How to explain the trainwreck that is the last three years of the federal government? The debacle poses a challenge that will dog journalists, policy wonks and historians for decades to come. The explanations for its dysfunction and sustained under-achievement are complex, but there are at least two distinct theories worth considering.
In Malcolm Turnbull’s second ministerial reshuffle in February, Alex Hawke was promoted to the office of assistant minister to the treasurer. In 2005, the then young Liberal office holder prophesied that conservative politics in Australia would move increasingly towards an American model. Hawke explained that: “The two greatest forces for good in human history are capitalism and Christianity, and when they’re blended it’s a very powerful duo.”
Can the relentless incoherence and incompetence of the current government be attributed to a particular blend of capitalism and religion that has found favour in the US? Perhaps. British author Will Hutton argues that a malaise has swept the political right throughout the west and that it has given up on the Enlightenment and in doing so has rejected “tolerance, reason, democratic argument, progress and the drive for social betterment as cornerstones of society.”
If there is a serious contest about capitalism being waged in Australian politics, it is invisible to most of us. To the extent that there is a debate, it focuses on neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps Hawke’s invocation of capitalism is another way of expressing an opposition deep within the modern Australian conservative; an opposition to taxes and to government itself. Despite the rhetoric, the recent experience of conservative governments including the current government is that they levy more tax than their Labor counterparts.
Christianity is, if you will forgive me, a broad church. It’s a fair bet that Alex Hawke’s reportedly preferred flavour, Hillsong, has little in common with that promulgated by the world’s most prominent Christian, Pope Francis, who condemns “ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”
Christianity is invoked by politicians of left and right to rationalise almost any policy. Witness prime minister Rudd’s reliance on “the biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst” in support of a humane asylum seeker policy. In reversing that approach, prime minister Abbott declared: “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it is not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”. If Christianity helps us understand the federal government, then it is a particularly aggressive and intolerant strain.
Alex Hawke’s prediction that Australian conservatives would look to their counterparts in the US resonates precisely because the US Republicans increasingly make no sense. As the success of the abusive, racist demagogue Donald Trump seems increasingly assured in the GOP primary race, there is a very real possibility of a seismic split.
Malcolm Turnbull is no Donald Trump but he is surrounded by many unusual politicians with strange cultural obsessions and hostilities, many of which appear to be derived from the Tea Party and fringe right wing groups in the US. Many of them voted for him to replace Tony Abbott as the prime minister.
And yet, there is also a far more prosaic explanation for the mess.
The federal government is hostage to the campaign run by Abbott in opposition – a campaign had three essential features: it was ruthlessly prosecuted, very successful and, finally, completely and utterly irrational.
The opposition inculcated a state of perpetual crisis that was the envy of professional catastrophists the world over. The crises said to beleaguer the nation under a Labor government formed an impressively long list: the cost of living crisis, the retail crisis, the productivity crisis, the debt crisis, the deficit disaster, emergency low interest rates, sovereign risk crisis, the budget emergency.
None of the crises were real. Rather, they were a fiction borne of a political strategy designed to destabilise and remove the Labor government which, for all its faults presided over a stunning macroeconomic performance and successfully ducked a recession in the wake of the global financial crisis.
It is one thing to proclaim a series of crises. It’s another to promulgate the solution. The then opposition’s program was remarkably simple and painless: “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.” Critically, there would also be tax cuts.
Exactly how the federal government would cut taxes, reduce government debt and transition to a budget surplus, boost infrastructure and not cut major expenditure like health, education and the pension was never made clear. Nor could it be made clear. The laws of mathematics do not accommodate such idiocy.
Economic illiteracy can be masked by theatrical bluff and bluster for only so long. The government’s 2014 budget cut a swathe through its pre-election promises including gouging an $80bn hole in funding for health and education. Taxes weren’t cut; in fact, there was an attempt to raise a new tax – for visiting a GP.
The Senate kept the government to its pre-election promises and it has been stuck in a paralysing funk ever since.
In its short life the LNP government has levied more tax as a proportion of GDP than its predecessor. Government spending as a proportion of GDP has also increased, the budget deficit has more than doubled from its “crisis” levels in 2013, and gross government debt has ballooned by over $100bn.
The bluff and bluster was resurrected when treasurer Scott Morrison recently tweeted: “Labor’s plan is to tax, spend and borrow. Our plan is to back Australians who are working, saving and investing.”
By January 2016, even conservative partisans at the Australian could no longer maintain the fiscal fantasy. Judith Sloan wrote: “I’m calling it here: the Turnbull government is a big spending, big taxing government with no real intention to pare back the growth of government spending, let alone cut it.” In other words, Turnbull continued where Abbott left off.
The wild irrationality that has infected the government has manifested itself in a series of government appointments. A climate science denier, Maurice Newman, was one of the government’s first, appointed to head its Business Advisory Council.
As Australian temperature records fell like dying birds from burning eucalyptus trees, Newman called for an inquiry into the Bureau of Meteorology. Since the 2013 election, the BOM has persisted in issuing extreme weather forecasts and documenting the overwhelming number of climate records being broken. To his credit, Turnbull revoked the appointment on being elevated to prime minister.
How are we to rationalise the abolition of the office of the disability discrimination commissioner and the appointment of the first national wind farm commissioner? The elimination of a key role to assist the large number of people with disabilities and their families, many of whom live below the poverty line and struggle with endemic disadvantage, followed by the creation of a new role to address a syndrome that doesn’t exist.
The appointment of Tim Wilson to the role of “freedom commissioner” was an Orwellian coup for the extreme right lobbyists at the IPA, effectively outsourcing Wilson’s labour costs to the taxpayer.
The man who specialised in the dehumanisation of asylum seekers and perpetuated the incarceration of children, Philip Ruddock, secured an appointment as special envoy for human rights. More Orwell.
The government’s professed attachment to free speech and other “traditional freedoms” is impossible to reconcile with its actions. It sought to silence, intimidate and then remove the president of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs. It has enacted laws to prevent doctors speaking about the harm being inflicted on refugees.
There are the measures taken to silence NGOs including community legal centres who are banned from advocating for law reform. The work of environmental organisations including the Environmental Defenders’ Office has been sabotaged notwithstanding the government’s failed attempt to prevent environmental groups accessing the legal system. So much for the rule of law.
One of the first notable and ominous acts of the federal government was, in fact, an omission – the first government in over 70 years not to appoint a science minister. Since then, the country’s peak scientific research body, the CSIRO, has responded to funding cuts by shedding scientists like dead skin. A world renowned research program into climate change has been ditched.
Against a background of attacks on scientific research and the debacle that is the country’s major innovation and infrastructure project, the NBN, Turnbull announced a new innovation policy.
Who or what is responsible for the government’s many other strange cultural and religious obsessions? Eric Abetz’s insistence on a link between breast cancer and abortion, notwithstanding the science that discredited this theory five decades ago. The attempt to ban the burqa in the confines of Parliament House. The campaign to water down racial vilification laws in support of the right to be a bigot. The havoc wreaked on investment in renewable energy as the government campaigned against “ugly” wind turbines. The many attacks on the ABC, culminating in a government black-ban on appearing on its current affairs flagship, Q&A. The attack on Safe Schools.
Endless fuel to stoke the fires of satire – perhaps – but there is another more disturbing dimension to these obsessions. The federal government almost always “punches down”. The coalition caucus is a toxic brew of fierce antagonism directed at minority groups, the disadvantaged and victims of discrimination.
Those targeted to be disadvantaged by its policies are invariably minorities, the less well-off and those with little or no political voice: those with the smallest superannuation balances, Muslims, cleaners of Canberra offices, food processing workers employed at SPC, the unemployed (the attempt to impose a six-month qualification period to qualify for unemployment benefits), children in disadvantaged schools (the sabotage of Gonski education reforms), the strenuous attempts to chisel lowly paid workers with intellectual disability out of backpay owed to them, the calculated and deliberately cruel infliction of injury on refugees fleeing war zones including Syria.
And let us not forget the attempt to wind back consumer protections against predatory crooks in our ethically challenged banks, championed by Turnbull’s key ally, Senator Arthur Sinodinos.
While almost all the attention has been focused on the titular head, you can only begin to understand this federal government by shifting your gaze to what’s underneath: the convulsing, twisting and raging body.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.