The Abbott Government and the Future of Australia
October 27th, 2014
Like thousands of Australians I have been almost consumed by frustration over the political situation in Australia over the last several decades. To anyone reading these pages that will come as no surprise. The last 25 or so years have for the most part been exceptionally difficult as politically and economically the country seemed to retreat to the past, to embrace more than most other countries an economic model which on examination lacks any real justification in history or people’s behaviour, a subject I have already traversed in the context of education policy.
Australia has achieved some astounding things in its relatively short history.
And it has been through some horrendous experiences, though almost as nothing compared to what has fallen on the citizens of many countries. And continues!
But more than that, the embrace of a policy – neoclassical or market economics – which focuses so much on the short run, on a belief in the merits of competition and financial rewards and more, indeed an ultimate gain in individual gratification through financial success, has led to further marginalisation of the less advantaged and ongoing limitation in the expectations for many. That is seen in policies for education and housing which entrench advantage, in limited investment in infrastructure of all kinds and in continued reliance on resource exploitation and primary production, a “dig it up and ship it out” mentality which allows that commercial enterprises, especially those owned by overseas interests, need not necessarily devote resources to research and development in this country because the answers can be got from overseas, sometimes from their branches. In particular little attention has been paid to economic diversification whilst the contribution of some areas of the economy, especially mining, are vastly exaggerated by their supporters. The Australia Institute has released reports showing, for instance, that solar energy contributes more to the economy than coal mining.
To some, such things as concern for the disadvantaged, for universal access to education and universal health care, to decent housing for everyone and to functioning and attractive physical and natural environments, to a system of justice which recognises and protects the dignity and justifiable right to reasonable privacy for all, a society in which creativity and inquiry are valued and not least a society in which diversity, cultural, racial, gender, age and more including sexual orientation, seem justifiable only in an economic frame. That these things, along with workplaces which respect and appropriately reward the unique contribution of everyone, do actually contribute very substantially indeed to economic success is evident beyond any doubt to anyone who considers that evidence. Seemingly, that is not sufficient to those who allow that personal experience and entrenched belief should trump everything. So political propaganda and patronage of fear can play havoc and divert attention from the imperatives of the future in favour of the emergencies of the present. Something that the wonderful Barry Jones said decades ago.
Ignoring the substantial contributions that Australians have made to science and the arts are just part of the mix, a view that innovation is something that business does but government doesn’t. That is wrong! As Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem, 2014), very many extremely significant commercial developments developed from basic “blue sky” research by government funded agencies, not from business. Business takes on the results of the basic research and brings the product to market. To do that requires business to be prepared to take risks, including the risk of failure, an essential element of innovation. The claim for certainty heard often from business is antithetical innovation and ignores the real world.
The response? The Australian government’s spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP is now the lowest it has been since 1978 and the third lowest of any OECD country. For several decades there has been a drive for CSIRO to be more commercially oriented and substantial numbers of staff have been lost from the organisation. In 2007 the Productivity Commission reported concerns about the focus and called for the tax breaks for business investment should not be targeted only at commercial benefit. Then science minister Julie Bishop dismissed the concerns.
In October 2014 the Abbott government announced $500 millions for programs entirely directed at certain areas of the commercial economy and Industry Minister Macfarlane acknowledged that there were concerns about reductions in funding but blamed the budgetary situation! At the same time most other countries are investing heavily in science. The 2013 budget contained very substantial cuts to research in universities and proposed increasing charges for students attending universities. These were part of proposed university deregulation which large universities, some policy groups like the Grattan Institute and the Business Council supported. That is despite clear evidence that in Australia the return to the community is far greater than that to the individual.
Of course we do well in sport: well we don’t actually achieve internationally in sport as we do in the arts and in science, for our size. Recall the number of leading actors, dance companies, orchestras – the Australian Chamber Orchestra recognised as the best small orchestra in the world – authors and musicians. Films don’t miss out because they are no good but because of the scene being swamped by huge promotional spends by overseas companies.
The fact that business can thrive quite satisfactorily and at the same time be regulated to protect the legitimate interests of the citizenry is not a deeply held view. Too often, especially in respect of financial institutions (which incidentally have done best from the measures put in place to confront the Global Financial Crisis), an attempt by government to regulate is howled down. For the governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott almost any regulation is seen as a burden. Indeed the Abbott government seems intent on abandoning any role in regulation and even the notion of Australia as a nation except in respect of defence and foreign policy and a few other things such as “being open for business”, whatever that means. Providing we determine who comes to this country and allowed to stay!
All of these issues are ones traversed energetically in the increasing conversations in social media and more serious places. But governments in the last 25 years have not necessarily listened to those views which do not suit their philosophies. Though one would have to say that the Rudd and Gillard governments were characterised by substantially greater intelligence than some others. A contested view of course. But think education reform and the response to the Global Financial Crisis. And the substantial raft of legislation passed despite it being a minority government: being supported by intelligent and committed independents made a difference which Abbott refused to admit, branding the government illegitimate but not labelling the coalition government of David Cameron in the UK with that epithet.
Go back further and think of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments, not just economically. The Whitlam government whose achievements have been so acknowledged in the last weeks of October following the death of Gough Whitlam aged 98, achievements of vast long-term economic importance, achievements denied at the time. The Fraser government which enacted some of the Whitlam initiatives, embraced humanitarian approaches to asylum seekers and immigrants which have so enriched this country in the context of multiculturalism initiated during the Whitlam years, difficult though that was. And advanced Indigenous interests.
Now we face critical issues at almost every turn. As I have already written, these essays under the subject of “In Australia” address some of those issues and eventually will suggest some approaches for the future. But the views and suggestions are just more amongst the many views and suggestions of others, the thoughts and opinions of the many Australians whose commitment and intelligence will be evident to anyone reading, listening to or watching the more serious publications, radio and television programs. Most of the last two and some of the first are to be found on the platforms of the ABC and SBS, media branded as inefficient at best and biased at worst by those of the right. Despite being trusted by over 80 per cent of the population on every survey! Despite their attention to the very values which so many cherish and which on occasion have been embraced politically.
The next two essays address a very difficult subject: is the Abbott government competent to lead the country.