What the Prime Minister might have said

A week or so ago I wrote that the selling of the budget by the Abbott Government had not been done well after the Treasurer’s opening salvo on Budget night. It’s easy enough to say that the Budget has to be tough because the previous government left things in a mess, but why you are going to do this rather than that, cut here rather than there, remove benefits rather than increase taxes — all that requires consistent and coherent explanation. It requires it because tough budgets are unpleasant to nearly everyone, and the unhappy need to feel that there is a reason for it all. They might not like the reason, but they are looking for one that makes some kind of sense. Without one they will easily come to the opinion that those in charge are heartless villains.

I haven’t heard the reason, and I offer, entirely gratis, to provide one for the Prime Minister and his team. It is not a defence of the budget. Rather, it is an account of what the Prime Minister and his allies stand for, their view of the world, of politics, economies and society. It is, if you like, the context in which such a party would set about constructing a budget. I have taken the elements of it from what I have heard the PM and his Ministers say, and to a degree from the long Liberal tradition, now more than a century old.

I think it is most important for the Prime Minister to set out positively what he and his party stand for. It is not enough to be anti-Labor. The Liberal Party does have a view of the world, and it needs to be enunciated especially at times like these. Not everyone will like it, but that is not important — nothing any politician says will appeal to everyone and if, strangely, it does, it’s probably not worth having been said. So here goes.

‘My fellow Australian citizens, you need to know what we in the Government are about. We’re not here just to reduce and end the large deficit we have, though that is really important. We want to see an Australia that is different to the present one, and better too. We think that there has grown within the community a feeling that everyone is entitled to share in the riches that our productive people have generated — whether or not those who feel that way have done anything to produce the wealth. Of course, everyone does benefit as the economy grows, and indeed all Australians are much better off than they were twenty years ago, when the current boom started.

‘But there is no money tree, and the long boom from which we have all benefited has tapered off. There is less money coming in as government revenue that was expected, and we have large debts. In reviewing how to get rid of the deficit, we in the Government need to look at all the ways in which public money is expended. Are they all necessary? In our view the basis of the present Australian standard of living is work by men and women everywhere. We are a hard-working society, and work is good for us as individuals, because it provides not just the means for living but a social context as well. Our work, in its myriad forms, is also the basis for our enjoyable society. In our view, everyone who could be in gainful employment ought to be there — even better, they could be working for themselves, or finding work for others through the expansion of their own enterprise.

‘It is that work and its outcome, not the imagined bottomless wealth of  ‘the government’, that allows people to live full lives. In our view ‘government’ is there to make sure that the society works well. It provides a safety net when individuals, through no fault of their own, suffer a catastrophe of some kind. It ensures that there is enough money to keep hospitals and school going, to provide us with excellent defence forces, and to develop the infrastructure that permits us all to do new things. But ‘government’ is not there to tell people what they should do, or not do. Nor is it there to provide handouts for this or that worthy cause. Australia has one of the largest voluntary sectors in the world, and that is an essential characteristic of our country. In our view Australia’s large voluntary sector is most important, and we do not see advantages in replacing aspects of it with government provision. In summary, government is there occasionally to give a nudge, but not to direct and insist.

‘Indeed, there is always a danger that the government sector will increase in size and power, if only because in a democracy like ours it is so easy for groups of one kind and another to generate pressure on any government to do this or that. Those who feel that way need to remember that all the money that any government has available to it has arrived through taxation. ‘Public’ money is simply money that taxpayers provide, and two thirds of that money was contributed by about a quarter of the taxpayers. There have to be a very good reasons why governments use taxpayers’ money, and we are looking hard at what happens to that money now.

‘To give an example, our predecessors used a lot of money, and proposed using even more through the carbon tax, to attempt to mitigate a supposed ‘climate change’ caused by human beings. In our view that expenditure was at least premature, and possibly quite unnecessary, and we are winding it back, which will release taxpayers’ money for other more immediate purposes. This a start to an era of smaller government, and it will continue.’

Well, there you are. I could go on, but I’m running out of space. Incidentally, the views I have put forward are not necessarily my own. And I’ll repeat something I’ve said before, that these views are widespread throughout the community, even within Labor ranks. But they are tempered by another set of views which are about equality, social justice and the ‘good society’. Most of us live somewhat uncomfortably with an amalgam of both sets, responding to one or the other as needed. That is partly why (but only partly) our elections finish up with a split around 50 per cent.

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    Well said. Get a copy of this to the PM’s Office post haste.

  • margaret says:

    Where then is the party that can present the best of both? Why is there such a deep ideological divide between the two parties when it seems that the Liberal and Labor leaders themselves lead very similar lives within a rarified cohort of people?

    I will never vote Liberal unless ( a snowball’s hope in hell ) … Malcolm Turnbull is able to convince me that he cares about those who will never have ‘the whatever it took’ to get him to his position in life. I certainly don’t trust the motivations and beliefs of the current PM and never have.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Look, it’s a good and interesting question that has no easy answer. I guess the question is how much of any of it one responds to. How important does one think private property, how important social justice? Many of those in favour of social justice (I imagine) have their own homes. Many of those who own property think there should be a safety net. But how wide should the net be?

      I don’t think there is a deep ideological divide — rather, our style is adversarial which makes divisions look much worse than they are. Most legislation, after all, is passed on the voices. And as I said in a recent post, what we have is two professional political teams, and that’s the way they play the game.

      • margaret says:

        The treasurer addressed the Sydney Institute and gave THEM the reasons for the budget as you suggested. The camera didn’t go to the audience and I would like to have seen who it comprised. I was quite unmoved by the treasurer’s reasons. Unlike your speech, his made me mad. It was on ABC24.
        Smaller government – it’s an interesting concept – I don’t like ‘nanny state’ government at all – but those buccaneers of the colonial times certainly made sure they were going to take what they could while they could and call me politically unsophisticated but it seems the smaller the government the more opportunities for the ‘greedy bastards’ (sorry for the language) to run roughshod.
        Anyway, yes, part of the Australian character seems to love a good stoush. I recognise that where one stands in the political spectrum largely depends on how secure one feels with the status quo. So, I don’t know when equality of opportunity changed to equality of outcomes but the treasurer says we must return to equality of opportunity. Well, that’s what I believe in too, so what happened to it?

        • margaret says:

          P.S. I don’t mean to pose questions that require answers. They are rhetorical.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            But they’re usually good questions! And good questions should make one think a bit harder. Don’t stop.

          • Margaret says:

            “The Treasurer said the average working Australian, “be they a cleaner, a plumber or a teacher, is working over one month full time each year just to pay for the welfare of another Australian. Is this fair?”” -quote from AFR and treasurer’s address to Sydney Institute – and he accuses his detractors of class warfare?!
            I confess to a misguided belief – as I grew up in Australia I never thought of the age pension as welfare. Welfare recipients were those on the dole. Paul Keating was right when he said change the government change the country.

      • margaret says:

        Whatever anyone thinks of Wayne Swan (and I’m not an acolyte), his interest in postcodes leads to interesting facts:
        from his article in the guardian “Joe Hockey’s budget is an assault on social justice”:

        ‘All the Liberal party’s recent leaders have come from four of the
        five wealthiest electorates in the country. When your idea of
        representational diversity is to allow just one of your last four party
        leaders to come from outside Sydney’s north shore – and that guy comes from the eastern suburbs – you have a serious problem.

        The world in which they live inevitably moulds their world view. We could easily call the current mob running our country “The Military Road Mafia”, in honour of the people that traverse that road daily: not just Abbott and Hockey, but the main players in the conservative elites. This is where the real power now lies in society.

        This concentration of wealth goes a long way to explaining the debacle of the first Abbott-Hockey budget. Put simply, this budget translates their world view into deeds.’

  • Margaret says:

    I do realise that in anticipating the necessity for an age pension an individual or couple would be extremely thankful for the fact that taxpayers fund them, just as they themselves funded age pensions for past generations when they were taxpayers. Somehow there’s the perception now that one would become a welfare cheat. An army of grandparents by the way is involved in childcare for their grandchildren – they are lifting all right, their backs can vouch for that. As for other nasty aspects of the budget like deregulation of university fees and no help for the young unemployed – how about some alternatives to university education instead of pushing this propaganda that unless you get that higher education you won’t be part of the elite.

    • DaveW says:

      Hi Margaret,
      The Swiss and Germans apparently have a strong two-tiered approach that lets students choose a vocational or academic stream after 9th grade (with opportunities to switch later). The Swiss, especially, seem to be written up favourably for their educational system and the resulting low youth unemployment, e.g. http://world.time.com/2012/10/04/who-needs-college-the-swiss-opt-for-vocational-school/

      Deregulation of university fees may not be all that bad a thing to do, but its impetus appears to be budget-cutting, not improving the product. As indoctrination centres for Labor and Green thinking, as a reserve labour pool, and possibly even as educational institutions universities are of some value to various political parties, but even Labor knows they cost too much for what they get. I think the Dawkins experiment was a fiasco and the Hockey experiment, again apparently based on ideology rather than a careful analysis of the problem, is likely to be another one. So why is Hockey relying on ideology instead of analysis?

      Applying Don’s metaphor here, I’d suggest that politicians get promoted for scoring goals, e.g. bashing their party’s bêtes noire or designing flashy plays (including ‘own goals’ like the pink batts) that look good in the media. They don’t get credit for politics-free analysis of problems or proposing structural changes that may alienate large parts of their electorates. In theory, that is what Academia is for, but that requires an Academia based on merit, not on political conformity and the ability to attract government funding.

      • margaret says:

        Informative and depressing. Australia so prides itself on ‘punching above its weight’ – it’s a load of rubbish. As Donald Horne said “Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share in that luck.”
        I don’t see why a vocational course can’t include some humanities and science subjects either – if one becomes a master at their trade or works in customer service in their own or an employer’s business, or whatever else is not a ‘profession’, one can always appreciate some music, art, literature, philosophy, geology, history, ecology and they will be a source of satisfaction in a full interesting life that gives meaning to lives that are seen a mere cogs in the wheel of the economy.
        I recently attended a talk by Jackie French who is the Children’s Laureate and was struck by her idea that instead of asking children ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, the question should be ‘how do you want to live when you grow up?’ ‘What sort of life do you want?’

  • David says:


    Of course you would like Hockey’s budget. As a self-funded
    retiree, you were not asked to make any additional contribution. You dodged a

    • Don Aitkin says:

      As it happens, I was a member of superannuation funds from 1965 to my ‘retirement’ in 2002, so I paid my share throughout.

      • David says:

        I am not going to debate the merits of providing wealthy retirees access to tax protected income. Just saying your response to the budget is entirely predictable.

        All I do ask is that you don’t bitch when the delinquent children of some single mother trash your holiday house down the coast because Abbott govt has decided to adopt a sink-or-swim approach to social welfare.

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