Opinion

John Hewson
Reality television for the smart kids

Last Saturday I was attending a dinner to celebrate John Coates’ 32-year term as president of the Australian Olympic Committee. With no disrespect, my mind wandered off a little during a line of high-profile speakers. The governor-general, alongside the president of the International Olympic Committee and swimmer Susie O’Neill on behalf of the athletes, lauded Coates and his career. They said that his work was defined by his commitment to “putting the athletes first” – that this separated him from his peers and was the reason for his achievements. They praised his role in winning the Sydney Olympics and in getting the nod for the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, in saving the Tokyo Games, his dedication to ensuring the independence of the AOC, for establishing the body’s educational activities and its programs to promote Indigenous participation, and for the achievement of better gender balance in the composition of Olympic teams.

It made me think on our current election campaign, which was about halfway through at the time. I wondered why it wasn’t “putting the Australian people first”. Isn’t it reasonable to expect our political leaders to put our people first? Democracy is after all “for our people” – governments are expected to care for them when in need and to provide national leadership on key policy challenges.It is instructive to recognise that the election campaign has spent most of its time on point-scoring against opponents, blame-shifting and gotcha moments. There has been a vacuum on the people policies, including a rethink and reset of health and hospital services and their funding, as well as child, aged and disability care. There is also a void in attention to improving our resilience to and preparation for the inevitable: more natural disasters and future pandemics. This is all in the context of what should be competing visions for the future of our country and a competition in policy ideas for deliverable and sustainable pathways forward.

It is most unfortunate that childcare has become something of a political football in recent years, rather than a focus of serious policy development. The opportunity has also been passed up to make it an integral part of early education. This is even though the temporary adjustments to childcare made during the pandemic clearly indicated the costs and significant benefits of making it universal.

Likewise, the aged-care royal commission specified a pathway forward, challenging government to ensure adequate nursing services, to set minimum standards of care per patient and to address a range of significant issues to deal with staff who are undertrained, underequipped and underpaid. This should have been a given for this campaign but only Labor has attempted to address it. This has generated little better than mockery from the government, which has sought to duck its responsibilities for aged care and for the consequences of its neglect of this sector before and during the pandemic when many lives were lost in nursing homes.

Disability care has also been reviewed and will be a major challenge for the incoming government, with the National Disability Insurance Scheme bureaucracy and costs blowing out, and significant gaps coming to light in essential patient care. To give a sense of the urgency, concern has been expressed that the system is under such stress that it may implode. Still, there has been limited discussion of this during the campaign.

Even though there has been more focus on overall economic management, the debate has been superficial at best, with the government boasting and exaggerating its success against a narrowing definition of what is being managed. The main economic challenge is that the headline numbers for growth and employment, on which the government seeks to claim credit, simply don’t match the lived experience of most Australians who are struggling to pay for rent and groceries. The government has denied any responsibility for these cost-of-living pressures, even though it spent billions on stimulus during the pandemic and ensured the Reserve Bank flooded markets and key sectors such as housing with volumes of liquidity that has contributed to a significant acceleration in inflation. The only possible outcome is that the Reserve Bank will increase interest rates several times in the next year or so, which will curb our capacity to grow.

Although the government claims its recent budget is a plan for future growth, it isn’t. The recent budget is simply the largest pork barrel in our history. This will do little to sustain growth and employment. There is no national productivity strategy that would ensure growth, employment and increases in real wages. The major economic challenge that no candidate is addressing, and what will also be a global challenge, is the management of stagflation – that is, slowing growth co-incident with accelerating inflation. Similarly, no one is addressing the need for budget repair, with structural deficits stretching out as far as the eye can see. This will require whoever is in government to look to raising taxes and cutting expenditure in the latter half of this decade. Of course, Morrison is still talking irresponsibly of further tax cuts.

There is also a pressing structural need to reform our federation, the weaknesses of which were exposed during the pandemic. Alongside these reforms, we need to reform the tax and transfer systems, including those of the states, to remove the inequities.

Both major parties are claiming policies to address the issue of housing affordability, with similar schemes to assist with the necessary deposit for a home purchase, especially for first home buyers. But of course, these schemes are sure to put upward pressure on house prices and are more often to the benefit of developers. Neither party has spoken of how they will address the consequences of higher interest rates for existing home owners, with what will probably be a devastating situation of mortgage stress, particularly for those who have overborrowed. There is significant stress already for both home owners and renters.

I was staggered to hear Morrison’s comment in anticipation of interest rate increases. He said: “It’s not about me … It is about Australians themselves and the decisions they are making and understanding the pressures on the economy and who they think is going to be better able to manage those pressures in the future.” So, it’s all our fault that he’s failed?

Even more staggering was Morrison’s response after the cash rate was increased, with the prime minister saying “we have been preparing for this”. Really? I don’t recall him admitting it at the time of the budget or since.

In a similar vein, victims of the pandemic and the floods and bushfires should be concerned that Morrison seems to have learnt little from these natural disasters. He is no better prepared for the inevitable repeats of such events and doesn’t appear to understand the need to be. He also seems to bear little shame for the delays in financial assistance to those victims and offers no apology for allocating those monies in favour of seats he wants to keep or win at the election.

There should be a thorough debate about an effective national resilience strategy, perhaps to establish a national resilience institute to co-ordinate this preparedness as well as a national centre for disease control. There should also be appropriate education initiatives.

With polling and focus groups so significant in driving today’s politics – and with all these initiatives identifying climate change as the key election issue – it is most disturbing that there has been so little focus on the issue to date. Neither of the major parties are offering a complete and effective policy response.

Labor is still somewhat gun-shy after the beating they took at the last election, while the LNP is again split on a response. Already, the Nationals are breaking away from the net-zero commitment. It was obscene that the government was willing to take a group of young people to court to argue that the government does not and should not have a duty of care to the next generation in its response to climate. It seems as if the only ones prepared to accept the magnitude and urgency of the challenge are the Greens and the climate independents, who will undoubtedly have a significant impact in the likely event of a minority government. The choices they make may prevent our children from being completely sold out by the current generation of politicians.

It is unfortunate that so many in the media see themselves as players in the power game, even hoping to be kingmakers by backing their sides and their preferred pollies. The bias of some has been appalling and a massive abrogation of their responsibility to hold candidates and parties to account, to demand honesty and integrity, and to force debate about policies in the national interest. Instead, they seem simply to seek to ingratiate themselves to future governments or politicians. This has become reality television for the smart kids – and it will have tragic consequences for our democracy in the longer term.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Reality television for the smart kids".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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