Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Blowin in the wind – mandates, rhetoric and Mr Hockey’s budget

It will be no secret that I am suspicious of the use of the word mandate in politics, dislike the emphasis on promises, believe that the combination of the two has quite poisonous side effects. I also dislike the application of rhetoric and ideology in circumstances where underlying problems are essentially practical, requiring pragmatic responses.

The Australian Government’s present difficulties illustrate the reasons for my dislikes rather nicely. The Government came into office placing emphasis on mandates and on promises. There were a small number of signature policies encapsulated in key slogans, a larger number where the new Government in the interests of not frightening the horses promised not to change things, at least for the present. The Government’s overall stance said that we must reduce the burden of Government spending, reduce regulation and lower taxes to let the economic flowers bloom. All this was packaged with very particular rhetoric that centred on efficiency, economic freedom, individual responsibility and the ending of the age of entitlements.

There is a genuine ideological debate going on, one that is actually quite interesting from an analytical perspective. There are also genuine issues to be addressed, including the growing impact of demographic change in this and other countries as well as shifting global power balances. However, my immediate interest lies in the way that the ideas, stances and rhetoric used during the campaign have effectively placed the Government in a straight jacket of its own making.

Outside border protection where Government action did not require legislative approval, the Government finds that it lacks the power in Parliament to bring certain changes through  such as the ending of the carbon tax. “We have a mandate for this”, the Government says. “you must pass this.” “But so do we”, say the opponents. “We owe it to those who voted for us.”  So we have a conflict in mandates, between a majoritarian mandate and those awarded by voters who supported alternative views. Meantime, the debate shifts as the angst associated with the carbon and mining tax declines, while the arguments against the Government’s direct action plan on carbon become more clearly honed.

On the income and expenditure side, the Government finds itself in an almost impossible position. It has its own expenditure commitments such as paid parental leave, it has promised not to reduce certain other spend, it has promised not to increase taxes, but it has also promised to reduce spend and the deficit. The rub here is that spending cuts have effectively been quarantined to a restricted range of activities not covered by other promises. Those cuts may or may not be sensible, but those affected are certainly conscious of them and are complaining. Further, they (the cuts) have to be greater than they might otherwise be to compensate, adding to the heat.

In trying to manage this, the Government is caught. It cannot immediately do things like increase the GST, something which makes sense and for which there is increasing support. Instead, it looks for changes in time periods not covered by its promises, for things that can be done now that might involve breach of promise but which might be defensible in political terms. In response, the opposition does exactly what the previous opposition did. It harps upon possible breach of promise and responds to particular measures in the way best calculated to get immediate public response.

In all this, the Government is caught in rhetorical traps of its own making. It talks about ending of entitlement, yet puts forward a paid parental leave scheme that would appear to breach this principle. It talks about freedom, about choice, about removing the burden of Government control and regulation, yet is as authoritarian as any Government in trying to enforce its views. “You will do this”, it tells the states. “You will sell your assets”. “We will make you.”  It talks about the need for rational decision making based on evidence, yet ignores the advice of its own infrastructure bodies or indeed its own positions in making decisions.

I enjoy the political theatre, the panache, associated with the rise of the Palmer United Party. It is a splash of colour In the sombre colours that dominate the Australian political landscape. It also introduces a random element that adds to interest. I do wonder, however, about the way in which the Coalition and Labor between them in their intestine battles opened the door for such a strange new entrant. 

Despite the leaks, I have actually no idea what Mr Hockey’s first budget will look like beyond the probability that it will foreshadow future major changes. It will be interesting to see.   

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