Flat White

How the left have barred the way for economic reform

7 March 2017

8:07 AM

7 March 2017

8:07 AM

Judging by the despondent state of most Australian economists there’s little prospect coming years will generate much more than continued policy drift.

While cynical wags have been primed to get busy in the comments section on the nature of economists, there are good reasons to be pessimistic.

For the most part, it’s the demonstrated absence of effort that leads to a conviction that not much is going to be proposed and even less will be accomplished.

The simple reason there is no effort is that it’s all too hard politically. Politicians are a function of the eco-system in which they exist and there is not a lot that would encourage those on the centre-right to champion a meaningfully reformist policy agenda.

A reform case has to be grounded in credible and trusted analysis, it then has to be brought to the attention of the Australian public, neither of which tends to happen much these days.

Convincing analytical work takes time and resources, so tends to be thin on the ground.

Where it does exist, outside of a few stalwarts in the press with solid economic credentials it’s likely to be ignored wholesale by activist journalists focussed largely on their holy trinity of climate change, gay marriage and refugees.

That brings us to the real reason it has become impossible to offer a reform case in Australia: the triumph of the left.

The left are now ascendant because they have successfully stacked the institutions with their fellow travellers and go to extraordinary lengths to bully and silence their critics.

Conservative indifference has been pivotal in aiding and abetting this accomplishment. A few islands of independent thought can’t offer much resistance.

It’s not as though the left are winning the policy case on the merits of their arguments, which remain as bad as ever. They’re just more effective at preventing anyone from having any capacity to disagree with them on virtually anything now and suppressing their voices and arguments.

Disturbingly, this appears to extend to the Right of the Labor Party, which in the past could be relied upon to moderate the worst excesses of the Left. A key feature of the Rudd and Gillard eras was a propensity to ignore those on the centre-left capable of providing expert advice and an emphasis on spin.

In all likelihood, Ken Henry’s recent injunction to the business community to pull their socks up and get to work making the reform case likely fell not so much on deaf ears but empty wallets and apprehensive executives.

Not only have financial pressures and fears of activist demonisation seen business wind back support for advocacy. The vast majority are compromised by their dependence on government, even if it’s simply dependence on being left alone.

Australia has reached the tragic end point of the long march through the institutions.

Economic reform has virtually ground to a halt, a degraded bureaucracy churns out anodyne politically censored reports and key institutions of government serve the interests of politicians over those of the Australian people.

Renewal seems a distant prospect.

The first step is realising you’ve already been defeated and why. Anyone who agrees to play a crooked game shouldn’t be too disappointed when they lose, or feel particularly sore about walking away from the table with empty pockets.

The issue for any Australian conservative is how much they’re willing to continue to lose simply to play the game.

If 2016 taught us anything at all, real progress only comes when you change the rules.

At this point, there’s not much left to lose.

Burchell Wilson is a post-graduate economics scholar at Johns Hopkins University.

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