PM Gillard and the curse of undue expectations

Julia Gillard was invited to dinner the other day by two young people in the western suburbs of Sydney. She had another engagement, unfortunately, so she couldn’t sit down and hear their story. But they were able to tell the media, if not the PM.

The crux of  their plight is the long distances they had to go to work, and their high energy costs. So much of their money was going on energy of one kind and another, and they were so tired when they got home. I don’t know what the PM would have said in reply, and we’ll pass over the fact that her government is indeed responsible for some of the couple’s higher energy costs.

But my focus is on the expectations of the young people, and where they originated. And why they thought the PM ought to do something about their problems. She might have asked them what their priorities were: why didn’t they move closer to their work, or move to somewhere else altogether, or find new jobs. Why is it my problem? And my guess is that they would have looked nonplussed when she said that.

But you’re the Prime Minister, they would reply. You’re the one with a plan for this and a plan for that. What about a plan for us?

If I’m right, expectations like these are widespread, and they are lead in the saddle-bags of any government, especially Julia Gillard’s. The notion that governments are there to look after us is a relatively new one, and it is a by-product of the view that became dominant in the 1980s  the economy, not the political system, was the real power in the land.

Governments in the democracies became less confident about the big picture, and moved their attention to small groups that had problems that governments might be able to deal with. In time people caught on: the way forward was to form a group and lobby: find someone who could picture the grievance in a way that the media could fasten on to, get the attention of the local MPs, badger a Minister, and go for it.

It has been this way for at least the last twenty years, I think. Out of the ferment of all this lobbying has come an attitude of ‘expectation’ that is itself a close cousin of ‘entitlement’, about which I have written in the past. Expectation is different because it flourishes best in the hothouse environment of an election campaign. Every politician is making promises – what about one to fix up my problems?

There is no end to this state of mind, and it is akin to the cargo cult of Papua New Guinea, where some day a plane will come and distribute goodies to everyone. The young couple’s problems, as they set them out, cannot be solved either by the PM or by the NSW Premier, even if they both worked wholeheartedly together. Much faster rail trips and much better roads can be promised today, but they can’t be delivered under a decade.

I don’t have a solution for the PM, her colleagues and the Opposition, other than to stop the bidding game that goes on at every election, stop making promises, even John Howard’s ‘core promises’. They might all agree to tell the voters that governments are there to make sure that the essential services are there, that the laws are enforced, and that the defences are adequate. They are not there to bring happiness to everybody.

And they are not there to bring miraculous changes to the western suburbs of Sydney. Yes, if you draw the lines that way, it is Australia’s third-largest city. But it is miles and miles of suburbs that were never planned in any sensible or coherent way, and it and its inhabitants suffer because of that lack of forethought. Bad planning, and a lack of planning, cannot be overcome even with buckets of money, because the buckets will never be large enough, and  we all want the good things NOW.

If the young couple get tired of all the travel they can decide to go somewhere else and start again. In fact, another of life’s many puzzles is the lack of real mobility in our country. Americans think nothing of moving halfway across their nation in pursuit of the right job. When I studied these matters I discovered that Australians moved as often as Americans, but not nearly so far – from one part of their city to another, and even from one part of their suburb to another.

Beyond a certain point, I don’t think it is reasonable to ask governments to make things as good in one part of our city as they are in another part. If you don’t like where you live, go to somewhere else.

(My apologies for the over-early appearance of part of this post, caused by my being away from base and working on another computer.)

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