Australian Financial Review's Chief Economics editor, Laura Tingle's sweeping condemnation of Australians and their expectations of democracy in her Quarterly Essay should not go unanswered, says Sheila Newman.
(Review of Laura Tingle, "Great Expectations" in Quarterly Essay, Issue 46, June 2012.)
Tingle says 'Entitlement' — you say 'Rights'
Laura Tingle's thesis (if you can call it that) is that Australian governments not only fail to deliver, but that they don't have the power to deliver what the public expects anymore.
According to her, this situation came about in the following way: Australian government began by administering a dependent population in a patronising way. Australians became passive recipients of government benefits — to the extent, Tingle believes, that convicts seemed almost more inclined to die of starvation than to try to feed themselves by farming. Moreover, after the gold rush, Australian men got the vote and could run for parliament, whether or not they had property and, says Tingle, the quality of politicians declined compared to that when only people with property could vote. In these circumstances, politicians with poor manners came to dominate parliament and Australians therefore lost respect for their politicians.
With deregulation and privatisation (under Hawke and Keating), governments dissolved the very institutions that gave them power. Because of Hawke and Keating's actions, Australian governments now have so little power that they are unable to satisfy the promises they make at election time to the electorate.
Both Howard and Rudd attempted to counter this institutional impotence with handouts to individuals. Howard pretended that he was into small government and Rudd revelled in big government. Howard lost government because the electorate rejected WorkChoices. Rudd was removed by his own party because he was unable to live up to the expectations he had himself created.
The party replaced Rudd with Julia Gillard, but she has problems because she now heads a minority government. Australians don't like minority governments, says Laura Tingle, repeating the mantra from Fairfax and Murdoch newspapers, which are more into telling people how they feel about Gillard and minority government than finding out what Australians really think about Gillard. Tingle concludes that the social contract needs to be renegotiated: Australians need to decide what they want from government and government needs to decide what it can still actually do in an "open economy".
The essay is badly structured because it raises issues then never returns to them, reading like something edited at the last moment to remove some paragraphs that were originally included, thus reducing the sense of the argument. It is long and filled with assertions that strike me as dubious, based on somewhat cherry-picked arguments. I can only take on a few and have chosen some of those which I consider most flawed by ideology. In some cases, the class bias is so blatant that one looks for the punchline — but it never comes.
The idea that politicians post gold rush were of poor quality
For all my disagreement with the social theory of this essay, which I find childish, I do admire Ms Tingle for writing something so broad and sweeping for us all to use as a jumping off pad. That takes some get up and go. She has summed up a lot of what is happening. Of course, I am also afraid that, instead of simply launching discussion, it will be taken as a prescription pad and used as pre-emptive medication by government and the media. The Financial Review, of course, has quoted it uncritically and I listened to some (not all, I admit) of a Philip Adams interview with Laura on the subject and Adams seemed to swallow it whole, like a delicious pill. Furthermore, the comments on his site were all similarly approving and uncomprehending.
At the beginning of the essay, Tingle makes the point that
…we have not sat down and worked out exactly what we expect “the government” – by which I mean its administrative side, as well as the politicians of the day – to be and to do.
I agree with her that we need to sit down, however I am much less vague about what needs to happen after that. There is a model out there that has worked for two centuries in Europe. It is the European Civil Code, also known as the Napoleonic Code. In the EU, only Britain has failed to adopt this Roman Law based model. Australia needs a Civil Code of citizens' rights, legally defendable, modelled on the French one to combat the disorganising forces of the markets. We need to abandon our ad hoc British system.
Governor Arthur Phillip insisted that the children of the First Fleet's convicts should be educated. Phillip's pragmatic rationale was that education might stop the first generation of free-born white New South Welshmen following in the criminal footsteps of their parents. It was not meant to rewrite the rulebooks for what government did even though it meant, from the very start, that children born in a penal colony would gain an education that was not available to their contemporaries in the country from which their parents came.
 Isobel Barrett Meyering, Contesting Corporal Punishment, Abolitionism, Transportation and the British Imperial Experiment, B.A. Hons History, University of Sydney, 2008, pp 15-16.
[3.] Watkin Tench, 1788, Comprising a Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, first published in 1789; this edition edited by Tim Flannery, Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1996, p.102.
[4.] Watkin Tench, op.cit., p.119. An illustration of the extreme situation was that the officers of the first settlement plied Baneelon, an Aborigine captured for anthropological study, with all the scarce rations he could eat in order to keep up a pretence to the Aborigines all around them that the British invaders were not actually close to starvation. They feared that if Baneelon escaped he would alert his clansmen to their weakened condition and the Aborigines would finish them off. Tench recorded that their rations for a week were insufficient to keep Baneelon for a day and the starving settlers felt obliged to hunt and fish for extra, entirely on his behalf. Nevertheless, Baneelon became increasingly unhappy and managed to escape. Watkin Tench, op.cit., pp.125-6.
 She cites Paul Kelly, p. 31:
Kelly defines it as 'individual happiness through government intervention' and notes its origins in 1788. 'The individual looked first to the state as his protector, only secondly to himself', he writes, going on to quote the earlier history of Keith Hancock, who wrote in 1930 that 'to the Australian, the State means collective power at the service of individualistic 'rights'. Therefore he sees no opposition between his individualism and his reliance upon government.' She cites Donald Horne as having noted in The Lucky Country, 'the general Australian belief is that it's the governments' job to see that everyone gets a fair go.’
She goes on:
The idea of state paternalism is embedded in our relationship with government, and has been since the time our convict forefathers expected Governor Phillip to fix the small problem of starvation rather than do anything about it themselves.
In the Essay, this is her second remark indicating a belief that the first settlers were in some way inferior and unreasonable. This is a bizarre point of view attributing authority, powers and skills to British prisoners which they did not have, and in the absence of tools.
[5a] As part of the process of determining what governments can offer and what we want of them, we need to take stock of what we still have, although these are in the process of being attenuated and corporatised: government prisons, schools, universities, and hospitals.
 Wilkinson, A Thirst for Burning, op.cit., p. 138. Wilkinson comments, on page 139:
There is little doubt that some of Connors's ideas were far-sighted. ... He was correct in predicting the 1973 oil crisis and then, at a time when people worldwide had overcome the fright of the OPEC moves, Connor continued to champion conservation of energy. Unfortunately he was denied the mean of achieving it…
The Governor General later signed the minutes of this meeting and those of a later one that reduced the loan sought two billion.
(Kelly and Tom Uren, Straight Left, Vintage, 1995 pp. 209, 222, 223, 236-7, describe Rex Connor as having an impressive knowledge of the mining industry. Apparently Gough Whitlam had no knowledge of the industry at all but believed that Connor was a visionary.)
 Prime Minister Fraser liberalised foreign investment rules under the Foreign Takeovers Act (1975). Successive amendments have progressively removed barriers for foreigners to purchase land in Australia. Few restrictions remain. From less than 10 per cent in 1972-75 under Whitlam, foreign investment in Australia increased to 49 per cent of GDP in 1990-91. By 1986, more than half was destined for real-estate investment. Sheila Newman, The Growth Lobby and its Absence in Australia and France, Swinburne University, 2002, Chapter 3, "Public and Private Housing Policy," citing from R.H. Fagan, "Foreign Investment", in Australian Encyclopaedia, Terry Hills, NSW, Australian Geographic, Pty. Ltd, 1995, pp.1393-1394. By 2012, this figure was close to 90 per cent. See graph from www.debtdeflation.com/blogs, which uses RBA data.