When ideology, dishonesty and incompetence collide 29. March 2015 Ad astra Opinion pieces/current affairs (7) Although commentators in the Fifth Estate warned over and again what to expect from an Abbott government long before the electorate decided to give it a go, how many expected it to be as awful as it has turned out to be? What a bitter disappointment it has been after Tony Abbott’s unrelenting talk about how, in contrast to the Labor government, he would lead a ‘grown-up, adult government’ that knew what it was doing, that understood the economy, that was accomplished at managing money, that would soon bring our national debt down and the budget into surplus, and thereby restore confidence in the business community. He insisted, and was echoed by Joe Hockey, that investment would surge, jobs would be created, millions of them, and Australia’s economy would be restored to the splendor it exhibited during the halcyon days of the Howard government when rivers of gold flowed into its coffers from the mining boom. Now halfway through its first term, with a whole eighteen months to parade its consummate skills, we see the hollowness of that boast. The Abbott government has done almost the opposite of what it claimed it would. It has been an abject failure, a bitter disappointment to its supporters in the electorate, the media, and increasingly to businessmen, who had hoped for so much more. Labor supporters are as horrified as are Coalition voters at the incompetence and dishonesty it has displayed, day after day. While not wanting an Abbott government at all, even Labor voters are astonished at its behaviour and deeply dissatisfied with it, disillusioned with many of its ministers, and most of all, dismayed by its laughable leader. What has driven this descent into ineffectiveness, what has paralysed this government, what has neutered its leader? While acknowledging that diagnosis of this complex mess is problematical because it has many causes, this piece postulates that a combination of ideological stricture, unashamed dishonesty, and sheer incompetence is the triad that has produced the chaos and paralysis we see day after day. The ideological imperative Has anyone ever heard this government, its leader, or its financial ‘gurus’: Joe Hockey, Mathias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg, say what their preferred model of economics really is? I haven’t. Do they know? Have they thought about it? What understanding do they have of the array of economic theories there are? We can’t discern their ideology from what they say; we can only assume it from what they do. The impression they give is that while they seem to have no carefully considered economic position, the ‘trickle-down model’ is their preference, one that we have written about here many times. They certainly act as if that is so. We see no signs of interest in Neo-Keynesian economics; they could scarcely bring themselves to support even the first tranche of stimulus measures introduced by the Rudd government in response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. We do know that Abbott has a sycophantic adoration of the Institute of Public Affairs and has assured it that many of the items on the IPA wish list are congruent with his. The neo-conservative IPA is enamoured of the self-regulating power of free markets; insists on light government regulation; cherishes individual freedom and choice, private enterprise, initiative, entrepreneurship and competition; endorses ‘user-pays’; abhors government-funded entities; eschews science; denies the reality of global warming while promoting the interests of those causing it; approves only limited government support for the needy; embraces law and order and punishment; and takes an insular approach to international affairs. We see these IPA attitudes reflected in the language of government and its actions. Not all are undesirable, but the appropriateness of many is questionable. In my view, many of the actions of this government are driven by its adoption of trickle down economics as a working model, which it has done despite studies repeatedly showing that it exacerbates inequality and widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Witness the 2014 budget, still wallowing in the Senate, one that penalised the poorest and the most disadvantaged in our community, while giving those at the top a ‘slap on the wrist with a limp lettuce’ through a small and temporary income tax rise. They were unwilling to inflict more than a token penalty on the top end of town from which they believe benefits trickle down to those at the bottom of the heap, while leaving in place the many tax perks they enjoy. Couple that attitude with the vengeance that Abbott enjoys wreaking on his opponents and on those who don’t support him, and you see another reason for Hockey’s punitive and unfair budget: “Punish those who don’t vote for us and go gently on those who do”! Ideology is a powerful motivator. It seems patently clear that ideology has had a dominant influence on this government, albeit without it having been stated overtly in words that all could understand. We don’t know where the government’s coming from; we can only suspect. The panoply of dishonesty It would take the whole piece to catalogue the extensive collection of the lies that have come from our PM and his government, and the broken promises that emerge almost by the day. If you need any documentation, Sally McManus has a long list for you, now totaling 428 lies in Tracking Abbott’s Wreckage. Let’s not dwell on the well-publicized lie: “No cuts to health or education, or to the ABC and SBS and no new taxes”, and instead focus on the sheer mendaciousness of the economic management of the Abbott government, and the panoply of lies and broken promises that accompanied the first Abbott/Hockey Budget. There’s scarcely any need to repeat the ceaseless reminders given by Abbott, Hockey and Cormann, along with any other minister given the chance, that the Coalition was battling the ‘debt and deficit disaster’ left by Labor, that it was faced by a monumental ‘debt crisis’ and a ‘budget emergency’, which only the toughest of budgetary measures could reverse. Yet even before the 2014 Budget, economists were sceptical about these claims, and a crescendo of doubts has continued ever since. The bellicose Abbott/Hockey/Cormann rhetoric was wrong and brazenly dishonest. It was designed with two purposes in mind: to damage Labor as much as possible, and to set the scene for a punitive budget. Julie Bishop, who wisely stays away from economics these days, strayed into it when she said: “We inherited the largest deficit in Australia's history from Labor" This too was wrong, as an ABC Fact Check demonstrated. After all the Coalition hype about the debt and deficit disaster that Labor left, it must have startled economists and academics, as well as his supporters in business, to hear Abbott say that his government had already halved Labor’s debt, and that a 50 to 60% debt-to-GDP ratio would be “a pretty good result”. This is what Richard Holden, Professor of Economics at UNSW Australia Business School, writing in The Conversation, had to say about that extraordinary claim: “A week may be a long time in politics, but it’s not in economics. The economic outlooks of nations almost never change radically in a short space of time. So it was interesting this week to see Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott do a u-turn on debt. Last week all debt was evil. This week a 60% debt-to-GDP ratio is “a pretty good result”. “At the time of last year’s budget we were told Australia had a debt crisis. So bad indeed that we needed a very un-Liberal 2% tax hike dubbed the “debt levy”. I was one of a number of economists who pointed out that Commonwealth net debt was around 11% of GDP: the third lowest in the OECD, low by historical standards, and way below Greece (155%), Italy (103%), the USA (87%) and the OECD average (50%). “Like me, Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson and the Business Council of Australia have consistently said that although we don’t have a debt crisis, we do have a serious structural budget deficit problem. Spending is larger than receipts, and spending is growing at a much faster rate. Presumably this view is now deemed irresponsibly alarmist by our PM and Treasurer Joe Hockey. After all, we’re on a glide path to the sweet equanimity of 60% debt to GDP. What are these uppity economic types doing complaining about the gap between taxes and spending?” “I like it when politicians change their minds — it shows a willingness to update based on new information. But I don’t like it when politicians change the facts. And the recent revisionism looks very much like the latter…After complaining that the Senate would not pass their last budget, they now tell us that it has put us on a stable path for decades to come. Seriously? So let me get this straight. Legislation that largely didn’t get enacted has solved the problem? Is this the economic equivalent of the quantum-physics phenomenon “spooky action at a distance”?" There’s more: read it here. In short, ‘debt and deficit’ was not just political hyperbole, it was mendacity; it portrayed dishonesty that only the most barefaced of liars could perpetuate. Do I need to recall for you any other examples of deceit to convince you of this government’s habitual dishonesty? Dangerous incompetence Abbott’s insistence that the experience of his front bench would ensure that his government would be highly competent, in contrast to Labor’s ‘incompetence’, turns out to be the most overblown rhetoric of all. Even the most skeptical would have anticipated that some semblance of competence would be apparent in an Abbott government by halfway through its first term. Instead, we see only massive incompetence. It would take another piece to catalogue all the examples, but here are a few: How competent is a government that: - Believes that its wholly discredited rhetoric of debt and deficit would wash with the electorate? - Misjudges public sentiment so badly that it brings down a budget that even the majority of its own supporters believe is punitive and unfair? - Changes its mind in a flash from calling the budget a disaster to telling us that the disaster has been fixed by doing almost nothing, in some magic way? - Struggles every day to get its legislation through the Senate, so poor is it; so lamentable are its persuasive powers? - Labels as ‘feral’ the very people it is seeking to persuade? - Engages in a call for a leadership spill early in its second year, so disillusioned is it with its leader? - Believes it can regain its credibility simply by reversing or abandoning the stupid, unfair things it has done to date? - Countenances the immature antics of one of its senior ministers (Mr Fixit) over university deregulation? - Appoints to its finance team people who have almost no idea of economics or how to manage a 1.5 trillion dollar economy? - Takes actions that exacerbate the deficit and then blames Labor? - Promises budget surpluses in every year of its first term, only to have Treasury now project that on currently legislated measures there will be no surplus budget for 40 years? - Lambasts Labor for its deficits of much less than 20% of GDP, only to declare that future deficits of 60% would be a good result? - Presents its Intergenerational Report 2015, which is redolent with deception, manifestly riddled with distorted figures, inaccurate graphs, questionable assumptions and dubious projections? - Vacillates about the letting of a tender for our next fleet of submarines, bypasses local industry, and has an indescribable plan for the tender process? - Allows our manufacturing industry to languish, then reverses its support for it, then does a back flip, all in a day, and by different ministers? - Introduces metadata legislation, deemed necessary to counter a pumped-up security threat, which lacked protection for journalists and has no costings? - Ignores the scientific evidence of global warming, promotes the use of the fossil fuels that are causing it, and stalls the renewables industry that could reverse it? - Promises domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty support, then cuts legal aid for such cases, then in panic reverses the cuts? - Expects the public to support it in the absence of a vision, a coherent narrative, and well-articulated plan? - Thinks it can work its way out of its poor polling position simply with fictitious claims of success? - Really believes the electorate cannot see how incompetent it is? Do you need me to go on? My last piece was titled: Does this nation deserve to be led by a buffoon?. This one might have had a parallel title: Does this nation deserve a government that is ideologically driven, dishonest and incompetent? What do you think?