), more user pays, unproductive investment aimed at speculative returns, some spectacular corporate failures and more inequality. And his point is that much of this comes down to an economic policy chosen by a Labor government which gives undue freedom to the market.

Stretton is far too subtle a thinker simply to be making a case for ‘government intervention’ versus ‘the free market’. He argues that government always has a role in even the most free of markets; it is a question of the public-private mix – with the addition of the contribution of the not-for-profit sector and households.  After all, as he points out, ‘It takes work by more than one of them, and often enough by all four, to get your dinner on the table, your car on the road or your children educated.’  Furthermore, unlike with market solutions, there is no ‘one size fits all’; it is a question of working with an eclectic mix of old and new, theory and practice, and experience and imagination. For the detail, see my next post.

Quite apart from the overall sweep of Stretton’s argument – and I have in no way done it justice here – there are two insights that in the light of current circumstances, struck me forcibly. One concerns pokies. As a result of spending cuts in pursuit of smaller government, revenue grants to states have been cut, leaving them less and less able to afford to provide the services for which they are responsible. ‘Desperate needs breed sickening remedies,’ writes Stretton. Most of the States have acted to expand gambling and their revenue from it … unlike the capital proceeds of privatisation, the gambling revenue is reliably, seductively sustainable.’ So the current plague of gambling addiction is an unintended consequence of economic rationalism.

The second insight is that where both sides of politics agree on the fundamental primacy of the market, politics easily degenerates into arguments about management – think BER and pink batts – and the trustworthiness of leaders – think JuLiar and sexism. These may be important, but they shouldn’t be all there is. What Stretton had before him at the time of writing was Mark Latham’s apparent acceptance that ‘the voters who matter are self-interested battlers, contemptuous of idlers living on welfare, and easily frightened by talk of higher taxes or interest rates or inflation.’ I would argue that Labor is now making some effort to initiate a debate about the role of the state, with the carbon tax, the mining tax (however watered down) and a modest assault on middle class welfare. But I’m not sure what direction these baby steps are going in – certainly Hugh Stretton would not be satisfied.

For all there is so much good stuff in it, I can’t say this is an easy book. You’ll see in my next post that his proposed solutions, though sometimes simple, aren’t easy either. But it’s a book that deserves much wider reading and discussion. Perhaps someone should send it to the Prime Minister for Christmas.

 


Out of bounds on the full

Following on from my last post, my mum, Kay Rollison, has contributed another great insight into the terrible standard of political reporting in our mainstream media. Enjoy!

Victoria, like many other independent bloggers, wrote last week about the failure of the mainstream media to understand the significance of Julia Gillard’s speech denouncing the sexism she has been subject to. As Victoria pointed out, for much of the media, it is apparently ‘just politics’. Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott was followed up by the very same journalists with reports about sexist remarks directed at Abbott’s female chief of staff. Tit for tat. See? Both sides are as bad as each other.

This is part of the ‘politics is a dirty game’ convention. Working within this convention – as the mainstream media do – day to day politics is a game in which both sides seek advantage. Both sides play hard, both sides are dirty, therefore they are no different. It’s like reporting sport. One side kicks a goal, someone fumbles a pass, the ball is out on the full, and the scoreboard shows the result, courtesy of the fortnightly polls. It’s just a question of who is better at the game. Look at the scoreboard mate.

It’s easy for reporters and commentators to write as if the daily battle of tactics means that the two sides are just the same, and as bad as each other. Of course some journalists (guess which ones) don’t think the parties equally bad; they cheerfully reflect the anti-Labor bias of their employers. But others present themselves as ‘independent’: think Sales, Uhlmann, Hartcher, Crabb, Taylor, Grattan, Cassidy or Oakes. They claim that their ‘equally bad’ treatment shows ‘balance’, or even handedness. They routinely argue that after all, the opposition will do anything to get rid of the government now or at the next election, and the government will do anything to stay in power now or at the next election, and this constitutes the (equally bad) politics they report on.

Of course there’s a place for day to day political reporting. It’s not just that it’s the Canberra Press Gallery’s bread and butter. It’s not just that politics tragics couldn’t live without it. What happens on a short-term basis affects the morale and effectiveness of both sides and the view the electorate takes of the parties. And the particular circumstances of this parliament render day to day reporting compelling for anyone interested in politics. The hung parliament itself makes this reporting important, as theoretically the government could fall at any time. Tony Abbott’s single minded strategy of trying to force an election by making the parliament unworkable also captures day to day attention. The more or less precarious hold the leader of each party has on their position as leader also feeds the daily round.

However the mainstream media don’t do a very good job of this day to day reporting. This is partly because some journalists just report what politicians say, very often word for word – ‘the Leader of the Opposition said…’ Some reporters find it easier to write stories based on press handouts from politicians than to do any actual research themselves. (It’s also editors who want a particular spin, but that’s another matter.)

Yet even when they report accurately on the success or failure of the day to day tactics, they rarely question the political strategies that underlie them. Abbott’s strategy of making parliament a shouting match feeds cynicism in the electorate about politicians and politics. We’ll all pay for that in due course. But do any of the mainstream media call him on it? Does anyone even give a nod to the realities of minority government? The tit for tat reporting of the debate over Slipper’s disgusting text messages was allowed entirely to overshadow the issue of whether the Speaker was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and, indeed, the issue of the separation of powers. We laughed when Bjelke-Petersen didn’t know what that meant, but apparently journalists don’t know either, or don’t think it’s important enough to comment on. And then of course there’s the whole issue of the undeniable use of sexism, personal denigration and outright lies by the opposition leader. Which side is doing the damage to the national interest here? You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media.

But presenting politics as a rather sleazy sport creates an even more serious problem. Concentrating on the day to day tactics means that substance, or lack of it, goes unreported. Politics is more than just tactics, or even strategy. It is about how power and influence should be apportioned, and how wealth distributed in a society. The whole issue of the long-term outcomes of policy decisions is all but ignored by our mainstream media. There’s a theory about how he thinks the world should work behind Tony Abbott’s attack on the carbon tax. Which mainstream journalists explore it? They just report his hyperbole. And what about the constant talking-down of the economy by the Opposition? What sort of economy do they want? Who would benefit? And turning the boats around? What view of Australian society does that represent? We don’t know much about the Opposition’s plans for Australia should they win office. But even what we have been told goes unquestioned. Who is analysing the winners and losers from the direct action carbon reduction plan, and asking Greg Hunt about it? Who is looking at how paying the salaries of women on maternity leave is going to work out for poor women and asking Abbott about it? Journalists say that their job is to report impartially, not to comment in a partisan way – that is up to columnists. But surely this doesn’t mean taking whatever is said at face value? Is anyone interested in fact checking? Even if politics as a world view is too hard for them, couldn’t they manage a reality check on the bits of substance we have been given?

It’s interesting to speculate how the mainstream media would treat an Abbott government. Media outlets that already cheer-lead for him would continue to do so, which hardly comes as a surprise. And the self-appointed ‘independent’ journalist? My guess is that it would be business as usual. It’s just a game, after all.

We are being served up rubbish. Whatever you think of any of the parties seeking power in Australia, no one’s interest (except possibly lazy journalists’) is served by promoting the assumption that they are all the same. We need to know the differences in how they understand power and influence and the distribution of wealth, as revealed in what their members say and do. Certainly there are policy similarities, and these deserve discussion too. The argument that the major parties are as bad as each other, and by implication without any substance, is at best blind, and at worst self-serving. Far from making journalists neutral umpires, the ‘they are just the same and as bad as each other’ convention distorts reality, and turns the media into players. And guess which side that helps?

After I’d written this post, I saw Kevin Rudd on Lateline saying much the same thing, though his emphasis was on the politicians who treat politics as a game, rather than the media who report politics as a game. (He did take a swipe at the media as well for over-emphasising personal differences.) I also saw The Hamster Wheel’s ‘obituary’ of Rudd, which suggested that all of his actions are self-serving. Well perhaps that’s partly true, but in this case Rudd is right. Political debate should, as he says, be policy based, and we should be asking if political power is being used to benefit the few or the many.  And did Tony Abbott really say, as Rudd alleges, he loves the smell of blood on the canvas? If so, I rest my case.


This is a public service announcement

After the success of the recent guest post by my mum, Kay, she’s contributed again with this post about public service cuts. Enjoy!

Why is it that conservative political parties feel so comfortable attacking the public service? We are seeing public servants sacked or threatened in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. The federal Coalition and the SA Liberals are promising cuts if they get into office – Isobel Redmond even suggesting that a quarter of the state’s public servants could go – though she later backed away from this. (No doubt someone in her party reminded her you tell people that after the election, not before.)

I think this is more than just a knee jerk reaction, and it reflects a conservative view about limiting the role of government that is quite scary.

It’s true that conservative administrations attack the public service because they can. When they want to cut expenditure (rightly or wrongly), their own employees are the easiest target. They tell the electorate that of course they are not cutting the front line staff who deliver services to the public. It’s just those wastes of space in the back room – you know, the ones that run the systems that support the front line staff so they can get on with their work.

They usually feel safe in doing this because lots of Australians love to hate public servants. Not the teachers and nurses and police, but the paper pushers, the bean counters, the generators of red tape. Everyone has a rude public servant story. The concern felt for bank staff, or miners or vehicle builders who lose their jobs isn’t extended to public servants.

However there can be an electoral backlash – as appears to be the case in Queensland – if it seems that front line services will be affected. It is also true that the savings from getting rid of public servants are often illusory, as outsourced functions are expensive and often unsatisfactory. The commonwealth public service has grown under Labor at least in part because they turned some of the contract staff the Liberals had employed into salaried public servants, having almost certainly made the calculation it was cheaper that way.

But there are actually more fundamental reasons why conservatives don’t mind cutting the public service. They don’t want the state to do lots of the things that the public service currently does. Some of these things they think private enterprise should do. Others they don’t want done at all.

Getting things done by private enterprise comes in two different forms. The first is the extreme version of user pays. Consider the Baillieu government’s plans to cut TAFE funding and therefore TAFE jobs. Don’t we need people with the sort of training you get at TAFE, like trades apprenticeships, and technical training of all types? Yes, but there are now private providers who do that sort of thing. They are more expensive than TAFE, but that’s not the government’s problem. They are passing the cost back to the customer. Can’t afford it? Live in the country where there are no private providers? Tough luck. This is called taking personal responsibility. (See what Mitt Romney says about this.)

The second is the contracting out model. Both Liberal and Labor governments already use this model, for example out-sourcing significant functions like running prisons and immigration detention centres. In Britain, they are taking this much further, contracting out whole chunks of government activity – such as children’s services. In Devon, Virgin Care (as in Virgin airlines) and Serco (as in Adelaide busses) competed for a contract to run services for children and families at risk. Neither has experience in the area. And naturally they expect to make a profit. The services are still free at the point of contact, so profits have to come from somewhere else. The conservative theory is of course that private enterprise must be more efficient than a government-run one; what this usually means is fewer staff and less accountability. Are the Liberals planning to follow the lead of the British Conservative Party should they win government?

Though the Liberal Party is not telling us where they would make cuts to the public service, they are starting to talk about a revamped federalism, handing responsibility for some functions such as health and environmental matters back to the states. This at a time when states are themselves cutting their public services; who will take on these extra tasks? How will they be paid? The states – even the Liberal ones – will want extra money to take on extra responsibilities. Who knows where that will come from.  A rise in the GST, as is being urged by the NSW Liberal government? And how will differences between the willingness and capacity of the states to administer these areas be dealt with? This is looking very like an attempt to curtail what government actually does.

And then there are the things that conservative governments just don’t want to know about. The Liberals aren’t telling us much about what they will cut, but Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says “The Department of Climate Change would be very high up the list for close scrutiny.” No surprises there. Since climate change is a hoax, we don’t need anyone to do anything in that area. But wait. What about the Liberals’ direct action policy to reduce carbon emissions? Won’t that need someone to administer it? Whoops. Worry about that later. Then there’s all that regulation – the red tape they are going to do away with; this presumably means they will abdicate oversight in various areas where they think private enterprise should have free reign. Other as yet unnamed programs will also go, though we aren’t being told the criteria to be applied. A further reduction of state responsibility.

None of what I’ve said is meant to suggest that public service can avoid scrutiny. It ought to be as efficient and effective as possible. Programs that don’t work should be scrapped, even if this means job losses. But what we need – from both sides of politics – is some explanation of their view of the role of the state, and what resources they need to sustain this. What services should governments provide? How equitable should they be? At what cost? What can private enterprise do better than the public service? What risks are associated with private provision? What areas should never be left to the market?

All these questions arise from cutting the public service. Liberals, state and federal, really need to tell us how they view them, and what they think the role of government should be.

Dr Kay Rollison