Coalition a government of inequality, inaction, unfairness

Published on Wed 24 March 2021 11:54am

People expect their government to put its shoulder to the wheel of achieving positive change, to achieving greater fairness, and to achieving greater equality. This government has failed to manage the economy. It’s less strong and less fair, and they’ve failed to step up to any of the transformative challenges.

Mr Wilson (11:54am) – Budgets and associated appropriation bills can be viewed as instalments in a story of a government. I think governments should have a story. I think it helps to have a story. I don’t think it’s helpful to take an overly technocratic approach to the way government proceeds and just think about government in terms of dollars and cents, numbers, dry programs and other kinds of measures. There should be some sense in which a government has an ethos, even a managerial ethos, and certainly some kind of vision or purpose that covers off on that part of a government’s intentions that could be described as transformative or reformist.

We’d like to think that all governments have a managerial aspect, but they certainly should have some kind of transformative or reformist aspect as well. I think that ought to be the case at any time in history, but in the time in which we all presently live it doesn’t much matter if you’re not interested in transformative government, because that’s being required of us by the circumstances that we confront. You can look at that in terms of climate change, energy and, obviously in the last 12 months plus, the challenges that are presented by a pandemic. This is not the first brush with a pandemic that we’ve had in the 21st century. As we deal with COVID-19 we’d be foolish to expect that it’s the last time we’ll have a brush with a pandemic.

The difficulty with this government—now eight years old and three prime ministers old—is that it has never really had a story. I’d be very interested to hear from a member of the government or the Prime Minister what the story of this government is. It’s very hard to put your finger on any significant theme, any narrative trajectory or any transformative achievement really, and I think that tells you something.

It’s a government that is fundamentally managerial. That’s the nature of Coalition governments. They see it as their role to just steer the ship—or that’s the way they would have people see it—but they have failed to step up to the needs of the times and the transformative challenges that we face. You can see that in many areas. You can see that in terms of climate change and energy. You can see it in terms of the things they inherited from the previous Labor government.

The previous Labor government had two terms over six years and faced a global financial crisis that descended upon it in the first 12 to 15 months and yet it created the National Broadband Network, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the national network of marine parks—the most significant protection of marine estates globally. So in a relatively short time, in the face of some very significant challenges, it took on that transformative role.

The government inherited some of those things. If they had simply picked up the baton in some of those areas, they might have achieved something. But, as we know—NBN being a classic example—they straightaway broke the model. They straightaway moved away from a fibre-rich network that would have been the foundation of our 21st century productivity and innovation and would have provided easier and fairer access to social services, information, entertainment and all those sorts of things. They said: ‘No. You know what? We’ll have a 21st-century broadband network based on 19th-century copper. We’ll buy up more copper than anyone else on the planet and we’ll keep rolling out new copper and making use of old copper so that when we get to the point of delivering the NBN, much later and at much greater expense than we said we would do, it will essentially be obsolete at the point of delivery. That’s what we’ve achieved.’

The government inherited work that Labor had done in the waste and recycling space. We created the National Waste Policy, some product stewardship reforms and a number of things. That had been really abandoned until the last 18 months or so. Even in picking up that challenge, the government has found every way that it could to do very little and to avoid the big challenges in procurement, infrastructure, product stewardship, labelling and all those things that are necessary if we really want to move towards a circular economy.

Managerially, the Coalition love to tell one enduring story, or they try to, which is that they’re superior economic managers and that they’re ideologically free, that they don’t have a value system and that they simply try and run things according to some sort of foundational and efficient economic orthodoxy. But we actually saw the value system that they bring into that space as early as 2014, and we see it in these appropriation bills and in their recent budget. The terms that they used back in 2014 were ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. The terms they use these days are ‘class warfare’ or ‘the politics of envy’. What they essentially do is divide Australia. They suggest that people who are already doing well and companies that are already profitable need to be further assisted and that that then results through the weird magic of trickle-down economics into benefits for everybody and that it’s the people doing it tough who really need to get a bit of a move on courtesy of some governmental stick.

When we talk about addressing inequality, when we talk about a focus on people facing disadvantage, when we talk about the benefits of broad participation in Australian life and the Australian economy and how that kind of social and economic inclusion actually lifts everybody up, we get accused of class warfare. We get accused of the politics of envy. In reality, what we’re prosecuting are the politics of fairness and the politics of justice. We’ve seen the government’s skewed approach to that task and their neglect and dereliction of what should always be top of the list for any government, which is looking to create greater shared economic and social wellbeing. We’ve seen their dereliction of that task in multiple instalments.

We saw it through the pandemic. They were dragged to recognising the need for a wage subsidy in the form of JobKeeper, but they then managed to deliver a distorted version of what could have been a sensible and helpful wage subsidy, and their distorted version has been patchy and uneven and it’s been yanked away too soon. It hasn’t gone to many parts of the community that needed it. It has gone to very large and profitable companies that have seen their profits increase. What have they done with those increasing profits? They’ve paid out big dividends. They’ve paid out executive bonuses. The dividends have often gone to CEOs, like the CEO of Harvey Norman, to the tune of millions of dollars. So our local government workers, university staff and people in the arts and creative sector have missed out altogether or have received very little or are having their support withdrawn too soon while we’ve seen literally hundreds of millions of dollars paid to profitable big companies that have no intention of giving that back. Whether they have an intention of giving it back should be irrelevant, because it should be government’s task to say: ‘Hang on a second. We got this wrong. We didn’t have the settings right. But I’ll tell you what. We’re not going to allow hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds to go to companies that don’t need it. That’s money that should be going to people who are on the brink of personal disaster. That should be going to small businesses and enterprises that are on the brink of disaster.’ But that’s never the approach this government takes.

Some of those companies that received money they didn’t need decided to pay it back, and they should be applauded for that. But those that haven’t have been left to pocket this government’s largesse. All the Prime Minister will say is that it’s good for them to have the money and it’s good for them if they want to pay it back. Contrast that with the industrial cruelty of Robodebt, where people were literally told, ‘We’re coming for you. The computer tells us that you got a few dollars that you don’t deserve because you’re a leaner and we’re coming for you. We’ll prosecute you and we’ll take you to court.’ You could not get a more stark contrast between the approach the government takes to someone like Gerry Harvey, with $10 million plus of taxpayer funds in his pocket that he doesn’t need and doesn’t deserve, and the approach it took to tens of thousands of low-income Australians—pensioners, unemployed people and veterans—who, in many cases, were told that they had received money they didn’t deserve. Those assessments were wrong, They then had the living daylights scared out of them, and their relatively meagre material circumstances were put further under the cruel vice of this government because it wanted to tighten the purse strings at that end of the budget—at the end where people already have so little and could do with just a little bit more.

The government delivered tax cuts to big business. They would have gone further if we hadn’t opposed that. As I said, for low-income Australians, there was Robodebt. There were tax cuts for individuals, the large majority of which go to high-income earners. There were penalty rate cuts for low-income earners again. Why? ‘Because we make the workplace more flexible, and then more jobs will result.’ Did more jobs result? No. Is there any great surprise there? Does all the money tipped in at the top end ever trickle down? No. When you cut the wages of people who are already at the low end of the income scale, does it actually create any more work? No. It just fattens profits and makes life meaner, colder and harder, and less free and more full of misery for people who have already got enough of that. As I say, even in the context of the pandemic, the government has taken that approach.

If there were a story of the government, it would be inequality, inaction and unfairness—a user’s manual. That might be the novel version of this government, in terms of this budget and all the previous budgets. And we see that broadly, as I’ve described, but we see it particularly in some sectors. We certainly see it with Indigenous Australians. Some of the key measures that we look at through closing the gap have not moved under this government. Employment participation has not moved at all. Employment participation for the population as a whole has increased marginally; employment participation for Indigenous Australians has got marginally worse. The gap has got larger. In terms of life expectancy for Indigenous Australians, the gap has not closed. The gap remains stubbornly high. The gap in life expectancy between Indigenous men and non-Indigenous men is 8.6 years, and, for Indigenous women, it is 7.8 years. Nothing has been done to address that enduring problem in Australian society.

Take women, who face economic disadvantage as part of the patriarchal and misogynist aspects of our culture which persist. We know that. We’re talking about that a lot at the moment, quite rightly. But look at the economic circumstances. The gender pay gap remains stubbornly high. The government has no interest in doing anything about that. Labor has identified a number of ways in which you could actually begin to close that gap, such as requiring the disclosure of the pay gap and looking at reducing the pay gap in the Public Service, something that the government has control over. We know that, when you address those kinds of things in the Public Service, it flows through to the private sector. These are practical things; they’re not that hard. They’re things that the government could take on. Look at superannuation. Women retire with, on average, half what men retire with, yet the genius idea that the government had recently was that, in circumstances where there is domestic violence and they are seeking to escape that kind of scenario, women should be forced to draw on their super. So they’ve done nothing in that space.

People expect their government to put its shoulder to the wheel of achieving positive change, to achieving greater fairness, and to achieving greater equality. This government has failed to manage the economy. It’s less strong and less fair, and they’ve failed to step up to any of the transformative challenges. 

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