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Whence the Commonweal: The rise of the dunces

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Whatever happened to the public interest? Don’t look for it in the machinations of the three major Parties, says Dr Evan Jones, so why do we continue to vote for them?

The ascendancy of dunces in politics

On 1 July, Fairfax media exposed us to the views of the new finance minister in the NSW Baird Coalition Government.

It reported:

Australia's bloated welfare system is not only putting us on a Greek-style debt path, but is also partly to blame for rising divorce rates and declining fertility, according to NSW finance minister Dominic Perrottet. The 32-year-old father of three – with another on the way – said the generosity of the age pension had reduced the incentive to have children to support oneself in old age.

While the decline in birth rates is multi-causal, there is no doubt the meddling hand of big government is once again at work. Countries with large pension systems tend to struggle with fertility’, he told the Centre for Independent Studies on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, payments to single parents had made divorce an easier option and contributed to family breakdowns.

Dominic Perrottet, from a family of 12 children, was sent to private schools courtesy of the sacrifices of his parents. The sacrifice appears to have not delivered value for money.

Perrottet knows no history, nor the fundamental scientific concept of causation. Perrottet is so ignorant that he is oblivious of it, ebullient over the by-products of his stupidity. But in Mike Baird’s Christian Ministry, Mr Perrottet is paraded as an intellectual heavyweight.

In Federal Parliament we have the donkey vote-elected "libertarian" Senator David Leyonhjelm.

Given a platform in the Australian Financial Review (of course) on 22 July, under the title ‘Our incredible expanding taxes’ (reproduced in Online Opinion), Leyonhjelm complained:

Whichever way you look at it, our taxes are high. They are high by historic standards. … There is no justification for the ever-expanding tax burden. Living standards have risen over the past 50 years, which means the need for government welfare has declined.

And we haven't uncovered new forms of effective government intervention either. To the contrary, the prosperity-promoting effects of free markets and the many failings of government involvement have been demonstrated time and again.

The need for government welfare has declined? Tell it to women and children escaping domestic violence, now deprived of shelters. Tell it to those desperately seeking paid employment and unable to find it. Tell it to those with disabilities, to those in need of basic shelter. To those turned away from hospital emergency services. Etc.

Moreover, anyone still brandishing the term "free markets" is either a fool, or a blackguard, or both.

As with Mr Perrottet, Senator Leyonhjelm knows no history. He has sprung fully formed from an ideological cabbage patch. May his presence in the Federal Parliament be short-lived.

The inevitable rise of the state

The long-term rise in government expenditures and in associated taxation imposts over the last 200 years has been mostly driven by pragmatic considerations. The responsible agents have ranged across the political spectrum.

There is, of course, military and related expenditures — that special prerogative of the state, sometimes necessary, mostly not. But the involvement of the state in domestic issues has mostly been driven by crises – economic, social, political, medical, and so on – and the attempt to resolve them.

Profit-driven economic activity has perennially produced its downsides, which the state, by default, has had to redress. The charitable provision (especially by religious orders) of necessary social services has perennially proved inadequate, which lack the state has attempted to redress.

Commerce and social interaction of the most basic kind required provision by the state of infrastructure (profit-oriented involvement being non-existent or selective). And so on.

Who deals with the urban sewage, the epidemics, the natural or man-induced environmental disasters, the mass deprivation and resistance or crime that results?

Sometimes, a combination of honourable vision, opportunism and cynicism lay behind the rise of state activity, with a key impetus the inevitable achievement of the adult franchise. In this category falls Bismarck’s introduction of social welfare measures in Germany in the 1880s, much noted overseas. Ditto the widespread introduction of universal secular primary education in the late 19th Century.

But there was also an honourable vision in the provision of some social and most public cultural activities — botanic gardens, public parks, national parks, public libraries, public broadcasting, and so on.

Government by spivs, charlatans and dropkicks

The majority of the current crop of people in political office know no history and have no concept of "the public interest". They are either in it for the personal privileges or are there as flunkeys for powerful selective interests.

Every person on the current Coalition Federal Government front bench appears to fit into this category.

The Labor Party has many failings, pervaded by personal privilege seekers. But Rudd-Gillard Labor at least came up with the NBN, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Gonski scheme for public education, etc.

On the Government benches there is no public vision, but there is also no brains.

Treasurer Joe Hockey is clueless. He is a dropkick.

Hockey’s recent contribution on the need, indeed economic necessity, for personal income tax cuts, has been generally derided as laughable. Hockey has not only a law degree (no help there) but also an arts degree. As with Tony Abbott and his economics degree, did these student activists ever go to class?

Coincidentally, at New Matilda, there appears an incisive article on this matter. There’s more than one genius on team Australia, by Xannon Shirley.

Claims Shirley:

You might not like them, but there's nothing stupid about the ruthless prosecution of an extreme agenda.  … Tony Abbott is a genius. So is Joe Hockey. And it’s time the Australian public gave them the credit they deserve. …

Ruthlessness, in this context, is a form of genius. They know what the game is, they are happy to inflict pain and they are determined to win, by hook or by crook.

This is a brilliant interpretation of our current leadership team — about the ruthlessness, at least.

But I beg to differ on the other dimension. A commitment to a ruthless agenda is helped by a lack of marbles. And I persist in claiming a dearth of the grey matter in Abbott and Hockey.

Add the Trade Minister Andrew Robb to this list. Robb is a fool first class. His demeanour doesn’t bespeak of ruthlessness, but he makes up for that lack with his persistence. That all the trade (sic) negotiations over which Robb has presided do not have the public interest uppermost is tangibly reflected in the secrecy and dissembling surrounding their negotiation.

That Robb is happy to include Investor State Dispute Settlement clauses in these treaties – clauses intrinsically and dramatically contrary to the public interest – reflects not merely his foolhardiness, but also his traitorousness.

Trashing the public interest

The current crop of pollies would rather destroy or sell off a public school or a public park than build one. The public heritage is merely a treasure chest to be plundered.

The dismantling of the vocational training system in Australia is representative of the parlous environment. The cynicism and myopia behind this dismantling – transparently strategic rather than accidental – is diabolical and a shocking indictment of the current political class.

The new era began with Hawke-Keating federal labour. Did Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating know what they were doing?

Managerialism? Codswallop. Although managing a sizeable public service is not easy, managerialism did not provide the answer. Politicising the senior executive service a mistake. Ditto contracting out. Contracting out involves not an economising of the public purse but rather the reverse — a legitimisation of carpetbaggers on the public teat. Ditto public-private partnerships. (Note the "commercial in confidence" secrecy that has followed contracting out and public-private partnerships.) Ditto the corporatisation of public enterprises. All these procedures were sold on a variety of lies.

Then came uncritical privatisation. The public has never wanted it, but the public was not (and is not) asked its opinion nor its preferences.

The Commonwealth Bank was created in 1912 to serve the public interest ("the People’s Bank"). Having been appropriated during the 1920s by private interests, the bank was recaptured by Chifley Labor to again serve its original purpose. The CBA, post financial deregulation and privatisation, is now not merely anti-social, but an organisation with criminal proclivities.

The privatisation (and corporatisation) of utilities has hampered governments from readily adapting infrastructure to newly appropriate technologies, or indeed even controlling pricing — as in the case of electricity generation and distribution.

Hawke-Keating opened the way for the Liberal Party revolution. Nick Greiner (Lib, NSW, 1988-92) was followed by Jeff Kennett (Lib, Victoria, 1992-99), was followed by John Howard (Lib, Federal, 1996-2007). Greiner and Kennett inherited fiscal problems, but their remedies were drastic, ideological and flawed.

This lot initiated the "independent" Audit Commissions, successively headed by merchant banker Charles Curran (Greiner), University of Chicago trained accountant Robert Officer (Kennett and Howard), businessman and developer Tony Shepherd (Abbott), and former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello (Queensland’s Liberal National Government under Campbell Newman).

But this audit process has an inbuilt flaw (even apart from the seeming lack of sympathy for the public service of most of the participants). The driving motif is to find budgetary savings – and useful statistics are generated – but the tendency is to find simple solutions. There should be no policy role for these unaccountable bodies. The Officer report for Howard, in particular, is a shocker.

The Howard era is a significant turning point. The longterm adverse impact of the Howard years has yet to find its chronicler. Howard’s privatisation of the vertically integrated Telstra is emblematic of his destructive role, impeding the functionality of telecommunications policy for the indefinite future.

One notes that Howard had the audacity to write (ably assisted by an army of researchers) a biography of Robert Menzies’ time in office (The Menzies Era). Menzies and Howard had several "achievements" in common — such as the involvement of Australian troops in foreign wars in which Australia’s national interest was not involved and the despatching of the Opposition at election time by clever devices.

But on domestic policies, Howard took nothing from Menzies. Menzies was a conservative, Howard a reactionary. Menzies distrusted the banks, Howard kowtowed to them. Menzies built universities, Howard undermined them. Upon Menzies’ election in December 1949, he threw some baubles to the radical Right, but generally carried on with his inheritance from Curtin/Chifley Labor. Compare this continuity with Howard’s about-turn in 1996.

Howard got rid of the Conservatives and the small-l liberals from the Liberal Party. Save for Malcolm Turnbull, but his manifest lack of principle now renders him irrelevant. The uniformly reactionary Liberal Party’s coalition partner, the Nationals, are now merely an opportunist rabble.

Slick Willie down under

The furious pace of the current Coalition Government in New South Wales under Premier Mike Baird would seem to indicate a more enlightened trajectory. Certainly, the media love him.

There are some pluses. The completion of the inner west light rail service and the introduction of the Opal ticketing system are, indeed, pluses.

But large sums are being devoted to infrastructure projects that privilege private sector development – especially in transport – and which undermine the coherence of public sector provision.

The privatisation of the electricity network, cynically pursued, is to provide a slush fund especially to lubricate developers (including the previously mentioned Coalition crony, Tony Shepherd) behind the substantially flawed West Connex road/tunnel project. The North West Rail Link is designed not to fit the existing rail network. The planned light rail development through the central business district and down the south-eastern suburbs is a farce.

Is it all designed to marginalise a unionised workforce (why can’t Opal cards be serviced at railway stations?) and provide leeway for further fragmentation and privatisation of the existing networks?

Add the ongoing redistribution or cuts to economic and social services budgets — such as the destruction of functional womens’ refuges a disgrace, the gutting of vocational training and of family and community services, the privileging of developers, the obfuscation over its social housing obligations, the privileging of (Christian) religion over ethics classes and so on. The impression is that the Baird Government is merely a more sophisticated version of the long term selective redefinition of what is supposed to be "the public interest".

I hold Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird responsible for the murder of Leila Alavi – turned away from multiple refuges – and other recent victims of domestic violence.

Our learned Mr Perrottet (straight out of Molière?) presides over a push that highlights why Slick Willie Baird is no different from the rest.

Another significant slice of the NSW public works bureaucracy is to be gutted. The public works bureaucracy will be turned into “a buyer of services rather than provider of them”.

This practice has been going on for three years now and it’s been a procedural, financial and outcomes disaster. Does Perrottet read nothing? Moreover, why is public works under a finance portfolio in the first place?

Of particular relevance is the 40 strong cohort of stonemasons, roofers and scaffolders who repair heritage public buildings.

Perrottet’s June announcement of the privatisation included:

'Some services currently provided by NSW Public Works that can be obtained from mature private sector markets (sic) will be transferred, sold or progressively discontinued.'

A Departmental spokeswoman added (in response to a Fairfax inquiry):

"NSW Public Works is repositioning to focus its expertise to the smart buyer/commissioning role and to transition out of services where the private sector provides a strong and contested capability (sic) … In the implementation phase, appropriate measures will be taken to support the government in obtaining value for money for the services it obtains from the private sector."

Experts are aghast at the potential loss if crucial and irreplaceable skills. So am I.

So is Ron Dyer, a former minister for public works and services, who in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, stated:

“To place the proper maintenance of such iconic buildings in jeopardy would be an act of vandalism.”

Vandals are currently "running" the country. Or rather, they are running the country down.

Any hope for change?

The Labor Party bears significant responsibility for the current political climate. Although Rudd/Gillard Labor had some novel initiatives, as mentioned above, the Party has truncated its potential vision by refusing to re-examine its trajectory under Hawke/Keating years and since.

I heralded this failure in an article prior to Rudd Labor gaining office in late 2007. Nothing has changed in the interim — quite the contrary. Options that should be on the table are not recognised because they appear from outside the narrow box of pre-determined policy parameters.

So one is left with the Greens and a ragtag bag of Independents. The Greens, uniquely, have the public interest at heart, but are derided or ignored by all the mainstream media as a special interest party, made up, essentially of crackpots or losers. Labor, sadly, declines to effect a functional coalition with them.

The Independents have mostly been elected on a narrow special interest platform. But, some incorrigibles aside, there are reasons for hope that their horizons can be expanded to embrace the bigger picture. There is more optimism in this domain than in the herd-like mentalities of the three major parties.

Such optimism has been recognised and articulated in a recent book by Brenton Prosser and Richard Denniss, Minority Policy: rethinking governance when parliament matters.  

Whence the commonweal? Don’t look for it in the machinations of the three major Parties. So why do we continue to vote for them?

A postscript on the refugee crisis

Has the image of the dead Syrian child on the Turkish beach and the torrent of Syrian refugees into Europe softened the hard hearts of our leaders?

There are calls from within politics, from across the spectrum, for a more sympathetic response from Australia. The federal government is sticking to its last. Some token greater numbers of refugees may be admitted, probably temporarily. But the refugee policy will remain intact, because deeply embedded – not least because it is bipartisan.

Will our political class care to examine the origins of this crisis? The West and its Middle Eastern allies (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, Israel), with their own agendas, are overwhelmingly responsible for the creation of the monster that is Islamic State and cognate extremist groupings. The West and its allies want the Assad regime removed (if they currently differ on means), following the "successful" removal of the Baathist regime in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya.

The West needs to cease supplying its murderous allies with massive stocks of weaponry and attack those nurturing IS – such as through funding, sheltering, intelligence supplying, medical assistance – at their sources. If the West and its satraps can throw out the ambassadors of Syria, it can also throw out the ambassadors of its equally murderous "friends".

But it isn’t going to happen.

And will our political class turn to constructing an independent foreign policy, built on moral principles, with an independently-minded and courageous bureaucracy to underpin it and pursue such a policy assertively overseas.

But It isn’t going to happen.

The refugees will continue to flow, the origins of this flow steadfastly misrepresented and the responses steadfastly inhumane, because our political class have imbibed the venality and stupidity of Australia’s powerful friends that comes with subservience to the latter’s global objectives.

The John Graham artwork featured in this piece may be ordered from the IA store HERE.

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