Time to reduce government
Classical liberals often convince themselves that a small government agenda could never be politically popular in Australia. Two new polls suggest they're wrong.
It's an all too common lament that Australians are quite happy with big government. Frustrated and sometimes even cynical believers in individual freedom see middle class welfare, subsidies for business and programs for special interests as yet more evidence that Aussie voters just love government spending.
There's some truth to these fears. The howls of protest in the media and elsewhere whenever someone proposes cutting an entitlement program - think the federal government's recent tiny cuts to the baby bonus - seem to bear this out. Aussies apparent attachment to Howard government era handouts like "Family Tax Benefits" are hardly encouraging. And UK commentator Christopher Snowden has famously dubbed Australia the Nanny State capital of the world, thanks to our draconian limits on cigarette packaging and other government bans.
But new evidence suggests that Australians are more likely to reject government intervention than citizens of other countries. Whereas 62% of people worldwide supported a ban on unhealthy food, polling company Ipsos found only one-third of Australians agreed with such an illiberal proposal. Also encouragingly, 57% of Australians were found to be opposed to a tax on fatty foods in the name of fighting obesity. Last year the Institute of Public Affairs conducted a poll on Australian attitudes to the Nanny State which found 55% of agreed there is too much government intervention and control in people's lives. The same poll found the clear majority thought plain packaging for alcohol, fast food and cigarettes were unlikely to be effective.
Perhaps Australians are less enamoured with the Nanny State than many thought.
Essential Research, a left-leaning Australian polling firm, also recently conducted a poll which offers some signs of hope. They asked voters whether government is too large and tries to do too much - and a plurality, 44% agreed. Just 28% disagreed with the proposition.
But Essential also asked sector-by-sector questions, for example, whether government does too much or too little to provide quality health care and education services. Predictably, in these politically-popular areas of spending, most voters were happy for the government to do more. Tellingly, Essential didn't ask voters whether they thought government employed too many or too few public servants, whether they spent too much on ineffective climate change schemes or whether the welfare system was too costly. They might have got very different answers if they did.
Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that slashing spending on schools and hospitals is highly unlikely to ever be popular in Australia. But that doesn't mean that a small-government political agenda can't be sold to voters.
For a start, there are many ways to reduce government involvement in sensitive areas like education or health without being seen to be cutting public services. Abolishing the badly-drafted and poorly-conceived national education curriculum in favour of competitive curriculums is unlikely to offend many voters. Introducing a voucher system for delivering existing education spending has the potential to be very popular. And lightly-taxed health savings accounts to replace Medicare for those who can afford to pay for their own healthcare could be done with minimal political pain. Australians might view the size of the federal public service differently if politicians were able to effectively convey that while the federal departments of education and health employ thousands of public servants, not one principal, teacher, doctor or nurse is among them.
More broadly, the key to advancing a small government agenda in Australia is to seize on the general perception that government nannies us too much. An effective political narrative that speaks in general terms about individual liberty versus state control is occasionally put forward by some Liberal MPs. But there is fertile ground for much more of it.
And while the left is great at cataloguing examples of where reduced government involvement hurts some people - say workers who lose out from tariff cuts - supporters of small government can respond. The carbon tax will be a great political opportunity to highlight the very real damage government intervention can do to peoples' lives and businesses. But every single instance where big government hurts individuals needs to be highlighted by politicians who value liberty. Sometimes a personal story can have far more impact than even the most persuasive facts and figures.
Of course, they need good allies who help them make the case. Too often supporters of small government are not consistent in their advocacy for individual liberty over state control. Business groups, for example, ultimately only harm their own cause when they decry wasteful and inefficient welfare spending for people, but go missing in action when government gives welfare to business. A handout to a business has the same corrosive potential as a handout to individuals, and a welfare-dependent business is no better than a welfare-dependent person or family.
Granted, it is often tempting for politicians to pretend their new spending scheme will "fix" whatever problem is currently on the political agenda. It is harder to point out the risks and pitfalls of big government. But a small government agenda is much more politically feasible than some suggest.