STONE the crows; suddenly it’s the ‘70s! You are not seeing men with Zapata moustaches and women with pageboy bobs yet – but it’s only a matter of time. Because everything beige is black, especially in politics
The government is spending borrowed money on make-work projects – school halls and public housing – which make marvellous backdrops for campaign photos but don’t add anything to the economy. The Opposition’s un-costed promises are policy by press release.
It’s promising to pay for them by cutting public service “waste”, which apparently means whatever finance spokesman Barnaby Joyce wants it to mean.
And industry assistance (a polite way of describing subsidises for uneconomic manufacturers who by some extraordinary coincidence have large unionised workforces) is back in fashion. According to car industry journalist Philip King each new Camry hybrid assembled and sold here will set the taxpayer back over $3000 in subsidies.
The industrial relations club is also open, something to scare anybody who remembers the days when the Arbitration Commission adjudicated everything from ice cream flavours available at mines to whether shearers should make more than shop assistants. A Fair Work Australia commissioner recently over-turned an amicable enterprise agreement requiring workers and management to agree before inviting an outsider to sort out a stoush.
The judgement was shorter than the pleadings in Jarndyce v Jarndyce, but the argument was as arcane. And teenagers in a Victorian hardware shop are banned from working the hours they want because the commission decided they only thought they were happy with their terms of employment.
Equally alarming, the days when the passion in politics was in inverse proportion to policy difference are back. In the ‘70s the two patrician leaders loathed each other.
Gough Whitlam went on as if Malcolm Fraser intended to establish feudalism while Fraser accused Whitlam of wanting to set up a soviet state. But they both believed in “social justice”, shorthand for spending as much money as it would take to win the next election.
Which is where we are now.
The Rudd Government talks about getting tough on outlays and there is no doubting Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, will have a go – he obviously considers public sector indulgence a personal affront. But from housing to hospitals, welfare to weapons systems there never was a minister who did not believe they were uniquely entitled to a budget increase. And there isn’t now.
As the election-year budget takes shape, expect speeches explaining that as government debt is low to GDP compared to just about everywhere “social justice” requires more spending, but only this year, mind.
And don’t expect the Opposition to argue, given Tony Abbott combines a Fraser-like belief that government is a profession for proper chaps, like him, with a Jim Cairns-style assumption that economics is optional.
Journalist Mark Davis estimates that, after a bare couple of months as opposition leader, Tony Abbott’s early undertakings (from a green corps to pay industry if they cut their carbon emissions) will have a $20bn impact on the budget over four years. With the election still months off when it comes to spending promises Mr Abbott is just clearing his throat.
So what we will get this year is more public spending, and less revenue to pay for it, thanks to a one-size-fits-all industrial relations system that is bigger on legal precedent than improving productivity.
And if you think I’m wrong just wait until some ex-union official MP in a brown suit starts talking about comparative wage justice in front of a new assembly hall, which is empty because the school likes the old one better.