The compact between government and citizen is being destroyed.
During the years of the previous Coalition Government 1996-2007, the commentariat charged Prime Minister Howard with lacking a vision for Australia’s future. That assessment of Howard’s leadership was wrong. Howard said that he wanted to make Australia the world’s leading shareholding democracy. He took much of the common wealth that bound the community together and put it on sale. Community values were marketed so that active citizenship became not a right and a duty but a commodity to be purchased.
Similar misguided accusations are being directed at Prime Minister Turnbull. But his government is driving a relentless privatisation agenda and reducing the notions of the public sector and the common wealth radically. It is an enduring myth of Liberal Party ideology that Labor runs a nanny state and patronises people, but Coalition Governments invariably engage in social engineering. The compact between government and citizen is being destroyed.
When your aims are nasty, inevitably your methods are nasty. The Turnbull Government is qualitatively different from any previous government – it is Australia’s first really nasty government.
When the Coalition was re-elected after a first term characterised by disunity, deceit, incompetence and lack of commitment to issues as important as climate change and the environment, closing the gap between Indigenous people and other Australians, employment and social equality, trouble was inevitable. The government’s ideological obsession with privatisation and a sort of freedom is bringing disaster. If the crisis in Centrelink is indicative, professionalism in government is now an empty slogan.
Centrelink no longer possesses the skills and ethos to perform adequately. It cannot assess individual cases, correspond accurately with ‘clients’ or recognise its own problems. The hypocrisy and chicanery of the elected government has led Centrelink to this low point in welfare history. Determined to pursue the vulnerable, the easy targets, rather than the big fraudsters, the Turnbull Government has outsourced the responsibility for debt collection to private agencies – its mates if you wish.
Such wastage of millions of taxpayer dollars makes sense only if to blinkered Liberals. For them there is no crisis. Erroneous demands being made on the vulnerable fit their agenda perfectly. This campaign is meant to cow welfare recipients and make them afraid for their futures. Money which has been going into the pockets of the disabled, the homeless, the unemployed, the ill or the elderly should be in the hands of any Liberal supporter who wants to set up an agency, regardless of having appropriate skills. Hastily created companies have taken up the slack in areas formerly serviced by TAFE, by the Commonwealth Employment Service and by numerous other agencies.
We should have anticipated that nastiness would become the norm. Treatment of asylum seekers provides the model. In the newspeak of successive Immigration Ministers, detaining people who have committed no crime is just, deaths in custody are evidence of care and the negative reports of every objective observer shows how well Australia is protecting poor, exploited and misguided people.
On his latest CD Eric Bogle warns about the consequences of ignoring bullies. If bullies get away with abusing the rights of asylum seekers, they will apply their tactics to other victims. Perhaps the electors who returned the Turnbull Government assumed that no Australian politician would dare treat Australians in the ways that they have treated asylum seekers for decades. But they were wrong. The bullies are applying the principles honed in immigration policy to welfare recipients – deny them facts about their own situations, deny that any blunders have been made, accuse them of being ungrateful, threaten them with an escalating series of punishments, establish propaganda campaigns to demonise them, make other Australians envious and resentful and so, divide and rule.
It is this process of divide and rule that Bogle’s song ‘Freedom Lost’ nails precisely. He takes Pastor Niemoller’s admission from 1930s Germany and gives it a powerful musical setting. Niemoller confessed that he did not speak out when they came for the communists because he was not a communist. Nor did he object when they took the socialists, because he was not a socialist. The list grows until Niemoller laments that when they came for him, no-one spoke out – there was no-one left to do so. Bogle’s song might well become an anthem for these times in Australia.
Previous governments of all persuasions have been characterised by sincerity and moderation. Now, politicians do not believe what they say and do not say what they believe. Once, it was considered fair that balance returned to the system when governments changed. A democratic convention prevented temporary governments from making radical changes to political culture. But this government is destroying that underlying consensus. Government is being hollowed out and replaced with market forces, which are as tyrannous as any dictator.
Our grandchildren’s future looks bleak if the norm is established that the majority will work for a pittance while the wealthy few become richer. Millennia ago Aristotle observed that the strong have no need for justice. The weak need justice. This nasty government is undermining both the institutions that provide justice and the underlying values of justice. As many more Australians join the ranks of the weak – not because of their own failures but because it suits the ideology of this nasty government – they will look in vain for the advocates and the institutions that can deliver justice.
This bullying must stop. Unaccustomed to dealing with a nasty government, Australians are slow to realise what is happening. The immediate danger is that enough people will swallow Coalition lies about budget savings to condone the government nastiness. Irreparable damage is being done to the rules of the game. The broad consensus around Australian values such as egalitarianism and the fair go are fragile and cannot survive in a ‘nasty’ political culture. They came for the asylum seekers. They are lining up welfare recipients, unionists and critics. Few are beyond their reach.
Tony Smith is a former academic, regular contributor to Eureka Street, Australian Review of Public Affairs and Australian Quarterly.