The ABC’s new television show Q&A (which is showing tonight, June 26) offers a unique opportunity for viewers to question politicians directly, a development which can only enhance Australia’s liberal democracy.
The first show (May 22), which led Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to make his controversial claim that his government had done all it can to help battlers, certainly has placed much pressure on Labor while reviving the hopes of the Liberal Party.
Since then, Q&A has discussed a range of policy issues including petrol prices, the environment, multiculturalism, public v private education, the protection of whales, and even the food crisis. It has also spent time on issues such as what constitutes art, teen photographic models and the dubious behaviour of some Labor politicians in New South Wales restaurants.
Such a forum allows politicians to expose the shortcomings of the government’s policies. For instance, on May 29, Tony Abbott noted the obvious contradiction between Kevin Rudd’s promise to lower both greenhouse gas emissions and petrol prices, while highlighting the flaws inherent in Labor’s decision to end the $8,000 rebate for solar panels for families earning more than $100,000 - given that it would mostly be higher-income earners who would make such a purchase.
But Q&A needs to delve deeper and debate how much further economic reform is needed, what economic policy options there are, and what will be the consequences of present or other policy trends? After all, while Australia has enjoyed 15 years of high economic growth, at least when compared to other Western nations, this has not prevented record home unaffordability and debt, and much higher prices for housing, petrol, food and utilities.
So far, Australia’s social development has remained quite progressive under both Labor and Coalition governments. According to the OECD’s Factbook 2008, total Australian government funding for social expenditure to aid low income households, the elderly, disabled, sick, unemployed or young persons, increased from about 14 per cent of GDP in 1990 to 17.9 per cent in 2003, a level likely to be greater today given that the proportion of Commonwealth outlays spent on welfare, health and education reached 67 per cent by 2006-07. And Labor has again shifted the balance of such assistance further towards the public sector by increasing resources to assist in housing, health, and education, while also introducing means-testing for eligibility for certain benefits.
But given the ongoing importance of the economic imperative, how can we help our most vulnerable battlers as Australia continues its policy march towards greater labour market flexibility, lower taxation level for companies and high-income earners, and an increasing reliance on the private sector and user-pay principles for many services?
It is likely to get worse for battlers. No longer do we have an expanding manufacturing sector to provide higher paid employment as we did from the 1940s to the 1970s; declining trade union membership (now less than 20 per cent of the workforce) will hardly help the plight of many vulnerable service industry workers; and the debt to disposable income ratio has increased from about 38 per cent in 1983 (70 per cent in 1996) to 160 per cent by December 2007, thus limiting any future reliance on even higher borrowing levels.
Q&A could usefully investigate the policy positions of the different political parties in more depth.
For instance, Brendan Nelson appointed the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to head his staff, Peter Hendy. Hendy was a passionate supporter of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs): so does this appointment indicate how far the Coalition want to go with greater labour market flexibility, the very issue that probably cost them the 2007 federal election?
Should government intervene more to help the domestic economy? As the former Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration, Robert Reich, argued in the New York Times (February 13, 2008) Americans can either accept a lower standard of living and businesses adjust to a smaller economy, or increase the purchasing power of middle and lower-income earners so they will spend on goods and services.
Though different periods require different policy solutions in terms of less or greater government intervention, it may well be that Labor’s elimination of AWAs could have employment consequences in the future. After all, past Labor governments did not prevent the proportion of casual workers within Australia’s workforce increasing from about 16 to 24 per cent between 1984 and 1995. This then went up to 28 per cent by 2007.