To understand how and why Australia has ended up where it has, with a series of governments which seem to become more and more damaging to our way of life, year on year, we need only to look back to 2013. If you think they are waging a relentless war on the nation’s most vulnerable, they are.
If you have any expectations of what governments should provide for you and your fellow citizens, in return for your taxes, and your consent to be governed, then think again. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) gave Tony Abbott a list of policies that they wanted implemented if he became Prime Minister. When he did win the 2013 election, he set about doing what he was told.
What was the first step Abbott took?
First step – set up an official sounding body called the National Commission of Audit. The simple idea of an Audit Commission is to drive neoliberal reform, while dressing it up as a budget emergency. With a Commission of Audit in place, have it deliver a report which states that the country’s finances are in a desperate shambles, and that the only sensible solution is to slash and burn social programs. Stress the need for a balanced budget and use terms like “living beyond our means” and make the people nervous and uneasy.
Commissions of Audit continue to be used by most, if not all, newly elected Conservative administrations in Australia. John Howard did it in 1996, so if it was good enough for Howard, it was good enough for Abbott.
The word “National” gave it gravitas; the word “Audit” always lends a certain dignity and the appearance of tedious respectability to any sort of gathering, and it did in this case. As Abbott said at the time, “I’m very happy to have the Commission of Audit go through the whole of the administration, to tell us whether, in their opinion, they think things can be done better,” he told the ABC in early September 2013.
Anyone with half a brain could have foreseen what sort of confected rubbish this group would come up with. You only had to look at the personnel for a taste of what was to come. They had all dabbled in public service, but what drew them together was a shared penchant for neo-liberal economic theory, large pensions and a lovely well-paid Government gig to pipe them out of public life. Oddly Abbott behaved as if it was an independent body, although he set it up, and presumably hand-picked the commissioners.
Strangely they were only asked to examine the spending side of the budget, and not where the money came from. That would be taxes, so don’t look at taxes, only spending. An odd way to look at any sort of budget, let alone a budget which sets its own revenue streams, up or down, as need arises. But we must not forget that the Audit Commision was itself set-up as camouflage for Abbott, who was looking for a compelling reason to implement the IPA’s shopping list.
What did the ‘audit’ recommend?
Nothing unexpected was proposed. Follow the list of recommendations on the IPA’s shopping list, and you get cuts to just about everything worthwhile. Family payments, child care, health care, education, unemployment and pension payments, aged care and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are all among those areas targeted by the National Commission of Audit. Of course none of this was flagged before the election, but the Commission was able to provide Abbott with his ‘smoking gun’; now he had a budget emergency, which necessitated heroic austerity measures to save Australia.
If passed, the measures would adversely affect the quality of life of millions of Australians. Most of the measures never passed the Senate, but we continue to be governed by people who drank the Kool-Aid, along with Abbott.
The country has not been well-served by the Coalition since that joke of a Federal Budget in 2014. Several leaders later, they have learned nothing. When in doubt attack the Labor Party, or the unemployed, or the Chinese, or the ‘greenies’.
Australia has developed, over a hundred and twenty years, a distinctively Aussie-flavoured democracy. It accepted some degree of neo-liberal modernisation through the agency of Hawke and Keating, but it retained the egalitarian streak and a sense that we should be fair to our fellow citizens.
We valued our health care system, our welfare system, and we did not demonise those who were not having a red-hot go. Many of us received a free, or at least affordable education. None of us had to sell the family home if we got sick. We weren’t abandoned after a period of unemployment because our insurance had run out. And we welcomed people from overseas who were fleeing torture or worse. We gave everyone a fair hearing, and we judged people by the rule of law, with some compassion thrown in.
When did we lose the plot?
Although Abbott is the modern ‘architect’ of our fall from grace, John Howard had already opened a door to another level, one that was mean and tricky, and unkind. We had grown comfortable with him, over a long career, but he had a hidden agenda. Some say being in New York on September 11 changed him, but he was already damaged by then. Perhaps Keating’s relentless baiting took its toll.
He developed a hard edge which deceived many. Maybe it was George W. Bush becoming his friend, but whatever it was, he was captured. The hard right, neo-liberal ideas, the merciless rhetoric of the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys, of Washington. Perhaps it was as simple as being called the ‘man of steel’ in 2003. That is a good deal better than ‘little Johnny Howard’. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Bush in 2009 see here ; another Australian with his head turned by awards see here .
What can we do about it?
Neo-liberalism is a torn and ragged bag of discredited economic policies, which discounts the social and human needs of citizens, and which has a naive and pathetic faith in ‘the market’ to provide solutions. Most neo-liberals are emotionally stunted human beings who do not care about their fellows, and who like to tout the virtues of heartless capitalism and endless competition. The irony is that many neo-liberals are themselves the beneficiaries of nepotism and unfair preference, and would struggle to compete, on fair terms, with anyone. We need to re-prioritise caring about the societies we belong to, and calling out legislation and policies which do not further the interests of the majority of citizens.
We need to be equally fierce. Ask them where their ‘policies’ will eventually take Australians. Ask them why they favour Murdoch and his nihilism, over truth. Ask them what they would do, personally, if faced with unemployment. Ask them about ‘trickle down’ theory, and demand examples of its successes.
In the middle of the greatest challenge to modern life (the Covid-19 pandemic), every government on earth is abandoning neo-liberalism and embracing Keynes. See if they can explain that.