The Treasurer: channelling Thatcher and Reagan
If we are ‘in this together’, the latest and perhaps less infantile three-word slogan of government, then government needs to lead by example. In fairness, the Prime Minister has done this through his national cabinet, perhaps the best political outcome of the Covid crisis so far. However, if we are to come out of this crisis stronger and more resilient, we need to leave behind banal inter-party rivalry and attempted one- up-man-ship that has bedevilled much needed, and hoped for national policy reform this century.
But any real hope for this has ceased to be promising, as the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, in planning future strategies, announced he is channelling Thatcher and Reagan and to a lesser degree Howard and Costello. Sure good things were done. The ozone layer was tackled. Much needed industrial reform was accomplished in the UK. John Howard achieved gun ownership reform. Howard and Costello were fortunate that their period in power was a time of almost unmatched economic gain, riding on the mining boom and the reforms of Hawke and Keating whose achievements arose outside the square of what had been until then, typical Labour policy. The great loss of opportunity that marked Howard and Costello’s time in office was providing over generous largesse to the private sector and insufficient investment in public infrastructure and most significantly, the environment. Had this investment been made we would not still be arguing about energy reform, it would already be well in place with countless new jobs spread across the country. Hydrogen could already be in production from renewable energy sources. We could be exporting hydrogen as well as having transformed our domestic industrial base. But no, none of this has occurred. In addition, we remain burdened by unaffordable largesse to the private sector in terms of negative gearing and other generous tax provisions which the government is politically incapable of addressing. Mr Frydenberg, we don’t need you to channel Howard and Costello, but Hawke and Keating, and enact reform by stepping outside your traditional political comfort zone.
But I want to focus on Thatcher and Reagan. While industrial reform was absolutely necessary in the UK, the manner in which this was addressed by Prime Minister Thatcher caused cultural bitterness which lasted decades. Despite good things achieved by Thatcher, this is her overriding legacy. Frydenberg’s channelling of Thatcher is utterly foolish for in the mind of the public he will not be channelling positive outcomes but bitterness and division. This is the last thing needed at present. We need concord and common purpose shared between labour and industry; without it the future looks bleak. This concord requires respect and trust. Thatcher is also remembered for the Falklands War. When politicians are looking for a boost in the polls, almost invariably they invoke war. What was Britain doing defending honour in the latter part of the 20th century, in an outpost of empire off the South American coast? Is the present Australian government intending to ramp up its military credentials?
Thatcher and Reagan between them laid the foundations of neo-liberal capitalism: the exultation of the individual, free rein to the market, and the privatisation of almost everything. I presume this is what Frydenberg thinks he is going to channel. If this is the case, then few lessons have been learned, necessary reform is not going to happen, alienation and disappointment will deepen. Why?
Covid has taught us that the individual is not the focus of the universe, family or society is. Untold damage has been done and is being done to the health and economy of the nation, and to some parts in particular, by a few individuals who believe it is not the role of government to legislate for the common good. This is exactly what government should do, in fact this is about the only thing they should be doing. During the pandemic most have been aghast that a small number have considered it their right to do as they please. Some video clips of this behaviour have been quite sickening. No Mr Frydenberg, we do not need greater freedom to individuals we need clearer and enforceable requirements that safeguard common good.
And no we do not need the privatisation of absolutely everything. Again the pandemic has shown this to be a significant part of the problem. What was somebody thinking when it seemed a good idea to devolve the supervision of mandatory quarantine provisions to a private company who, not having trained staff, advertised through social media. They employed untrained personnel who, in addition to being untrained, were asked to make provision for their own personal protection equipment. But we do not simply need this example, what was government thinking when privatising training and killing off TAFEs which now desperately need to be reinvented. What were they thinking when allowing shonky companies to provide non-existent educational facilities? What was government thinking in privatising the electricity grid which is no longer fit for purpose and which is making the transformation of the energy sector very problematic. Or, what was government thinking when privatising juvenile justice prisons. The list is long. No, we do not need more privatisation, but that looks like our destiny.
Nor do we need more relaxed rules in the market to enable ‘entrepreneurs ‘ to make a dollar’ whenever and however they choose. Many have become billionaires through enterprises that have raped the environment. There is little evidence that the current Minister for the Environment believes in her portfolio. “Reducing red tape” is code for making it easier for projects to proceed on the basis that they serve the monetary interests of the individual, rather than the long-term interest of society a whole.
We need directed investment that may not deliver a monetary gain tomorrow, but which will undergird a reformed economy into the future. It is clear that this reform must include provisions for the democratisation of the energy market, enabling individuals and neighbourhoods to generate and distribute their own energy. It will require the development of renewable energy for hydrogen production at scale which can transform Australian industry. It will require a re-evaluation of salaries so that people are reasonably compensated for the contribution they make to society. The increasing numbers who will be required in caring services should not be remunerated at 100th the remuneration of a banker or CEO.
It will need a reform of the manner in which people are honoured. The Queen’s birthday honours this year have brought the Honours system into disrepute.
Mr Frydenberg, I consider you an honourable man. Please drop your current ill-chosen mantra. If you want to channel someone, channel the current healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line. If all Australians will do this into the future, we have absolutely nothing to be concerned about. Channelling that which encourages self-interest has us in deep trouble.