The path to petty tyranny and public poverty

May 19, 2021

The new style of government, and the growth of spending by unaccountable discretion, owes as much to the pandemic as to the personality and secretiveness of Scott Morrison. We are on a path to petty tyranny and public poverty.

A retreat will be difficult, if only because politicians on all sides of the fence pay only lip-service to the need for public participation, public scrutiny and consultation. Look, for example, at the records of Chris Bowen, Tony Burke or Penny Wong in government, and their irritation then at being called to account. Or, Andrew Barr.

The crisis of coronavirus is, in constitutional terms a bit like a war. Once war is declared, government girds itself  with all sorts of extraordinary powers, including over matters having very little to do with defence, so that the whole nation, the whole economy and all of the institutions of society can be mobilised against the external enemy. The very nature of the “emergency” is such that courts are hesitant about restraining officials, or putting too many limits on their discretion to act fast as circumstances require. Where there is some clear connection to the emergency, the courts will not usually second-guess government, even where judges privately think that similar outcomes could be achieved by less intrusive means.

The pandemic acquired some of that character, and not only in strangling immigration, imposing  lockdowns, creating new forms of unemployment and job guarantee schemes. It involved novel efforts to integrate state and federal responses, including the development of a national cabinet of first ministers, treated as though it were a committee of the actual federal cabinet. At one time it appeared that our prime minister would become the supreme overlord, but, to his obvious annoyance, state premiers frequently overrode him when they considered the interests of people of their state were not best protected. Their approach was repeatedly endorsed by their electorates.

At the economy level, however, Morrison has had fewer problems in dealing with first ministers, not least because he has been the one with money and they have had to dicker only about how it is to  been spent, if at all. Morrison has skilfully used the deal-making involved in national cabinet governance arrangements both to greatly magnify the area of Commonwealth discretion over spending and to add extra layers of secrecy and refusal to account to the media and the public.  In constitutional law, extraordinary powers granted in an emergency tend to shrink as the danger recedes, but one can be sure that Morrison will not lightly surrender what he now has.

Morrison has unprecedented power he will not lightly surrender, even after full recovery and a wholly vaccinated population

Ironically, of course, it has made him a big-government, rather than a small-government, player. But it would be wrong to say that the Morrison government has surrendered its ideology on this as easily and as lightly as it dropped its rhetoric about debt and deficit, and built these up to be the biggest in Australian history. First, Morrison has largely bypassed the bureaucracy in devising and implementing new programs and policies, instead doling out grants to the private sector and arranging delivery systems suggested by well-paid but partisan and unaccountable consultants . The extra power, in short, has come to him, not to his administration, and his control over the dispersal of money has made him a much more powerful figure in the electorate at large, particularly among employers, finance figures and the institutions.  With no control over process, a new tyranny is in prospect, and without any protections against opportunities for corruption that are already evident.

Agreeing to reform aged care, and to give it,  child-care and services to women is not in the least impermissibly “political”, or objectionable because it is being done by Morrison after previous policy failures in this area. Attending to shortcomings in current systems is the stuff of politics. But what is different is the risk that many of these new services will be administered by discretion and whim rather than by established processes, carried out by professionals rather than partisans.

But there’s another problem. Morrison and Frydenberg deserve credit for the courage (particularly from their side of politics) with which they realised that public spending was the key to weathering the economic shutdown.  They borrowed unprecedented sums, and budgeted for extraordinary deficits. Everyone agrees that the now trillion public debt will not be paid off for decades. Some, less accurately, describe this spending as an impost passed on to the next generation by the baby boomers.

People will speak wisely, even disapprovingly, about mounting debt (particularly if interest rates increase) but there will be little short-term dividend, and not a little political cost for doing anything about it by cutting spending or increasing taxes. There might be a time,  for example when mining companies are making super-profits (as now) for putting some of it away for a rainy day, but neither Peter Costello or Josh Frydenberg have even seen any practical virtue in doing that.

It is also obvious that no particular discipline has been applied to the spending process, apart from a customary, and still ideological commitment to keeping the public service to a minimum, and to refrain for giving it new functions. That is to say that it would have made no real difference to the government’s bottom line had it given $1 billion extra to the ABC or $50 billion to universities. Not doing so is not an unfortunate consequence of fiscal restraint, having to make hard choices in difficult times, or of having found more important priorities. The meanness is, as it has been since the start of the pandemic ideological, designed to punish parts of society where opponents of the government — particularly those who habituate wine bars and cafes — are thought to be concentrated. Likewise with spending extra billions on security intelligence with the AFP and ASIO  — it ticks boxes among those who like to think society is under threat from outsiders, and regular alarums from its leaders are great campaign fodder.

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