Deliberately missing the opportunities

Jul 21, 2020

 There were – are – people who have seen great social and philosophical opportunities in the disruption caused by the pandemic, quarantine, closures of business, and mass unemployment rendered somewhat less painful by massive government spending and new income maintenance schemes.

Here, suddenly, was a government unafraid of public sector debt and deficits, creating new and more generous social safety nets. Could we emerge with a more generous spirit towards poorer Australians, instead of the spiteful belief that anyone on a welfare benefit was a cheat or malingerer, to be punished by arbitrary and repressive case management more focused on coercion than assistance?

Might our experience with social isolation regimes make possible new regimes of work from home, perhaps (as is being canvassed in New Zealand) with four, rather than five-day working weeks? There was to be an emphasis on job creation, having special urgency because businesses which had sustained some of the new unemployed were never going to come back. Could this be an opportunity for fresh ideas about building public and social infrastructure, including re-investment in schools, hospitals, health care and better programs for children at risk, childcare, for aged Australians, disabled Australians, indigenous Australians, and vocational training?

Could the job of rebuilding environments and communities after disastrous bushfires in January become in itself a vehicle for improved facilities, communications and social capital, rather than a slow and rather ineffective attempt to partially restore what had been lost by residents?

Could economic urgency and the need to create business confidence and stimulate business and consumer activity  infuse some compassion and higher civilisation into an increasingly nasty and empty public space?

Or was it to be same-old, same-old, ratchetted up only somewhat more than normal in counter-cyclical measures such as the dole, and infrastructure programs — roads, rail and dams, which whatever their overall economic benefit are increasingly ineffective in sopping up unemployment? Was there going to be some ideological house-monitor, ensuring that no program brought back anything which had been thrown away during years of budget austerity and efficiency dividends? Did ideology rather than circumstance dictate that almost all new employment initiatives be out in the private sector — where “real work” providing profits to entrepreneurs and donors is done, as opposed, apparently, to the “non-work performed by doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen and soldiers?

A same-old same-old with the dispensation of “tax cuts” as the generator of new spending, new investment? Against experience over the past decade that businesses invest and create jobs not with tax incentives but with confidence that demand is increasing, markets are bigger, consumers are more inclined to spend? A large proportion of those who have suffered economically in the pandemic will not be focused on maxing out the credit card following tax cuts. And all consumers will continue to be fearful of another pandemic hit.

We have seen spiteful and unnecessary measures emphasising, perhaps for the edification of the Institute of Public Affairs and Foxtel , that there was to be no let-up in the culture wars. Thus  universities and university staff are being excluded from any benefits even as university income was significantly down because our borders were closed.  Or the insistence on additional cuts for the ABC, and for the arts sector, even as practised rent seekers, such as the alcohol industry, were allowed to write their own rules. Which has starved cultural institutions such as the National Library, but lavished money on a museum to the arms industry at the war memorial? Which gives Jobkeeper money to ministers of religion but not airline stewards? With infrastructure spending seemingly determined to do nothing about climate change?

One might expect that National Party representatives within the coalition have no particular zeal for a mean-minded response, at least if it interferes with time-honoured traditions of being given large sums of money to be distributed, without accountability or transparency, to favoured constituencies and lobbies. But it seems clear that the surprising and refreshing flexibility of Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg does not extend to a wider view of the role of government, or to any restoration of public service  provision of goods and services, now handed over to for-profits companies, and church and social organisations.

It is, to be fair, both a creature of his disdain for socialism, or collective action as opposed to the promotion of self-reliance and having a go to get a go. It is also, of course, a reflection of a conviction —  rarely sustained by the facts — that goods and services are more efficiently provided by the private sector.

But even if Morrison does not want his Coronavirus legacy to be an expanded public service, or one performing more welfare functions, he still has opportunities to make Australian government better for his having been here. He has largely disdained organisational reform for the public service. But he has so far ducked on measures that might make public service more responsive to the community, and more obviously ethical and transparent.

He could look past his own disgraceful conduct in the sports-rorts affair (much of the disgrace of which came from his attempts to justify the unjustifiable)  and a pattern, by successive coalition governments, of attempting to avoid ethical standards and controls it had invented itself. It could create a strong Integrity Commission, able to act of its own initiative, and able to conduct public hearings, including about the conduct of ministers, minders, and party officials as well as of contracted-in agencies exercising discretions over public money, or coercive power over others.

He could also order an honest and independent inquiry into the accountability regimes operating over security and law enforcement agencies, including a review designed to stop the spectre of secret trials, the punishment of journalists, and the abolition of concepts of public interest,.

This week saw a revisiting, via the release of correspondence to Buckingham Palace of the decision by Sir John Kerr to sack the Whitlam government in 1975. The correspondence itself, as well as comments by former palace officials, confirms my opinion that while Kerr had the power to do what he did, he acted while he was facing a political crisis and before it was a constitutional crisis.

Be that as it may, Kerr’s decision installed Malcolm Fraser as prime minister, a decision confirmed by the electorate, and at two further elections. Fraser discovered the 1975 had sharply divided Australians and made it difficult to govern, least of all in the sort of radical conservative way (after alleged Whitlam government profligacies) he had promised. Instead he mostly sought to reconcile and reform, a decision many of his colleagues, not least his Treasurer, John Howard, could not forgive.

One essentially bipartisan project he took up was the implementation of the systemic reforms of public administration which had been recommended by the Kerr Review — while Billy Mcmahon was prime minister and picked up by Whitlam. These gave us, in time, the Judicial Review Act, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Ombudsman and the Freedom of Information Bill.

Fraser was, in all respects, a better prime minister and a better man than Scott Morrison. But it is interesting to note that when he was asked about his lasting achievements and monuments soon after he lost office, he nominated the administrative reform package and FOI. These were, he recognised,  measures that made government more accountable to the citizens and which took power away from the centre. At the same time, however, it made government better for being more principles-based and consistent, less secretive and less subject to arbitrary decision-making. Morrison could learn something from him. A legacy of imagination, building and expanding of the Australian mind rather a mean-minded diminisher, nitpicker, aggrandiserabolisher and preventer.

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