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17 February 2014

Australia must be destroyed

There are legitimate questions any country must ask itself about the sort of place it wants to be, and the political arena is the proper place for that discussion to take place. But a few months into the existence of the Abbott Government and it is becoming coming clear that we are being taken in a direction that the government itself has never fully articulated. It is reasonable to suggest that certain elites see the election of the Abbott Government as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to kill dead the idea that a government of the people can be a force for good in the lives of the majority of its citizens. Their plan to end the age of entitlement is nothing more than an attempt to gut the middle class and destroy those programs and institutions that underpin the idea of Australia as an egalitarian nation.

Anyone who has paid any attention to US politics in the period of the Obama Presidency will know that his signature policy has been the introduction of a more equitable healthcare system.

They will also know that political opposition to this plan has been fierce, and that the right-wing media and the Republican Party itself has spared no effort in their attempts to get rid of it. In fact, the GOP has tried FORTY-SIX TIMES to repeal the legislation in Congress.

Why this obsessive hatred of a policy prescription that every other developed country takes for granted and sees as a cornerstone of a civilised nation?

Partly it is ideological -- there really are people on the Right who believe that government has no place helping its citizens afford health care. Go figure.

But that's not all there is to it. The opposition is also driven by fear, and their big fear is that Obamacare will work.

You see, when your entire political and philosophical pitch is that government is inherently evil, that it is unmanageable, inefficient and wasteful, the last thing you need is any evidence that big, redistributive government programs work.

So Obamacare must be destroyed.

In Australia, the same forces are at work, though universal healthcare is less of an immediate target.

Yes, various conservative governments have tried to get rid of it. Indeed, the Abbott Government's recent thought bubble about a co-payment for visits to the GP tells us that they haven't given up. In their perfect world, Medicare would be gone and everyone's health care left to the whims of market forces.

But in terms of prosecuting the case for the sort of Australia they envisage, attacking Medicare is not the main game.

Oddly, that role has been assumed by the ABC.

The barking mad attacks made on the national broadcaster in recent weeks by the IPA, the Murdoch press, and the government itself - from the Prime Minister down - have nothing to do with the way the ABC covered the story of asylum seekers getting their hands burnt. They are about discrediting an organisation whose very existence challenges right-wing assertions about the badness of government.

In other words, if you are going to demonise government, the best way to do that is not to highlight its failures, but to undermine its successes.

Thus: the ABC is an efficient, successful, much-loved, government-financed institution, so it must be destroyed.

These attacks on what works in our society are only going to increase, and Joe Hockey's call for an end to the age of entitlements is meant to provide the frame that will allow that to happen. It is a rhetorical shift designed to cruel the pitch before the game has even started. As I've noted elsewhere, once services are redefined as entitlements...the onus shifts from citizens expecting a certain level of state care to having to justify why they deserve anything at all.

High on the list of institutions the Abbott government is targeting is our unique system of industrial relations. It is a system that reasonably successfully puts some power into the hands of workers, allowing them some control over their pay and conditions, while keeping things flexible enough to allow business to adapt to changing circumstances. In fact, it has delivered flexibility and restrained wages outcomes even during the worst of global financial crisis and even as pressure was put on the system by the resources boom.

As Ross Gittins has noted, It's been two decades since we had reason to worry about excessive wage growth. This remains true despite cabinet ministers and some economists saying we have a problem.

The Howard Government tried to destroy the system with WorkChoices and failed, and the reason it did was because the unions put up such a brilliant defence.

The Abbott Government has learned this lesson well. So instead of trying again with a full-frontal assault on workplace relations in the form of a revamped version of WorkChoices, Mr Abbott and co. are instead attacking the unions themselves.

The mooted Royal Commission is nothing more than the state declaring war on the right of workers to organise in their own interests. It is an attack on unionism itself, and the idea is to discredit the unions (and the Labor Party) to such an extent that they will never again be able to mount the sort of defence that they did against WorkChoices.

Education is also in the government sights, and it is the same principle involved as with the ABC and industrial relations: any government program that works - and thus puts the lie to the right-wing mantra about the dysfunctionality of government programs - must be destroyed.

So Christopher Pyne's attacks on the Gonski reforms are nothing more than an attempt to undermine a more equitable funding model for education. As Ken Boston, the former director-general of the NSW Department of Education and member of the Gonski review panel has said:

At present, it is mainly the hard-working and talented children of the privileged who have access to the very highest levels of educational achievement. If Gonski is implemented, such access will be available increasingly to the similarly hard-working and talented children of the socially disadvantaged. This is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes: differences in outcomes will inevitably exist between children, but they will no longer be the result of factors such as poverty, religion or sector of schooling.

The Gonski vision of a fair go for all young Australians means that, in due course and over time, a hard-working talented young girl will come to have the same real prospect of winning a place in the university and course of her choice regardless of family circumstances and background.

Is Pyne up for that? ...Of course not.

And don't think it will stop there. Even an apparently sacrosanct program like the aged pension will eventually be targeted. Joe Hockey had a reason for saying that, as a community we need to redefine the responsibility of government and its citizens to provide for themselves, both during their working lives and into retirement.

What is that other than a warning that the pension is in their sights?

The Abbott Government is part of an international push by a tiny percentage of the super-wealthy to discredit and destroy the very notion of government as a democratic force in the lives of ordinary people. Their end of the age of entitlements rhetoric is at one with the policies of austerity being pushed in Europe and the United States.

And as Paul Krugman has noted: ... just as the austerity drive isn't really about fiscal responsibility, the push for structural reform isn't really about growth; in both cases, it's mainly about dismantling the welfare state.


The ideological nature of the government's attacks on welfare becomes obvious when you look at the latest Statement of Monetary Policy from the Reserve Bank. It makes clear that we simply do not need to cut national spending to the extent that the Treasurer is suggesting. The so-called age of entitlements does not need to be ended because, essentially, it doesn't exist. We are living within our means. As Greg Jericho notes,

Hockey might still continue with his hard-cutting budget, but if he's honest, the cuts won't really be about repairing the budget. The improved economic picture has done most of that work for him.

Yes, there are ongoing issues that any economy has to confront to stay healthy over the long term, but we shouldn't let that basic economic reality be used to bluff us into destroying the nation in order to save it.

In reality, little of this argument about entitlements is really about economic fundamentals. It's about ideology.

This means that the Australia we have grown up with - the one that tries to use a government of the people to fulfil values of fairness and equity; that tries to balance the needs of business against the interests of workers; that accepts that access to decent health care is fundamental to a civilised nation; that recognises the same about education; that realises that the natural environment is a finite resource that needs to be managed for all of us; that understands the advantages of having a national broadcaster that is not beholden to the vagaries of a commercial market - that Australia, that nation, is under attack.

That's what ending the age of entitlement actually means. It means destroying the Australia of the fair go.

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