Osman Faruqi
Fact check: Actually Australians love big government

It seems unlikely that embracing “can-do capitalism” will prove to be a viable political strategy – especially in the midst of a social and economic crisis that has once again exposed the fraught nature of private markets and reminded us of the importance of community, solidarity and public services – but bizarrely it’s the one Prime Minister Scott Morrison has chosen.

In a series of speeches and statements at the end of last year, Morrison said the solution to the two biggest issues facing Australia and the world – namely climate change and Covid-19 – was for government to withdraw and for the private sector to take the lead.

Climate change, he said, “will be fixed painstakingly, step by step, by the entrepreneurs, by scientists, by technologists, by innovators, by industrialists, by financiers, by risk-takers”. On the pandemic, it was “time to break the habit” of government intervention. Government, said the man more synonymous with it than anyone else in the country, should get out of people’s lives.

In some ways these platitudes are a predictable part of the election cycle. As we get closer to the poll, Morrison is inclined to confect some kind of ideological contest between the Coalition and Labor, while signalling to his political and financial base in the business community that he has their best interests at heart.

Historically, there isn’t anything that surprising about a Liberal Party politician decrying “big government” and talking about the “can-do” spirit of capitalism. What makes Morrison’s full-throated embrace of the laissez-faire more interesting is the context of the past two years. Under his leadership, government has never been bigger or more omnipresent in our lives.

More interventionist prime ministers, such as Ben Chifley, who tried and failed to nationalise the banks, would be salivating at the level of control Morrison has over the economy and society. Moreover, those interventions – in the form of massive income support and free childcare, through to strict border closures and heavy policing – were deeply popular. According to the Essential poll, the public’s approval of the federal government’s handling of the pandemic peaked in May 2020, when it was most active in our lives. At that time, 73 per cent of Australians said the government response was either quite good or very good.

Of course, the interventions themselves never sat comfortably with Morrison. He was regularly under pressure from those within his party to wind back these policies – particularly the tens of billions the government was pumping into the economy in the form of income and business support. But as Morrison started to cut back on economic stimulus, and mishandle other parts of the pandemic response, his approval rating collapsed. The latest poll figures put it at 35 per cent, overtaken for the first time by those who disapproved.

In other words, the government was at its most popular when it intervened deeply in our lives. It became less and less popular as it retreated. This is a fairly common attitude during periods of crisis and social upheaval: despite what free-market idealogues argue, most normal people quite like government. They particularly like it when faced with an external threat. Partisanship tends to fall away as people turn to those in charge, whoever they are, to take care of them.

Australians are even more inclined to turn to government than other comparable countries. In April 2020, The Australia Institute surveyed people in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the United States, Italy and South Korea about their attitudes during the pandemic. Australians, jointly with the British, were the most likely to say the government should take the lead during the crisis.

And it’s not just during a crisis that Australians want to turn to government. It’s a longstanding culture and political preference. The Australian Electoral Study, conducted by the Australian National University after each federal election, has been tracking how Australians feel about key policy issues for decades – some questions have been asked consistently since 1967. While it shows important trends over time, such as the emergence of the environment as a key concern for voters, what’s equally fascinating is how some of our core beliefs are fundamentally unchanged.

Consistently, most Australians want the government to spend more on health and education. Interestingly, even as neoliberal consensus has gripped both major parties, the proportion of people who want the government to play a bigger role in our lives has actually increased. At the last election the number of Australians wanting the government to spend more on unemployment benefits nearly doubled from 18 per cent to 33 per cent. This was the first time the number of people wanting more generous benefits overtook those who want welfare spending cut.

It was the same story with the age pension – a marked increase in the number of Australians who want the government to be more generous. Conversely, Australians wanted less money spent on private business and industry. All of these results pre-dated the Covid-19 pandemic.

These kinds of responses make sense in terms of Australia’s political history. As hollowed-out and weakened as our public education and health systems now are, we’re proud of the establishment of Medicare and of our public schools, universities and technical colleges. Even when these institutions are attacked and undermined by governments, it is done in opposition to what the public wants.

Very, very few political parties go to an election promising to dismantle public services. Most of the time they pledge support for them, and then slowly chip away by commissioning reviews and developing complex alternative funding mechanisms that shift public resources away from public utilities and towards the private sector. That’s because even our most economically right-wing politicians accept the broad Australian consensus in favour of big government.

The Australian Electoral Study asks even more pointed questions about what kind of society Australians want to live in. It asks about tax rates, spending on social services and wealth redistribution. On all these metrics, Australia looks much closer to a kind of Scandinavian social democracy than the capitalist, entrepreneur-loving country Morrison envisages. Again, Australia appears to have shifted leftwards in recent years.

In 1987, 65 per cent of voters wanted less tax. Only 15 per cent wanted more spent on social services. By 2019 those numbers had flipped. Only about one-third of voters supported lowering the tax base, while the number of people who wanted more government spending had more than doubled.

It’s as though the wave of privatisations and “small government” economic reforms unleashed during the Hawke–Keating era had reminded Australians exactly how important “big government” was.

All of this data raises two questions. First, why, if Australians are supportive of tax and government spending on public services, have successive governments legislated to reduce the tax base and shown a deep reluctance to increase spending on social services? And second, why is Morrison, in an election year, expressing opinions that seem so out of step with the attitudes of Australians?

Both these questions have the same answer. As important and useful as these kinds of statistics are, policymaking in Australia isn’t a pure, distilled reflection of general voter attitudes. Ideology and powerful interest groups are far more effective at shaping our government and our society. Just because Australians want something doesn’t mean it happens. Most of us want serious, fast action on climate change, for example, but neither major party is willing to give it to us.

That might sound depressing, but it’s not all bad news. It’s a reminder that despite what Scott Morrison personally believes in, Australia is not yet the country he wants it to be. We aren’t excited by rugged individualism, we don’t want government to get out of the way, and we don’t want our problems solved by billionaire tech bros.

The pandemic is recent proof that we want, and can have, serious and radical government intervention to make our lives better. The question is whether our political class is up to the challenge of building a long-term vision around those values and resisting the dreary slide towards selfishness and self-reliance the current government envisages.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "The bigger the better".

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