There is something awesomely pompous about individuals who proclaim their education, present or past employment, awards and the like to weigh into the public debate. The implied suggestion in such qualification flashing is that the views of an honorary professor in industrial relations research at the University of NSW are more significant than those of, say, a taxi driver or real estate agent.
On Wednesday, Fairfax Media newspapers carried an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull titled “Australia doesn’t need lower taxes”. The signatories declared their belief that “a debate about tax reform should begin with the question of how much tax is required to fund the services we need to build a fair and decent society in Australia”.
They concluded their epistle to the Prime Minister with the assertion that “collecting more tax, more equitably, will make Australia a better place to live and work”.
The petition also opposed any decrease to company tax, despite the fact it is at uncompetitively high levels.
The principal signatory was Bernie Fraser, governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia from 1989 to 1996.
Certainly Fraser has economic qualifications and experience in government, having held senior positions in Treasury and the Reserve Bank.
However, some co-signatories have no economic qualifications or experience in government.
Take emeritus professor Robert Manne, the vice-chancellor’s fellow in politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne. In the introduction to his edited collection The New Conservatism in Australia (1982), Manne wrote: “I must admit to having no competence in economics whatsoever.”
Ten years later, in Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism and How to Rescue Australia, Manne condemned the economic reform agenda of Bob Hawke’s Labor government and predicted that Australia would turn into “social wastelands, ghettos of broken families, personal misery, delinquency and squalor”.
Australia has enjoyed continuous economic growth for a quarter of a century under the governments led by Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and now Turnbull.
In June 2006, Manne acknowledged that he was “out of my depth” when discussing economics and conceded he had “never been interested” in the subject. In fact, he survived as a credible commentator only because no government implemented his economic agenda.
Yet on Wednesday Manne joined 49 others in signing the petition sponsored by the left-wing Australia Institute in Canberra. Its executive director is Ben Oquist, a one-time chief-of-staff to former Greens leaders Bob Brown and Christine Milne.
The Australia Institute’s open letter was signed by several highly qualified and influential Australians including economists (Fraser and Geoffrey Harcourt) along with Peter Doherty (the 1996 Nobel prizewinner in physiology or medicine).
However, for the most part, the signatories are little-known academics attached to various campuses.
There was even one honorary associate professor. A third of the signatories flashed their doctorates. Then there are former Labor politicians (Carmen Lawrence, John Langmore), several trade union officials (the ACTU’s Ged Kearney, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union’s Andrew Dettmer and the National Tertiary Education Union’s Jeannie Rea) plus the likes of Eva Cox, Josh Bornstein and Simon Sheikh. And John Buchanan, the ABC’s “go to” academic on industrial relations. In 2005 Buchanan declared that, as a socialist, he was “traumatised” by Howard’s victory in the previous year’s election and urged his comrades to follow the teachings of Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
The irreverent anti-communist Frank Knopfelmacher (1923-95) was fond of saying there is one good thing about papal encyclical letters, open letters and communications of this genre: namely, that no reply is necessary.
Knopfelmacher made this comment in the early 1970s, when it was fashionable for left-wing academics, speaking as one, to write open letters declaring publicly their support for Labor’s Gough Whitlam and their detestation for Liberal Party leaders such as William McMahon and Malcolm Fraser. I possess a collection of this pompous leftist ephemera.
What’s missing from the Australia Institute’s open letter is any recognition of self-interest. About 80 per cent of the signatories are employed by, or have had a career in, the public sector.
Since the public sector is funded by tax revenues, it’s scarcely surprising the signatories are enthusiastic about the government collecting more tax. A taxi driver or a real estate agent may well have a different self-interest.
Likewise, it’s not surprising that trade union leaders (Kearney, Rea) support tax increases to finance expenditure increases. After all, the trade union movement in Australia increasingly is dependent on the financial support it receives from the highly unionised public sector workforce.
Not unexpectedly, sections of the Canberra press gallery have become excited by Bernie Fraser’s epistle. The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political reporter James Massola highlighted the fact 50 “prominent Australians have written an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull” in opposition to lower taxes. Gosh.
Moreover, on ABC Radio 702 on Wednesday, the Guardian Australia’s political editor Lenore Taylor described the open letter as “incredibly significant”. She added that it was signed “by a lot of very eminent academics, most of them from the progressive side of the political debate”. Wow.
In recent times, the Left has decided to run under the label progressive. So, in contemporary left-of-centre parlance, there are the progressives (good) and the conservatives (bad). The term progressive is sort of, well, hip. Not so conservative or right of centre.
Unlike the signatories of the open letter, Turnbull is responsible for administering a government.
The Prime Minister and his Treasurer, Scott Morrison, know that high to relatively high income earners in Australia already pay a very large percentage of personal income tax.
It’s easy for non-elected Australians, including journalists, to call for more and more services. But elected politicians understand that such services have to be funded by taxation or borrowing. In the present political and economic climate, there is a downside to increasing revenue or debt.
In coming to decisions about the 2016 budget, it’s unlikely the Prime Minister or his colleagues will focus on the advocacy of the Australia Institute and its self-important supporters.