The dissonance between what politicians think matters to people and what actually matters to people has never been greater. Two weeks out from the 2016 federal budget, we face the prospect of a double-dissolution election over nothing more than anti-union regulation.
The federal parliament is being recalled next week, in order to consider legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission and establish a Registered Organisations Commission.
These bills, according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, are central to the Coalition economic agenda.
But the productivity case for these bills has been widely disputed, not least by the Productivity Commission. This isn't economics; it is politics, and a disservice to Australians. The refusal to also form a royal commission into the banking and financial industries, which would inject more transparency than ASIC investigations, does nothing to change that impression.
The Coalition government, in other words, has been remarkably tone-deaf to the zeitgeist, possibly at its own peril.
In recent years, public expectation about whose side governments are supposed to be on has been emphatic: the 2011 Occupy movement (which had coined the 99/1 per cent language adopted by Bernie Sanders); the subsequent resonance of Thomas Piketty's treatise on inequality; the rise of anti-austerity figures in the UK and Europe; the political disenchantment that has turned toxic in the United States.
We live in a post trickle-down theory world, where people are sensitised to government-enabled corporate excess and have legitimate reasons to doubt whether elected officials are capable and willing to serve their interests. The lesson from the 2014 federal budget is that there are non-negotiables around the function of government: to provide the conditions that ensure the flourishing of all citizens.
Yet in terms of future-proofing living standards, the Coalition has so far presided over an ideas bust rather than boom, unless boom is the sound of something spontaneously combusting. The GST increase has been dumped, and income tax devolution to the states has been rejected by premiers and chief ministers (which by necessity spiked the notion of federal withdrawal from public schools funding).
"The credibility test for political parties — and the central question around fiscal policy — is no longer about economic growth, but growth for whom."
The prime minister has also indicated that the coming budget will focus on promoting investment, innovation and enterprise. He invokes prudence, even as Treasurer Scott Morrison floats company tax cuts — which must be offset either by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere.
None of these speak to emerging anxieties around affordability in areas like housing, education and healthcare. People understand that there are revenue problems; they have been told again and again that the mining boom is over. The credibility test for political parties — and the central question around fiscal policy — is no longer about economic growth, but growth for whom.
The narrowing poll gap between the Coalition and Labor — amid opposition proposals on superannuation, negative gearing and capital gains tax — signals a deepening public understanding of the structural nature of inequality and intergenerational mobility.
Proposals that seek to ease the drag on the budget made by incentives pitched at the wealthy are not just 'populist '. When sentiment coincides with longstanding recommendations from chief economists to address problems of revenue, then surely it is just good sense.
The idea that fiscal policy can only make good economic sense if it favours those with capital, at the expense of those without, has less purchase than ever.
As 50 prominent Australians (including former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser) pointed out in an open letter to the prime minister: '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.'
This is ultimately what matters most to people, not union regulation. They will be looking closely at the coming budget to see whether their government gets it.
Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
15 April 2016
I can't see a budget being fair unless it:
- removes super tax perks for the rich
- abolishes negative gearing
- applies capital gains tax, except for the family home to a reasonable value
- abolishes the diesel fuel rebate
- reintroduces a carbon tax high enough so that Australia can't any longer be justifiably be called a rogue state when it comes to carbon emissions
- provides adequate funds for the Gonski education reforms
- makes adequate provision for the health and hospital systems
- closes all tax avoidance measures employed by the rich
- re-introduces an estate tax for wealthy estates so as to redistribute wealth
- makes adequate provision for social services, adequately addressing such problems as homelessness, rehabilitation for alcoholics and other drug addicts
15 April 2016
More and more, it is becoming obvious that the federal government has absolutely no idea how to govern in the long-term interests of the whole nation. It's only objective is to impose an ideology, and in this sense it is little different from ISIS. It has no idea of how to legislate without the sledgehammer of a majority in both houses and resorts to bullying any and everybody who is seen to get in their way or question or contradict their three word slogans. If hey govern for anybody, it's for the top end of town who finance them and for the self made wealthy who vote for them.
18 April 2016
Malcolm Turnbull is taking a gamble on his personal popularity being 'the' factor in what is looking more and more likely the July election. He has lost patience with a Senate he does not control. I applaud the letter signed by 50 prominent Australians, it's a start. A fair and decent society is what the great majority of people want and their chance to say so is at the ballot box.
18 April 2016
My gut feeling is that both the government and the public are going through a period of catharsis. Government by sound bites e.g. Building the Education Revolution no longer work. There needs to be a national consensus on where we want to be as a nation and in the world. We need to get away from the 'winner takes all' view of politics: it only works short term. We also need to look at the influence of lobbyists and think tanks. Not all their work is beneficial although some may be. We also need to attract a better type of politician like the sadly retiring Sharman Stone. There are plenty of potential candidates like her out there. If we only get the politicians we deserve maybe we need to think more seriously about who we elect. Perhaps the electorate of Mackellar may have shown us an example there.
18 April 2016
Dear Ms Measham, thank you for a most erudite article. At last the fallacious nature of neo-liberalism, and its supposed redistribution of economic benefit by the "trickle-down" effect has been laid bare. Unfortunately not by discussion and debate, but by hard economic reality.
Regretfully the main opposition party has not been able to counter this economic agenda, and totally failed to acknowledge or take advantage of the mounting disillusionment with the economic heirarchy. We need a new economic agenda.
For further reading may I recommend George Monboit's article in The Guardian entitled "NeoLiberalism-the Ideology at the root of all our Problems".
19 April 2016
Even cursory reading about the Trade Union Royal Commission shows serious problems. I and many others would like to see trade unions have the same governance laws as companies and heads of unions be subject to the same laws as company directors. Huge amounts are donated to politicians by unions and it is only right that they face the same scrutiny as companies.
20 April 2016
Well yes I agree entirely Jane, but so too should the fund-raising bodies for all political parties. Had these been in place, Senator Sinodinos might not be in the trouble that he now is.
20 April 2016
When people talk about applying company director law and regulations to union officials I only ever hear about poor governance and penalties. The negatives. That's fair enough, it is all some people are interested in. I was a union member throughout my work life, including in management positions, and a workplace delegate for a few years. I met some union officials I did not particularly like and some who were ideologically driven (to put it politely), but in all that time I personally only knew of two instances of corruption. Both were brought to the attention of authorities and members, and the culprits faced the law. Definitely a minority, but of course anecdotal evidence does not count for all that much. I'm not against union officials being treated like company directors but it needs to be thought through first, looking at the different objectives of unions and companies, methods of operation and other legal distinctions. Also, should union officials have the same benefits and conditions (perks) as company directors? I'm not sure many union members would want that. There are clear differences between the two roles. All I can say is be careful what you wish for.
29 April 2016
In response to your introductory paragraphs: My understanding of the double dissolution is that it aims to rebalance our senate so that erratic and unrepresentative minority party senators are not making our decisions for us. To me returning that situation to the electorate is a responsible action. In Queensland we have a government pandering to the cross-bench rather than return to the polls, and that presents all kinds of problems for good government.
29 April 2016
Dear Robyn Emerson, if you think the Senate reforms are about remedying unrepresentative Senates, think again. The government just wanted to be able to be ram through its punitive and oppressive legislation, like the notoriously punitive 2014 budget. Thank God for the cross-benches. It means government bills – from whichever of the two larger parties – gets scrutinised and steamrollering is less easy. Julia Gillard had a tenuous grip on the House of reps but still managed to get through over 600 bills.
If you wanted the 2014 budget or the other shameful things the current government want, understandably you’ re unhappy. But I think they would destroy this country and you and me along with it.