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Gods, emperors and the ritual of federal budgets



On the surface budgets are exercises in financial accountability. At a deeper level they are best understood as a yearly ritual that is performed, watched and soon forgotten. They are one of the ways in which rulers throughout history have acknowledged and tried to manipulate for their own benefit unchanging truths about state power.

Chris Johnston cartoonThe truth is that for all their apparently unlimited power, all rulers rely ultimately on the tacit acquiescence of the people. Although for a period they can rule by terror, tyranny or tradition, they will survive ultimately only if they are thought, correctly or incorrectly, to provide some benefit to the people. Rulers rely on ritual to persuade the populace that it is receiving a benefit.

For emperors to hold on to power in the Roman world they needed reliably to provide security and bread for the populace. The rituals designed to persuade citizens that this contract was being honoured included sacrifice offered to the gods of the empire, including the emperor.

Also among them were myth making about the eternity and benevolence of Rome even to the people it conquered, victory processions of military commanders bringing war booty on carts and defeated generals in chains, exemplary public executions, and the circus where largesse could be distributed and the weak, including animals, criminals, losers and Christians — despatched.

The shaping and the stridency or relaxation of these rituals betrayed the fears and shared values of rulers and ruled. Beneath them also was a measure of contempt by rulers for the ruled and of cynicism in return.

In order to endure, governments of all stripes today must still provide security and prosperity for the people. In electoral democracies they do not fear the mob but the polling booth. They have recourse to the rituals of myth making, public shaming, appropriation of sporting contests and military valour, and exercises of accountability. The last include budgets. We should evaluate these as ritual, concerned less with their stated intentions but with what the show of competence and generosity reveals.

This year's federal budget discloses a government anxious about its hold on power and doubting whether the people are satisfied the contract it has made with them has been honoured. Although little bread will be given out expeditiously through the budget, it has promised tubs of dough for later cooking and distribution. Lowly but productive citizens will receive a little bread in reduced taxes next year. In a few years' time the wealthy will take over the bakery, paying massively less tax.


"Roman rituals always took care to placate the gods that could destroy all imperial enterprises. Notably the budget ignores the major threat to human survival."


To make the public feel strong and proud, too, the budget promises monuments of civil construction to be paid for by business: Aussies will have railways and freeways as the Romans had roads. Roman imperial hearts swelled to walk under the Arch of Constantine; we shall be able to stroll past Captain Cook's boat. Whether that is a poetic experience and whether the monument will be more enduring than bronze remains to be seen.

One way to take the measure of rituals is to ask who are excluded or overlooked. They usually belong to the groups against which rulers want to unite the people — in Rome, rebellious slaves, barbarians and religious deviants. In the budget those who will receive less are the needy foreigners in their own nations, in contrast to working foreigners in Australia who are needed to contribute to our economy.

They are those prisoners who will lose allowances that may have gone to support their children. They are the vulnerable young people effectively excluded from education, housing and employment who will face humiliation and loss of their benefits if they fail to meet onerous obligations. They include families that struggle, and Indigenous Australians who are disadvantaged in so many ways.

These people are ostracised as the leaners, not lifters, and must tighten their belt if they can afford one.

Also excluded are the institutions that help lift people's eyes from immediate needs and corporate profits to values deeper and more sustaining of community. The ABC has lost further income, as has the arts budget.

Roman rituals always took care to placate the gods that could destroy all imperial enterprises. Notably the budget ignores the major threat to human survival — global warming. The Romans knew that some gods will not be mocked.

As ritual, the budget is quite effective. It projects the reassuring image of bread for the reliable and of security for the future. But that future is flawed. Nor is it guaranteed.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Budget 2018



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Existing comments

Circus maximus, Canberra style. Rituals can help us overcome the anxiety lurking just about everywhere and budget 2018 has been designed for the big end of town's benefit. I recall Noel Pearson's wonderful eulogy for Gough Whitlam and his warm words about Gough's overturning the traditional tableau.

Pam | 14 May 2018  

Thank you Fr Andrew for such a wise, sharp and insightful article on the 'State of the Nation' in Australia. I can't stop weeping over the despair I feel because both major political parties ask us, their citizens, to endure the impossible while they continue to sup with 'imperial forces' ... Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Give me our Indigenous wisdom any day!

Mary Tehan | 15 May 2018  

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