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What the prime minister might have said

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 12 June 2014


A week or so ago I wrote that the selling of the budget by the Abbott Government had not been done well after the Treasurer's opening salvo on Budget night. It's easy enough to say that the Budget has to be tough because the previous government left things in a mess, but why you are going to do this rather than that, cut here rather than there, remove benefits rather than increase taxes - all that requires consistent and coherent explanation. It requires it because tough budgets are unpleasant to nearly everyone, and the unhappy need to feel that there is a reason for it all. They might not like the reason, but they are looking for one that makes some kind of sense. Without one they will easily come to the opinion that those in charge are heartless villains.

I haven't heard the reason, and I offer, entirely gratis, to provide one for the Prime Minister and his team. It is not a defence of the budget. Rather, it is an account of what the Prime Minister and his allies stand for, their view of the world, of politics, economies and society. It is, if you like, the context in which such a party would set about constructing a budget. I have taken the elements of it from what I have heard the PM and his Ministers say, and to a degree from the long Liberal tradition, now more than a century old.

I think it is most important for the Prime Minister to set out positively what he and his party stand for. It is not enough to be anti-Labor. The Liberal Party does have a view of the world, and it needs to be enunciated especially at times like these. Not everyone will like it, but that is not important - nothing any politician says will appeal to everyone and if, strangely, it does, it's probably not worth having been said. So here goes.

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'My fellow Australian citizens, you need to know what we in the Government are about. We're not here just to reduce and end the large deficit we have, though that is really important. We want to see an Australia that is different to the present one, and better too. We think that there has grown within the community a feeling that everyone is entitled to share in the riches that our productive people have generated - whether or not those who feel that way have done anything to produce the wealth. Of course, everyone does benefit as the economy grows, and indeed all Australians are much better off than they were twenty years ago, when the current boom started.

'But there is no money tree, and the long boom from which we have all benefited has tapered off. There is less money coming in as government revenue that was expected, and we have large debts. In reviewing how to get rid of the deficit, we in the Government need to look at all the ways in which public money is expended. Are they all necessary? In our view the basis of the present Australian standard of living is work by men and women everywhere. We are a hard-working society, and work is good for us as individuals, because it provides not just the means for living but a social context as well. Our work, in its myriad forms, is also the basis for our enjoyable society. In our view, everyone who could be in gainful employment ought to be there - even better, they could be working for themselves, or finding work for others through the expansion of their own enterprise.

'It is that work and its outcome, not the imagined bottomless wealth of 'the government', that allows people to live full lives. In our view 'government' is there to make sure that the society works well. It provides a safety net when individuals, through no fault of their own, suffer a catastrophe of some kind. It ensures that there is enough money to keep hospitals and school going, to provide us with excellent defence forces, and to develop the infrastructure that permits us all to do new things. But 'government' is not there to tell people what they should do, or not do. Nor is it there to provide handouts for this or that worthy cause. Australia has one of the largest voluntary sectors in the world, and that is an essential characteristic of our country. In our view Australia's large voluntary sector is most important, and we do not see advantages in replacing aspects of it with government provision. In summary, government is there occasionally to give a nudge, but not to direct and insist.

'Indeed, there is always a danger that the government sector will increase in size and power, if only because in a democracy like ours it is so easy for groups of one kind and another to generate pressure on any government to do this or that. Those who feel that way need to remember that all the money that any government has available to it has arrived through taxation. 'Public' money is simply money that taxpayers provide, and two thirds of that money was contributed by about a quarter of the taxpayers. There have to be a very good reasons why governments use taxpayers' money, and we are looking hard at what happens to that money now.

'To give an example, our predecessors used a lot of money, and proposed using even more through the carbon tax, to attempt to mitigate a supposed 'climate change' caused by human beings. In our view that expenditure was at least premature, and possibly quite unnecessary, and we are winding it back, which will release taxpayers' money for other more immediate purposes. This a start to an era of smaller government, and it will continue.'

Well, there you are. I could go on, but I'm running out of space. Incidentally, the views I have put forward are not necessarily my own. And I'll repeat something I've said before, that these views are widespread throughout the community, even within Labor ranks. But they are tempered by another set of views which are about equality, social justice and the 'good society'. Most of us live somewhat uncomfortably with an amalgam of both sets, responding to one or the other as needed. That is partly why (but only partly) our elections finish up with a split around 50 per cent.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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