Politics has always been a notoriously unstable activity but over recent years this has been accentuated by several long-accepted rules being stood on their head.
The first of these rules was the notion that governments would be rewarded by the electorate for sound economic management or even for presiding over good economic conditions, whatever their contribution to those conditions might have been. But voters in Western nations, and particularly in Australia, no longer seem to display this gratitude. Unaware of the booms and busts of economic history, they assume that endless periods of sustained growth combined with low inflation and low interest rates are the norm. They give governments little credit for either creating or for not counteracting these circumstances. So in the 2007 election, the Howard government was wiped out despite a range of positive economic conditions, including a budget surplus. It is true that after 11 years there was a strong element of time for a change in the result, but the electorate seemed quite indifferent to the issue of economic management.
At the New Zealand election last week the National party government lost its majority in the parliament despite there being 4 per cent growth in the economy in the last financial year, less than 5 per cent unemployment and a budget surplus. The New Zealand system of multi-member electorates makes it difficult for any party to obtain an absolute majority in the parliament, but it is something of a puzzle as to why almost 46 per cent of those voting opted for a change of government, given the extraordinarily favourable state of the economy.
The second rule of politics that appears to have been completely overturned in recent times is that the electorate would be rightly suspicious of fiscal irresponsibility. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, Prime Minister Menzies continually attacked Labor’s spending proposals – very modest by current standards – by asking ‘Where is the money coming from?’. And this seemed to strike a chord with the electorate. But there would be no point in any politician asking such a question today, when the attitude of much of the community is that there should be increased government spending in every area of administration and that it is simply up to the government of the day to find the money. Many voters seem to make no connection between notions of revenue and expenditure. They violently resist any proposals for increased taxation, at least insofar as it applies to themselves, but demand increased expenditure, at least in relation to anything that affects their own interests.
This attitude seems to be based, in part, on the fantasy that somewhere in the community there is a group of extremely rich individuals who could fund all government programs if properly taxed. It is no doubt true that the very wealthy arrange their affairs so as not to pay significant tax but, even if all their assets were confiscated tomorrow, this would not make a meaningful contribution to the revenue side of the budget. There is a similar fantasy about multi-national companies and their tax contributions. This is an area where governments in all countries need to do more work, but any increased revenue from these sources could never bridge the gap in Australia between taxation and expenditure.
As a result of all this, the idea of a balanced budget has no electoral appeal. In Britain’s election earlier this year, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn simply promised massive new spending programs and ignored any questions as to how they would be funded. Labour did not win the election but it substantially increased its vote on the previous poll. This is a long-term problem for the Liberals in the Australian context because they can never out-promise or out-spend Labor and the Greens, and they feel obliged to make some efforts, although not very successfully, to reduce the budget deficit.
The third political rule that seems to have gone by the board is that there was a division under the Australian Constitution between federal and state functions. One area that had always been the responsibility of the states – and for which the Commonwealth has no role under the Constitution – was the supply of power. Now there is said to be a crisis in relation to the provision of electricity and everyone assumes that it is up to the federal government to find a solution. Education, always a state responsibility and one for which the Commonwealth has no constitutional power, is another area where federal funding and regulation is seen as the solution for all problems in schools and universities. In keeping with the notion that the federal government must be concerned with every aspect of Australian society, a Senate inquiry was established in early September into the decision by the Australian Rugby Union to remove its Western Australian team from the Super Rugby competition. What on earth has such a decision by a sporting body got to do with the national government? Needless to say, there is no mention of sport in the Constitution.
The fourth rule to be discarded is the idea that experience in public administration is normally a requirement, or is at least highly desirable, for national leadership. This change is largely a product of the cult of celebrity and has resulted in a range of world leaders with little or no experience in government, including President Trump, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron. In some ways, Bob Hawke was an early Australian example of this phenomenon, although Hawke turned out to be a very able administrator. More generally, however, this development reflects the electorate’s impatience with the traditional constraints of politics and government. It reflects a feeling – almost invariably wrong – that a celebrity figure can sweep aside all these limitations and introduce dramatic solutions to long-standing problems. It is yet another example of the increasing gap between reality and the expectations of the electorate. Most politicians, of course, are too frightened to tell people something that they don’t want to hear, so there is no real prospect of a return to reality in the immediate future.
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