‘The government’s economic response to coronavirus is a crippling train wreck’

Jun 04, 2020
"I have this horrible fear that the steady silencing of our questioning, even our dissident voices, over the past 30 years, has left us dangerously ripe for something ugly," says Rod. Source: Getty Images

What a pretty pass we’ve reached. The country in virtual lockdown, the economy a train wreck and the budget, which would be a topic of earnest gossip over coffee or the water-cooler in any previous May, now postponed to October. A simple person might think that in this chaotic atmosphere a government would want its citizenry to be well-informed about the real state of the nation in case more drastic action was needed.

But, alas, we don’t have a government that ever takes us into its confidence — after all, are they not our representatives — preferring to answer our questions with a disdain that assures us ‘there’s nothing to see here’ (even when the country’s ablaze), but now when the figures can no longer be fiddled, the budget gets drop-kicked six months down the road. So much for transparency. So much for responsible government.

You can almost hear the political gear-wheels clanking in the Government’s collective mind, as they pray that by October the worst of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will be over and they can then crow that we have ‘crossed the bridge’ to recovery, just as they had ‘planned’.

Actually, ‘crossing the bridge’ is only the latest in a generation of government clichés which, it seems so obvious now, were always designed to pull the wool over our eyes. Governments needed to lull us into believing nothing had ever changed when in fact the changes, fast and furious, have been monumental and would be lasting. So lasting, that the systematic asset-stripping of Australia that began in the 1980s has left us more ill-equipped to defend ourselves in a cold, cold world, than even we were in December 1941 when the Japanese threatened to invade.

Yet no government and no political party is free from responsibility for the cavalier way in which our economic strength and, with it, our independence, has been whittled away over the past three decades.

I became a journalist in January 1981, around the time the then Fraser Government had established an inquiry (the Campbell Committee) into the possible deregulation of the financial sector of our economy. No one has ever come clean over this, but anecdotal evidence alleges that when Malcolm Fraser received the interim report of that inquiry, the likelihood of massive industrial upheaval so scared him that he pigeonholed it.

Unfortunately, the only time I ever interviewed Mr Fraser, later in 1981, more pressing issues were on the agenda so I never asked a straight question about Campbell, nor received a straight answer. But I believe that other evidence suggests there may be truth in this.

The head of the New South Wales trade unions at that time was Barrie Unsworth (later a premier of the state) and I always found him among the most honest contacts I ever dealt with — he was always straight with me and he never lied or leaked, so if he said something categorical, you could take it as gospel. In mid-1982, he contacted me to say that the days of the trade unions warring with the Fraser Government were over, and that a new regime of cooperation was about to dawn, through the agency of the new Minister for Employment, Ian Macphee.

Perhaps that cooperation would have eventuated, perhaps it wouldn’t, but I am convinced that if the Fraser Government had survived the 1983 election, either a compromise between capital and labour or a battle between these two titanic forces, which ended in a bloody but honourable draw, might have produced a form of globalism better fitted to the existing Australian standard of living and way of life than the fundamentalist path that brought us eventually to the desert we now call home.

A slogan at that time offered the prospect of the ‘Clever Country’ of the future was the smokescreen behind which the Hawke Government abandoned the goal of full employment and tightened the screws on our great public institutions. But it was empty words, no more likely to provide a secure job for a semi-skilled railway ganger at Glen Innes (and there were millions more like him) in 1987 than it does today. But we bought it.

One after another, the great monuments of our reasonably fair economy and idiosyncratic culture were wantonly sacrificed on the altar of a ‘new world order’. But the question remains, why did we swallow this stuff when it was obvious that surrender to untrammelled market forces only works when an already healthy market is expanding.
For example, it is self-evident that private capital is only going to invest in the electricity grid so long as the existing power generation infrastructure is viable; they certainly wouldn’t be interested in the huge up-front costs of building new generating facilities and the long lead-time in getting their money back. But we bought it.

If you doubt me, look at our history. In the driest, most nature-deprived continent in the world, the establishment of a modern industrial economy, and everything that goes with it, could only be established by cooperative effort. The building of the railways, orderly marketing of primary products, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay — there was so much of it and it made us what we were. So how could anyone in his right mind imagine that we were going to prosper in a world governed by fundamentalist market forces? But we bought it.

It’s not surprising then, that eventually we seemed to give up and virtually allow the Chinese Government, supposedly alien to everything we believe in, to dictate the terms on which our survival depends — be it upfront fee-paying students to keep our foundering universities afloat, selling strategic assets like the port of Darwin, plus the hidden small print in all the free-trade deals over which we pat our ‘brilliant negotiating skills’ on the back.

It’s hardly surprising that our mindless grasping of the global nettle — which is showing all the signs of bringing down the whole world with its hubris — resulted in the coronavirus taking hold of our daily lives.

But whether it’s the present government’s ‘bridge to recovery’ or something considerably less ‘planned’ than they would have us believe, we will come out of this. Eventually. Of more concern, though, will be in what form? Nicey-num-nums basket-weaving? I don’t think so. Because I have this horrible fear that the steady silencing of our questioning, even our dissident voices, over the past 30 years, has left us dangerously ripe for something far more ugly than basket-weaving.

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