What’s in it for me? John Menadue

Oct 15, 2013

Last year in London Joe Hockey said that we had to break free of our culture of entitlement. He said. “The problem arises…when there is a belief that one person has a right to a good or service that someone else will pay for. It is this sense of entitlement that affects not just individuals but also entire societies. And governments are to blame for portraying taxpayer’s money as something removed from the labour of another person” He repeated much the same last week in his first visit as Treasurer to Washington. He made it clear that all Australians had to make hard choices and that we couldn’t have everything that we wanted.

This is a problem for all of us but Joe Hockey should start with his own leader. Tony Abbott has been leading the peloton in dodgy claims at the expense of the taxpayer.

Aside from politicians some of the worst examples of this culture of entitlement are in the business sector. Professor Ross Garnaut has commented that the long period of prosperity has provided a congenial environment for the entrenchment of a new political culture that elevates private demands over the public interest. This is reflected in the lobbying by many business people for special privileges. The Secretary of the Treasury has warned us that we will not be able to maintain our health and education services unless we pay more in taxes. In the public debate it is assumed that we can all have benefits of public spending without cost. The previous Secretary of Treasury, Ken Henry, has said that he has never seen such a poor standard of public debate about the need for hard choices in Australia.

The fact is that any significant and worthwhile changes in the economy and society will mean that there will be losses by some. We need to face that fact.

There are many examples of ‘what’s in it for me?’ in public discussion.

In the reform of education, we have been consistently told that Commonwealth Government funding will ensure that no schools will be worse off. That implies that many wealthy private schools will continue to be funded at high levels at the expense of facilities for the disadvantaged in public schools- indigenous, non-English-speaking, and socially impoverished students. The fact is if we are going to have serious reform in education, that promotes equality of opportunity, there will have to be some schools that will be worse off. That may be politically difficult but we see particularly in the Nordic countries, that increased education spending which is directed to areas of greatest need provides enormous economic as well as social benefits. Maintaining existing levels of funding for many wealthy private schools will be at the cost of the disadvantaged.

Kevin Rudd told us that climate change was the greatest moral challenge of our generation. He was right. But the ‘debate ‘quickly became mired in issues of compensation. Making sure that no-one was worth off, including the polluters, meant that we lost focus on the objective of the policy – reducing carbon pollution.

The Business Council of Australia wants to increase the productivity of our economy, but is silent about the rent-seekers amongst its membership who want to retain their privileges whether they be in the hospitality, gambling or mining sectors. The BCA wants labour market flexibility for most of the workforce, but says nothing about the rigged system of executive remuneration.

In reporting of Commonwealth and State budgets, the media almost always reduces the debate to tables showing who would be better off or who will be worse off regardless of the policy objective of the reform.

The health ‘debate’ is invariably dominated by ‘what is in it for me?’ for the private health insurance funds, the pharmacists or medical specialists. Very quickly their public demands and self-interest dominate what should be a debate about necessary reform.

In a global and changing world, we are indulging ourselves. As a community our individual expectations cannot all be fulfilled. We can’t have everything we want. The culture of ‘what is in it for me?’ will inevitably bring us undone. In any worthwhile reform, there will be inevitable losers. Those who need to loose most are the rent seekers for example in the mining and private schools sectors who work so desperately to maintain their privileged positions. Joe Hockey should start by talking to these sectors about their ingrained sense of entitlement.. and of course Tony Abbott

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