Economist Ross Garnaut tells conference the independent centre is being drowned out by business interests,main stream media and lobbyists.
The crisis in Australia’s political system is less about the quality of individual politicians and more to do with the “majority media” and business lobby groups drowning out the independent centre for their own self-interest, distinguished economist, Prof Ross Garnaut has said.
Garnaut, speaking during a panel discussion at the 2018 Outlook Conference in Melbourne, said the big economic reform period of the 1980s came to an end with the rancorous debate about the GST before it was introduced in 2000, “followed by years in which major policy change, reform, in the national interest became rare, more difficult, and temporary”.
Governments since had attempted big reforms, such as the Howard government’s industrial changes, WorkChoices, the Rudd government’s macroeconomic policies to avoid recession during the global financial crisis of 2008, and the Gillard government’s climate policies from 2012, which were working and “would have allowed Australian contribution of its fair share to an international effort without economic disruption or substantial cost”.
All were repudiated, with the “macroeconomic policies that kept Australia out of recession … shouted down by the majority media and the then opposition parties to an extent that will create barriers to Australia responding wisely next time we face recessionary pressures from the global economy”.
Garnaut, a senior economic adviser to former prime minister Bob Hawke and author of a landmark review into the impacts of climate change in 2008, told the conference “Australia is in trouble”. A key reason was “a thinning of an informed, engaged, independent centre of our polity”.
“The majority media and the business lobbies have drowned out the independent centre, with raucous assertion of opinions that are convenient to their private interests. The words that are shouted most loudly are now taken by their proponents as facts.”
Most damaging to economic policy was the “promotion of cash-for comment economic modelling, where the truth is incidental to promotion of outcomes that suit the private interests that commission them”.
He said the most obvious examples were climate policy and the taxation of corporate incomes. The result had been community distrust in institutions.
“The loud voices do their best to shout down the institutions that have retained public trust. A sullen electorate is inclined to doubt its political leaders, and disinclined to follow them, both when they are right and when they are wrong.”
Garnaut declined to specify which parts of the “majority media” were responsible. The outlook conference is sponsored by the Australian and the University of Melbourne.
He told Guardian Australia there was a need for a better resourced and competitive media, and there was “a case for fiscal support for smaller voices.”
There was also “a risk of the deterioration going further” with the proposed merger of Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media.
During the same discussion, the former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello said the fracturing of Australian politicsover the past decade was not the fault of social media, nor the lack of a government Senate majority or increased partisanship.
In three of the four terms Costello was treasurer, the Coalition did not enjoy a majority in the Senate, and the introduction of the GST was bitterly fought by Labor, he said.
“I think it is much more banal than that. The issue is the politicians are just not sure what the change is that they want.
“The 2007 election shook the confidence of the Coalition. After that the Coalition began to query whether good policy really did lead to electability.”
During his time as treasurer from 1996 to 2007, various strands of the Liberal party could unite around an economic narrative, he said. Without it, the party divided on social and moral issues, “because they were the issues that were in debate”.
Costello noted that when Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership in 2015, he claimed there was no economic narrative. “I would agree with that, but then I kept on waiting for the economic narrative to come and I’m not sure that it did.”
The chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said it was hard to get the sense of urgency for reform, some issues seemed too complicated, and the reform process was “often terrible”.
“The Neg [National Energy Guarantee] was a good process. It was good policy and we still couldn’t get it done,” she said.
This article was published by The Guardian on the 11th of October 2018.
Gay Alcorn is Melbourne editor, Guardian Australia. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years and is a three-times Walkley award winner. She is a former editor of the Sunday Age and columnist for the Age.