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Return of Coalition Government threatens Australian values

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

The Coalition's policy agenda hurts people economically, socially and politically, writes Mike Dowson.

In the aftermath of Australia’s last Federal Election, I passed from astonishment through despair to resignation. 

It was a shock to see the Coalition re-elected by my fellow Australians.

I felt like the Ghostbusters on top of the skyscraper in the 1984 film, having inadvertently allowed the malevolent Sumerian deity Gozer to take gigantic, menacing form in the comically ineffectual figure of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Since then, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stomped through the islands of the Pacific, shunning regional concerns, and has entered America’s corridors of power, sending local hopes for climate policy flying. Meanwhile, the Opposition makes a mockery of its office.

It’s a principle of stability in a parliamentary democracy that, while you may be elected by a slim majority, you must govern for everyone. If you start rewarding those who gave you power at the expense of everyone else, you invite disorder on the state.

This principle which doesn’t seem to mean anything to the current Government. They can’t even be bothered governing for most of their own base, aware that it won't abandon them. The Coalition has been free to indulge a handful of oligarchs and religious fanatics and their own post-ministerial ambitions.

Since the reality dawned that Australia isn’t yet ready to do anything brave, principled or even modestly sensible about any of the major challenges before us, it is genuinely worrying where we are headed.

Unexpectedly stuck with the burden of office and having exhausted explicit policies in the first five minutes, the Government is now in danger of exposing the will of its sponsors. What was probably expected to happen is that Labor would get elected and resume a vaguely positive program of government, just as the economy was tanking.

Growth, a budget surplus and house prices, which have all been propagandised as the gold standard of economic health, so much so that people value them above their own lived experience, would all have faltered at the same time. Then the Coalition was to storm back and “save the day” with more tax cuts, crippling austerity and sweeping privatisation.

It’s a methodology long seen in the U.S. and currently rolling out a red carpet throughout much of the Anglosphere for authoritarianismRichard Denniss calls it “the right-wing ratchet”.

It should be obvious now to everyone apart from establishment cheerleaders and investors high on neoliberal soma that the Australian economy is not what it’s cracked up to be. Far from a granite powerhouse, it’s more like a Hollywood western town.

When you peek behind the Bank, Saloon or General Store, it’s a façade propped up on flimsy beams.

We’re not the first society to experience this. It happens whenever an unaccountable ruling class decides it likes the fruits of prosperity but not the effort and responsibility of cultivating them. Much easier to wring a bigger share of what’s already there. 

History tells us this is unlikely to end well. In order to protect themselves, earlier societies innovated, and one result was the modern systems of governance. Of course, what we don’t use can’t help us. And this is the cynical ploy behind privatisation and deregulation, the principal tenets of neoliberalism.

Proponents insist these “reforms” help everyone, and if we construe universal benefits from the measures beloved of plutocrats, such as market capitalisation and returns on investment, it appears to be the case. But that depends on who we mean by “everyone”. Like the statistics, the rich are referring to the other plutocrats they meet, golf and party with.

In truth, this hollows out the real economy, discouraging beneficial investment. Shrinking consumer demand thanks to stagnant wages shifts capital from productive enterprises to extractive ones, starting with speculation and market concentration in essentials like housing and energy. As investors harvest more disposable income as economic rent, and wealth inequality rises, discretionary spending gets diverted into luxury goods for the select few and palliative gambling, alcohol and payday lending for the rest.

From there, hungry capital has fewer options. Instruments of oppression like prisons and security services beckon. Historically, these states tend to be overtaken economically by more cohesive rivals. When that happens, it will, of course, be the fault of the last left-wing government, whenever that was, and time to start rounding them up, right after the journalists.

You can check the record to see where we are on that trajectory.

The big question for puppet legislators is how to inflict this travesty on a free and prosperous people. And the answer is not all at once.

The trick is to persuade a portion of the population that their continuing good fortune is threatened by the presence of another less deserving one and therefore depends on a just program of persecution.

This is where it gets awkward. You need to deploy Peter Dutton sparingly. You only want people waking up to a police state when it’s too late. In the meantime, you need a more palatable presence. For contemporary Ghostbusters, trying to empty the mind of apocalyptic fears, surely there’s no more reassuring figure than good old Santa, Scott Morrison.

Ho, ho, ho! What a jovial, rotund fellow he is. And full of cheerful messages. “Have a go and you’ll get a go."

Santa wants good boys and girls to get lots of pressies. But, like all responsible economic managers, he needs to make a list.

People on Newstart? Naughty! Disability pensioners? Very naughty! Refugees? Don’t get Santa started! Unions? You’re making him mad! Evangelicals? That’s better. Mining magnates? Now you’re talking! “Quiet Australians”? Nice!

The big problem with Santa’s list of undesirables is that, as Martin Niemöller famously observed, we may not realise it, but almost all of us are on it. It’s just that some of us are closer to the top.

A much better idea is a government which works for everyone.

References to past atrocities invite ridicule. Unless he’s frothing at the mouth, we won’t feel threatened by a chubby bloke in a silly hat at the Christmas barbie. It’s easy to believe terrible acts couldn’t happen here. But that’s just what complacent people think. That’s how they happen.

Mike Dowson is a private management consultant. 

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