Too many Australians whinge about government handouts to the less fortunate, but see nothing wrong with pocketing billions from the state, argues UNSW's Dr Mark Rolfe.
The rituals of Christmas, New Year and Australia Day are long behind us and soon we will enjoy the rituals of Anzac Day and Easter Monday, occasions of secular and religious sacrifice combined on the same day.
We will hear the usual scripts and see ourselves as descendants of the rugged individuals who had the "enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat", as Charles Bean, the original historian of Anzac, wrote over six decades ago. And of course we can feel superior to the Whingeing Poms, conveniently ignoring that British-born composed one-third of the army in World War I.
The thinking so influenced John Howard that he wanted to insert a preamble to the constitution that included "We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship".
So if there is all this resourcefulness, independence and enterprise about, why have we got all these whingers in our midst who complain about the government shilling spent on the usual demonised suspects but who see nothing wrong in their own hand out for the government shilling? In other words there is hypocrisy and more whining than a plane full of Poms with engines at full revs.
I refer partly to those who nodded to the words of the odious Scott Morrison who last week questioned the spending of taxpayers' money on flying boat people to the funerals of their loved ones. Morrison was in a fandango waving the fig leaf of fiscal rectitude with as much grace and skill as Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonating Dita Von Teese.
But I refer only partly to Morrison's mob. There are others not so sordidly motivated but still reeking of hypocrisy. A woman I know was disgusted by the $900 handout by Rudd in 2009 and complained that she got nothing. Her husband is a top-flight executive at a company that benefited from privatisation of a government enterprise in the nineties. They have shares, their private health insurance, superannuation and private schools are subsidised by the government, yet she feels she got nothing from the government.
Disgust at Rudd's supposed profligacy of government spending drove the rancid rantings of tabloid journalism and many voters into the arms of Tony Abbott who ran around during the election doing cocky-locky impressions about government waste and debt.
But where were the self-righteous protests and rancid rantings against the $31.89 billion spent in 2008-09 on tax concessions for superannuation contributions?
These concessions favour high income earners (as does the subsidy for private health insurance) and total more than the aged pension of $28.1 billion in that fiscal year. In other words, the concessions are defeating the original promise of superannuation as a means of reducing the burden on government by getting people to provide for their old age. Of course, the burden is going up, projected to go from $27.9 billion in 2010-11 to $37.8 billion in 2013-14.
That's enough to build or almost build each year an NBN, which we hear so much about as an example of government waste. Of course, the measure was introduced by the Liberals under Howard, which is why Abbott is not criticising it as waste but to be fair Labor are continuing it. After all, both political parties need to placate the whingers. If Howard figures most prominently here, it's because he was most successful in placating them.
Where were the self-righteous protests and rancid rantings against tax concessions for negative gearing?
In 2002-03 losses claimed on rental dwellings probably reached $10 billion, which realised tax benefits of almost $4 billion. The following financial year 1.3 million taxpayers claimed rental deductions of $14.9 billion. The First Home Owner Scheme started by Howard injected an additional $4.3 billion into the housing market in the first 3.5 years of its existence and still mostly costs between $320 to $340 million per year, apart from one blowout to $700 million. But the scheme has done nothing to rein in house prices.
In the fantasy world called talkback radio land dole bludgers, Aborigines and single mothers have been demonised for their burden on the public purse and young women deliberately get pregnant so they can live high on the hog. But during the years of John Howard's government spending on families and the aged composed the majority of welfare expenditure. In 2006-07, the government spent around $23.4 billion on the aged and $17.2 billion on families. That's $40.6 billion out of a total expenditure of $72 billion. The Newstart allowance ($4.5 billion), the Parenting Payment ($5.9 billion) and the Disability Support Pension ($8.6 billion) totalled $19 billion.
Now aged pensions are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society and there is nothing wrong with them or with provisions for families. Many need the money and more should be done for those doing it tough. But both categories were major constituencies for Howard so he expanded concessions. That meant some of those retirees with private income also got some government income and there has been a sense of entitlement amongst some parents who begrudge what others get.
Where were the self-righteous protests and rancid rantings against the cheap sale of government enterprises?
Previously, I noted that Howard was ready to spend billions to cultivate a constituency of Mum and Dad shareholders who could benefit from a transfer of wealth from public to certain private hands. By early this decade they could choose from over $100 billion worth of privatisation by federal and state governments. According to one analyst in 1999, assets sold by the Australian state and federal governments for $30 billion were worth $75 billion if their market capitalisation was to be believed. Small and institutional investors were quite willing to pocket the difference of $45 billion.
To replace the protests and rantings, there were bleatings against a mining tax that was on behalf of all Australians. Mining companies proved to be the biggest whingers of all and billionaires portrayed themselves as battlers. Some 60% of people were against the tax according to opinion polls. And now we know that despite statements to the contrary, the profits of mining companies like Rio Tinto, Xstrata and BHP went through the roof. Our Treasury is projected to lose some $60 billion over the next ten years.
We are in the middle of our biggest mining boom and a major benefit was thrown away rather than saved in a sovereign wealth fund. In the middle of a boom that other countries would dream to have, apparently we can't afford to spend some tens of thousands on flights to a funeral but we can afford to throw away $60 billion.
In 1930, Sir Keith Hancock famously said that Australians view the state as "a vast public utility" and as a "means of collective power at the service of individualistic rights". Little has changed except that now the media and the internet act as gigantic whinge-aphones to amplify the whining of all those people who think they are 'battlers' not getting their due because of the single mothers, dole bludgers, Aborigines and asylum seekers. Truly the word battler has been debauched from its heyday to describe selectors to now when it is used for everyone.
Little has changed with a Coalition that has always thought it was the defender of fiscal rectitude, although it has never walked the talk of 'small government'. At least there is the small mercy that you will not find that term on the Liberal website. Instead, the slogan is 'smaller government' but this really means 'smaller government for others but not for our constituencies'.
There are good reasons for spending government money on many of the policies described above. I am more in line with Hancock's other observation that the state "provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number" than with the Centre for Independent Studies and Institute for Public Affairs but at least they are consistent with their attacks on business and middle class welfare, if not politically and historically realistic. No my gripe is not so much with the policies but with the hypocrites who have their hands out and complain about what others are getting. To them I say STFU.