DEREK ABBOTT. The Way We Live Now.

In 1988, with the Hawke government successfully carrying through a program of profound economic reform while avoiding the social divisiveness that characterised Margaret Thatcher’s not dissimilar policies in Britain, and with John Howard’s toe in the water on a return to White Australia decisively rejected by his own party and the community at large, it was possible to envisage a future for Australia as a tolerant, socially inclusive, ‘good international citizen’.

In 2018 the reality is somewhat different. At the macro-economic level our society has become markedly more unequal; the distribution of wealth has become progressively more uneven; taxation policies favour those who own property, making housing unaffordable for those who don’t; wage and salary growth has barely kept pace with inflation while the principle of progressive taxation of incomes has been undermined. Executive remuneration has become ever more lavish and the superannuation system has become a tax minimisation vehicle for the comfortably off. The big end of town has combined loud campaigns to have its tax burden reduced – the miners’ campaign against Gillard’s resource rent tax; the proposed company tax reductions – with an ‘up yours’ approach to social responsibility and ethical behaviour as revealed in the current financial services Royal Commission.

The mantra of choice has seen education and health services progressively privatised while the service providers are heavily subsidised by government. Private health insurance premium rebates cost the Commonwealth $5.7 bn in 2015-16. In 1988 73% of students attended public schools, by 2017 that proportion had fallen to 65% and the Commonwealth Government subsidies to the private sector amounted to $11 bn. This at a time when educational outcomes are declining as measured by international comparisons. Under the guise of ‘targeting’ benefits our social welfare system has become increasingly mean-spirited and its administration – think Centrelink robo-debt recovery – punitive. As a consequence public services are now viewed as a rather threadbare safety net.

In industrial relations the consensus approach of the 1980s is barely a memory. Despite the significant decline in union membership in a deregulated labour market the unions remain a bogeyman of the right while underpayment, failure to pay allowances and ‘phoenixing’ to avoid liabilities are now ubiquitous. Under the guise of ‘independent contracting’ workers who would once have been employees with some measure of protection are now ‘self-employed’ and vulnerable. TAFE and apprenticeships have been run down while visa systems to bring in workers from overseas to fill gaps have been vastly extended. Progress on indigenous reconciliation, proceeding at a snails pace, seems to have stalled with the blunt rejection of the Statement from the Heart.

In international relations we have followed the US into a series of foreign wars that have failed to deliver peace and stability; our expenditure on weapons increases while our foreign aid budget is at a historic low. Howard’s 1988 comments on immigration and race would barely rate a mention amid the poisonous commentary that is now acceptable in the mainstream. Our treatment of asylum seekers has brought international condemnation.

The debate over climate change, which remains unresolved, encapsulates the failure of a political system incapable of putting its petty squabbles to one side and acting in the national interest even in the face of an existential threat. The plebiscite on same-sex marriage revealed a political leadership unwilling to lead and at odds with public opinion.

How did we get here? In Great Britain there was Thatcherism, a reshaping of the country economically and socially, that was pursued combatively; unions were to be broken, nationalised industries shut down, people were to be forced off welfare, public infrastructure broken up and sold. If the changes precipitated conflict, so much the better; the violence accompanying pit closures and the implementation of the poll tax fed into Thatcher’s narrative of heroic leadership and national salvation – ‘the lady’s not for turning’; ‘there is no alternative’. This approach to politics had an identity and a coherence; it was up for debate, you could be for it or against it but you couldn’t ignore it.

In Australia things were different. The Hawke and Keating governments did the heavy lifting on the economic front. Educating voters about the necessity for change, cooperating with the union movement and even scaring us with the prospect of a banana republic, were essential parts of the process; consensus was more than a slogan. Reducing protectionism, floating the currency, opening the economy to international competition, freeing up the labour market and privatising government- owned businesses were presented as moderate and essential reforms to maintain our standard of living and preserve those things we valued about Australia, not as a disruptive reshaping of society.

When John Howard came to office in 1996, as he was to say, the times suited him. Most of the hard work had been done and the electorate was weary of change. There was no need for ‘Howardism’, an explicitly conservative agenda that sought to change the direction of Australia’s social development. What was on offer was sound economic management without all the noisy rhetoric about a republic, social justice, human rights and indigenous people. We were encouraged to be relaxed and comfortable behind our white picket fences. Who could object to more choice or better, more cost effective, management of the public service? That “we” should decide who comes to Australia was a truism. However, bit-by-bit the language of social conservatism and ‘culture wars’ came to frame public debate as the Howard government moved this country to the right; government was to be distrusted, taxation was taking money out of our pockets, progressive ideas were the province of out of touch ‘elites’. The measures of national well-being narrowed to annual growth of the GDP and the size of the budget deficit. At the same time the resources boom ensured prosperity and blunted the edge of criticism. As a result Australia has become less inclusive, less generous and more inward looking. 

Civil society could try to change policies on asylum seekers, climate change, foreign wars or foreign aid but it was too fragmented and the political leadership was too risk averse. The Labor Party, by competing on their opponent’s terms as responsible economic managers and custodians of the public revenue, sound on the US alliance, defence, security and border protection, respectful of our home-owning birth right and supportive of choice, offered far too many cracks into which wedges might be inserted. In their one period in office, battered by the Global Financial Crisis and beset by internal instability, Labor failed to change the country’s direction.

Thus, we are living with Howard’s legacy. It is a mark of how far we have come that the ascension of Scott Morrison, surely Howard’s heir, has been received almost with relief because the alternative was even worse.

Derek Abbott is a retired parliamentary committee officer who, over a long career, managed a range of inquiries for Senate and Joint Committees.

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