Friday marks 10 years since the Rudd government was elected. It’s 10 years to the day since Australia last had good government.
On 24 November 2007, after portraying himself as “John Howard-lite”, Kevin Rudd became prime minister. Some might argue it’s been downhill for the country ever since. It’s also a measure of how much the country has changed that in 2017 the Coalition now sees its path to popularity as being “Labor-lite”.
Saying we haven’t had good government for decade is not to say there haven’t been some good things governments have done. Julia Gillard made some worthwhile efforts in school education, while Tony Abbott restored a measure of integrity to the country’s immigration policies.
But the reality is that in the past 10 years there have been many more policy failures than successes. You can take your pick from a large range of fiascos, including Labor’s ETS, NBN, and its mining tax. Then add in Liberals’ bank tax, their retrospective superannuation tax increases, and submarines. In addition to these failures of commission, there are the sins of omission. No side of politics has been willing to tackle tax or industrial relations reform, or confront the burden of red tape.
Both the Liberal Party and the ALP struggle to present a coherent, realistic, and achievable vision for the future of the country. There’s no reason to think that – at least in the next few years – we won’t be consigned to more of the same quality of government we’ve had since 2007.
In fact, the only thing to show for the size of the federal government being 10 per cent bigger than a decade ago is an interest bill on government debt of more than $1 billion a month.
Forces and trends
There will be a variety of perspectives on what’s gone wrong with the governance of the country, but not all the fault is with the four prime ministers we’ve had in the past decade. Regardless of which party and which leader has been in power, they’ve been subjected to forces and trends that have proved beyond their power to either control or manage.
In Australia’s case, the source of our decade-long travails can be located in two connected themes: our complacency; and the challenges of a changing political and social culture.
Twenty-six years of uninterrupted economic growth have accustomed this country’s political class and the electorate to thinking that everything is economically affordable and that the consequences of policy mistakes don’t matter. The concept of opportunity cost no longer exists.
Not even the global financial crisis shook Australia out of its complacency. A large part of the problem that governments have faced is that – until recently – most of the things voters said they wanted, and most of the things politicians wanted to give them, have been affordable.
No Labor or Coalition government of the past 10 years has had to make a hard choice. When a person thinks their choices don’t have a cost, they tend to make choices that are lazy. And how governments act is no different to how people behave.
Hawke and Keating, Howard and Costello lived through the economic depredations of Australia in the 1970s. Many of the current generation of Canberra politicians wouldn’t know how to spell stagflation, let alone know what it is. A crisis doesn’t only bring matters to a head. It instils a habit of thinking into the generation unlucky enough to have to live through that crisis.
Culture outvotes class
Federal governments have no more been able to manage the consequences of economic complacency, than they’ve been able to navigate the great cultural dislocation taking place. Culture, not class, will increasingly be the main determinant of how people vote, and as yet only the Greens have realised this truth.
The two major parties can’t fathom why the rich and privileged would vote Greens while the poor and unemployed would vote for conservatives. In a post-industrial world, things like religion and belief were assumed to no longer matter.
Lately, “populism” and even democracy itself have been presented as the culprits of this country’s ailing system of governance. But “populism”, whatever it’s been defined to be, is the symptom of political dysfunction, not the cause. And democracy is merely the means by which people can exercise their right to express their disgust of bad governments.