The Coalition champions small government — except when it doesn’t

Nov 29, 2021
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

The Morrison government’s claims that it opposes state intervention are undercut by its controlling actions across welfare, education and security.

In his latest slogan, Scott Morrison wants it known that his government will handle climate change with “can-do capitalism”, which seems a new amalgamation of “technology, not taxes”, while a Labor government would attempt to “control people’s lives and tell them what to do”.

Neoliberal hypocrisy has always been well established, so it should have come as no surprise when Morrison decided to speak out against government intervention. Attempting to take back control of his base, which has become fractured over the Keynesian response to much of the pandemic, the prime minister strongly urged state leaders to step back and let Australians “have their lives back”:

“Over the last couple of years, governments have been telling Australians what to do… the time is now to start rolling all of that back.”

The statement was Reaganesque in its appeal to the values of small government. In the eight years they have been in power, the Liberals have seemingly championed this at all costs — at least on the surface.

Despite the Opposition not having any such policy, it is interesting to note that Morrison’s myopic statements are also mired in false rhetoric. The small-l liberal policy is always on display, and the Coalition consistently pushes its small government credentials — in everything but policy. In fact, the Coalition government has a remarkable proclivity to interfere in people’s affairs. Even if this is sometimes through a reliance on free enterprise, it is still done through the prism of an interventionist approach.

Take for example the funding for fossil fuel industries. The Australia Institute highlighted in April that the government has provided $10.3 billion in spending and tax breaks to assist these industries. This funding doesn’t include the intervention the government is planning to implement through its “gas-led recovery”. Guardian Australia reported that in this “can-do plan” there are in fact a lot of rules. These include supply targets for the states with a “use it or lose it” requirement ostensibly designed to get these projects off the ground more quickly.

This is the supposed lack of intervention that Morrison runs his government on. One only needs to look at recent government decisions to see that any claim that it is “hands off” is both pious and false. The implementation of the cashless debit card is a prime example of this.

The government, in providing welfare for people in some communities, has forcibly taken away their control of their own money. Under the program, 80 per cent of the income provided through Services Australia is quarantined under the guise of it not being spent on alcohol or gambling. This authoritarian approach doesn’t take into account that many places in these communities don’t accept the card or that the people who are forced to use it are ostracised for no other reason than geography or their situation. Nor does it factor in that for many low-income families, cash purchases through online second-hand marketplaces such as Gumtree are the only way to actually afford goods. This intervention in the lives of welfare recipients is nothing new.

Despite it being established that most JobSeeker recipients aren’t “dole bludgers”, the government instigated a hotline designed to report recipients who businesses decided didn’t want to take a job. It lacks both compassion and relevance but more importantly is the kind of overreach that the Coalition hypocritically decries.

It is, however, not just welfare recipients who the government targets. Security legislation, educational content and even ministers themselves are mired in this hypocrisy of what constitutes the government staying out of people’s lives.

In August, the Coalition passed legislation which created more avenues in which the Australian Federal Police can access, modify and delete people’s data. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash rejected the proposal that a magistrate or judge should oversee the implementation of warrants, saying this would only cause “operational delays”. This went against the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

In education, minister Alan Tudge has been railing against any new proposal by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority that doesn’t include a fawning over Australia’s colonial history. He says he doesn’t want Anzac Day to be a “contested idea” and is worried that if Australia doesn’t teach its children a positive view of our history, those children won’t want to defend the country in the future. His aggressive intervention, something that seeks to whitewash history, was described by Labor MP Tony Burke as a “bit weird”.

If reining in the excesses of big government is the focus of the prime minister, then the implementation of a federal integrity body to help oversee fraudulent behaviour, including the misspending of taxpayer money, would surely be top of his to-do list. But despite coming up with a proposal for such a body, which independent experts say is “woefully weak”, it was reported in the The Australian Financial Review that it is still unlikely to get legislated before the next election.

In his essay “Hayek Shrugged, Professor Peter Fleming highlighted the neoliberal hypocrisy when it comes to state intervention. He noted that even celebrated anti-statist Friedrich Hayek theorised that:

“To keep society on the true path a definite activation of the state is needed, no less intrusive than its Keynesian counterpart; one that defends business and chides welfare and unions.”

This seems to be the attitude of the Morrison government. The idea that it is staying out of people’s lives plays well to its conservative base. Hypocritically, however, it does seem that this intervention is only a negative when the government wants it to be. It has no qualms with being able to access people’s emails or governing the content of the ABC. But legislating steps to reach net zero emissions by 2050 is seen as too interventionist.

As journalist Rick Morton noted of the right in his book One Hundred Years of Dirt, “[they] are the kind of people who deplore the government unless they’re begging it for tax breaks. Everything else is a handout.”

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