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It shouldn’t be too hard to explain why spending must slow

By Gary Johns - posted Thursday, 12 February 2015


In 1996, when Pauline Hanson was asked on 60 Minutes if she was xenophobic, she replied: "Please explain?" It was an intelligent question from a poorly read person to a smart-arse journalist.

Politicians use simple language because they believe that many voters are like Hanson; that is, poorly read.

But poorly read voters, just like well-read voters, crave good explanation. This was, and is, Paul Keating's gift to politics. He could explain complexity, without mouthing slogans (and yes, he could do that too).

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Politicians often speak in slogans because they believe voters are not curious.

Politicians also speak in slogans because they are afraid of the consequences of ­explanation: offending a constituency.

In doing so, it becomes possible for the Abbott (or Turnbull) government to fail in its quest to lower government spending despite the obvious need. It becomes possible for the debt-denying Bill Shorten (good slogan huh!) to succeed.

Tony Abbott's latest mantra, delivered in his National Press Club address, "creating more jobs; easing the pressure on families; building roads; strengthening national security", explains nothing.

Take as a case study the recent debate about privatisation in Queensland.

Although privatisation was but an element of the Liberal National Party's defeat, Campbell Newman's abrasiveness being the other, the two go together.

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Instead of explaining the intricacies of how assets could be better used, Newman would bark his lines about debt reduction and a stronger economy. The link between privatisation and a stronger economy was not obvious. It was framed as a gamble: a known stream of money versus a lump sum reinvested.

Some voters preferred the stream they knew. Trade unionists, on the other hand, wanted to protect jobs. In doing so, they also prevented the best use of capital. They did not want managers to create wealth; they wanted a few privileged workers paid more than they were worth. Explanation of how to turn public assets into better assets was avoided because it would have required revealing a few home truths.

Cally Wilson, a former employee of Energex, recently made public her damning assessment of the state-owned power corporation. She criticised a "public-sector mentality" as partly responsible for higher power bills, and argued that Energex staffing levels were "excessive for its actual needs".

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This article was first published in The Australian.



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About the Author

Gary Johns is a fellow of the Australian Institute for Progress and an adjunct professor at QUT.

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