I suppose two fundamental departures from traditional Liberal party positions in a week or so is about par for the course, so we should not get too excited about them. The problem, however, is that these movements in the political tectonic plates now come so regularly and they are so vast in their ambit and earthshaking in their effect, that most voters must be wondering, like me, if the Liberal party exists at all. It is certainly not the Liberal party of the self-reliant individual that we knew. Let us just go back a week to the first of these recent eruptions. There stood the prime minister and Josh Frydenberg, surveying the wreckage of the Australian economy that had been wrought by Covid-19, and talking down to us as if we were schoolchildren, to announce that lo and behold the government had decided that six newly discovered sectors of industry held the key to our survival and prosperity and that we had all better fall into line. And you have to give them credit for their perspicacity and originality. Henceforth, we were told, we will all have to work in minerals (yes, it is about time Australia discovered something); food (get away with you, Australia growing food?); and washed down with ‘beverage’; medical products (we’ll show the Chinese we can make surgical masks too); recycling and clean energy (to shut the Fairfax and ABC journalists up), defence ( you don’t say) and, the last refuge of the deluded visionary politician, space. Now I have nothing against food and beverage and I would love a trip to space. Nor should we abandon defence, although surely we have spent enough on those submarines already. No, it is just the appalling condescension that sends me off, the idea that governments can decide these sort of issues with even a remote chance that they will succeed or produce anything of value. And it is not as if this industrial direction is by way of a free gift; oh no, the government will slug us yet another one and a half billion dollars for the handouts to companies that fall into one of the six lucky groups to be promoted. We used to have an expression that governments should not pick winners because they will almost certainly be wrong. The recent track record does not inspire any confidence at all that governments have improved on their appalling record as judges of industry or anything else. Just look at the farce of the NBN, the debacle of disembarking passengers from the Ruby Princess so they could spread disease, the totally ineffectual contact tracing app and the now hopeless post office that takes weeks to deliver what we used to get in days — all government work and all failures.
And what does all this planning and indoctrination tell us about the Liberal party that promotes them? It tells us it has abandoned the very reason for its existence, that governments should keep out of picking winners and spending our taxes to promote them. The government’s job is to create the right environment and leave industrial development to the private sector. As Bob Menzies said ’The right answer is to set the individual free’.
Now, this week we have the Budget and another great leap backwards into bottomless debt, endless deficits, massive spending, more hare-brained schemes and more pomposity about the infallibility of government. The infrastructure spending is justified and the tax cuts might restore some incentive to invest and work. But it was bad enough having JobKeeper with people being paid – by the state! — more than they had been paid when they were actually working. Many of them did not work at all while they were on the scheme, as many still are. It was also bad enough having JobSeeker with the recipient not being subject to any obligation to give anything back to the community or even to look for a job in return for being paid the dole. These schemes were economically irresponsible, expanded the public debt and created scope for corruption which I hear was amply exploited by those who knew how to play the system. Worse than that, they were debilitating for the lucky recipients who were taught, in the best practical way, that the government would always come to their rescue when times were tough and that they did not have to stand on their own two feet. The Liberal party used to believe that people should primarily look after themselves, but these schemes put paid to any such antiquated notion. Now, with the Budget, we are facing even more negation of the self-reliance ethic we believed in and practised to the great benefit of the country over many decades. The government will now pay half the wages of apprentices and trainees, up to $7,000 per quarter for each youngster you employ. It will make cash grants of $500 to everyone on social welfare but not to those who support themselves. The first home- buyers loan deposit scheme will be expanded, a money tree for developers who jack up their prices by the amount the government pays under the scheme for a house of up to $850,000! It used to be a challenge, saving up for a house and what a sense of achievement we had when it came through. Now, the message is: buy a house on 5 per cent deposit and the government will look after you. The government is elbowing itself into yet another non-government realm — giving companies a handout to ‘modernise‘ their plants and more money to create artificial jobs. What worries me is not only these schemes, but the philosophy underlying the whole of the government’s approach and the party that stands behind it: the government knows best and will provide. Until the money runs out and what then? So, there you have it. When I joined the Liberal party at the age of 15, it meant something. Now, it is the Seinfeld party, a party about nothing.
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