The seven sacred cows of Australian politics

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Evan Williams discusses bipartisan agreement for political "sacred cows" such as private schools, defence and transport.

WE ARE INDEBTED to the Hindu religion for that useful term "sacred cow". 

As every schoolboy knows, Hindus venerate the cow and forbid its slaughter or abuse.

Our political landscape abounds in sacred cows — institutions or practices that are considered beyond criticism, immune to scrutiny and supported by politicians of all parties.

Some sacred cows are worth having, of course. Perhaps the most sacred is the Parliamentary Remuneration Tribunal — much loved by MPs when it delivers them well-deserved salary rises at regular intervals.

Other sacred political cows are harder to account for. Here’s my list of the top seven.

The family home

This venerable institution has been a protected species for generations. Never mind that families are leaving the family home in increasing numbers, and one’s “principal place of residence” is quite likely to be standing empty while its owner decides whether to sell it at a hefty profit in an overheated property market.

Since 1985, the “family home” has been exempt from capital gains tax — a concession Treasury estimates will cost the budget around $50 billion in 2015-16. On top of that, people with multi-million-dollar homes at Point Piper or Toorak can still claim the old-age pension. According to Canberra University’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, almost 90 percent of the current GST exemption benefits the top half of income-earners. And neither side of politics wants to know.


When was the last time a politician questioned the defence budget or dared suggest possible savings? There has been much argument about whether the Navy’s fleet of 12 new submarines should be built in Australia but where is the argument about the cost of the subs (around $4 billion a pop) and how many we actually need? The last time an Australian sub fired a torpedo in anger was 1942.

Perhaps we could manage with just ten new subs, or eight, even half a dozen. The rule at budget time seems to be that once the military have submitted their shopping lists, no one can question them. Who can argue with the experts about national security? But we pay a big price. According to the Government’s Defence White Paper, designing and constructing the new subs will cost at least $50 billion up front, with ongoing maintenance on top of that — all part of a hefty upgrade of the overall defence budget. You could build a lot of schools, hospitals and very fast trains with that sort of money.

The car  

Motorists love their cars and politicians love motorists. After all, if enough people drive cars governments are saved the expense of building railways and other decent public transport services. I’d better confess that I’m a regular motorist myself, having driven an ancient Honda for the past 22 years and contributed my fair share to traffic congestion, air pollution, global warming and the incidence of obesity.

Car manufacturing plants in Australia may be closing down, but that hasn’t stopped us buying cars in record numbers – 1,155,408 new ones last year, up 3.8 per cent on the year before – which means more government revenue from petrol taxes, registration fees and the rest. And since the car is a sacred cow, the correct political response is to build more roads for it — bigger, more expensive freeways like Mike Baird’s extravagant West-Connex now hacking its way through Sydney’s western suburbs.

The result: more pollution, more congestion, more cars.

Wealthy private schools 

The fathers of Federation laid it down that education in Australia should be free, secular and compulsory. Those were the days! For millions of Australians today, education is expensive and religiously based and if parents opt for home-schooling, it is no longer compulsory for kids to go to school. So-called “State aid” was a source of deep sectarian bitterness until Gough Whitlam entrenched the principle of needs-based education in the 1960s.

Yet many of the wealthiest private schools continue to receive lavish public subsidies. Why have the most privileged schools become a sacred cow? Julia Gillard shares some of the blame for promising that under the Gonski funding reforms no school would see its funding cut.

It is now the norm for schools charging parents $30,000 a year to receive generous public funding enabling them to build extra tennis courts, swimming pools with underwater cameras and auditoriums with orchestra pits and state-of-the-art performance facilities. Fairfax Media reported recently that five of Sydney’s most expensive schools have received more than $92 million in state and federal funding since 2012. Do politicians object? Not that I’ve heard.


By development I mean anything built by developers — that revered new breed of public benefactors who give us vast shopping malls, giant office towers and high-rise apartment blocks, often in unsuitable locations, whether we want them or not.

Developers also build infrastructure – roads, railways and the like – which used to be called public works and were funded from the public purse, unlike today, when major infrastructure is more likely to be built and run by private operators for their own profit.

But then, developers give us growth and jobs and prosperity and other features of the good life, so who can complain? Yet somehow I find it strange that using my seniors’ Opal card I can travel half way around NSW and home again for $2.50 but if I take the privately-run rail service with five stops between the city and Mascot airport (also privately run), it will cost me $19 each way. Is anything wrong?


Of course sport is a good thing but I’m talking here about Big Sport — sponsored professional football, big payouts for exclusive TV coverage, naming rights for multi-million-dollar stadiums funded by the taxpayer. Politicians don’t dare criticise the elite sporting establishment and no premier or prime minister would dream of turning down an invitation to a footy grand final.

Now that Malcolm Turnbull has pronounced AFL the most exciting football code – a brave call – and since this is a most exciting time to be an Australian, Aussie Rules must be the game to follow. Bad luck for rugby and soccer fans. The NSW Government is spending $1.6 billion on new sporting stadiums when there’s no shortage of good ones already. Why not spend some of that money on school ovals and local council sports grounds to encourage more people to participate in healthy recreation?

The flag

The flag may be a sacred symbol, but why should the present design be considered sacred? You don’t have to be a rabid republican to wish for an Australia flag with a more distinctive national character. The Canadians removed the Union Jack from their flag in 1969. New Zealanders stuck with their old flag in a recent referendum – killing any prospect of change in Australia for the foreseeable future – but surely we can do better.

Politicians hate talking about the flag because it divides public opinion and upsets the RSL. The same goes for Anzac Day. Rather than celebrate a great military disaster, why not celebrate peace, the end of the Second World War, the most lethal and destructive cataclysm in recorded history? Why not celebrate VP Day, the end of the war with Japan?

Paul Keating, in his usual combative style, had this to say:

“The Liberals were always soft on the Pacific War. For them it was all about Gallipoli, while our Second World War battles in places closer to home came second. I went to Kokoda to make the point that Gallipoli looked back at Britain, whereas Kokoda looked to our independence.”

No doubt there are other sacred cows, and a few old ones, like the Monarchy and the Church, that are regularly lampooned these days and are no longer as sacred as they were. So let me round off my list with the cow herself. I don’t mean that Daisy is a sacred creature. I’m talking about the industry to which she belongs — the beef cattle industry, earning an estimated $7.27 billion in export income every year.

There are roughly 26 million head of cattle in Australia and politicians love them all. Never mind that many cattlemen treat their animals cruelly, trucking them long distances in confined spaces to be put to death in blood-drenched slaughterhouses, or exporting them live for even more brutal treatment overseas. People have long wondered whether animals feel suffering as we do.

I think Shakespeare had the answer, as he often did:

'The poor beetle, that we tread upon,

In corporate sufferance finds a pang as great

As when a giant dies.' 

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist. He wrote speeches for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a succession of NSW premiers. He headed the NSW Government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001, and for 33 years wrote regular film reviews for The Australian. He is a Member of the Order of Australia.

This article was published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations' on 16 April 2016. It is republished with permission.

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