Monday, June 25, 2012

Quarterly Essay 46: Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation, by Laura Tingle

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Great Expectations examines the angry state of Australian politics, and finds the phenomenon has long historical roots. Successive Australian governments have always protected their citizens from the outside world, a protectionism that was dismantled by the Hawke-Keating Labor government. Tingle finds that we are angry because of a strong entitlement mentality that expects much and sees little delivered. The answer to this problem according to Laura Tingle is to collectively sit down and calmly look at our national accounts, see what we are worth, and decide what sort of lifestyle we can realistically afford for ourselves.

Why are Australians so angry with their government at the moment? Have Australians always had this strong antipathy to their politicians? Has anything really changed since 1788 when the first convict ships arrived? These are the questions Australian Financial Review journalist Laura Tingle attempts to answer in the latest Quarterly Essay.

To tackle such a raw and unappealing emotion, and put it at the centre of our political life, makes for an often uncomfortable read in this essay. We are used to putting ourselves and our national character on such a lofty plain that to have it reduced to petty bickering over who gets the largest slice of the economic pie is depressing to contemplate.

Great Expectations starts with Laura Tingle on holiday in Rome, then some passing observations about how Australian car drivers are even more aggressive than Italians, and an interview with former Howard government minister and now Australia’s ambassador to Italy, Amanda Vanstone. Tingle asks why Australians are so angry. Vanstone replies that it is because we “have expectations that have not been met and a belief in entitlements that are due.” Gulp, this is a pretty blunt answer.

To try and discover if this entitlement mentality has historical roots, Tingle hit the history books and discovered that Australians have always seen government as their chief protector and provider. We have always expected government to look after us and protect us from outside forces. At the same time we have reserved an ambivalence, even hostility, to the political classes that ensure our comfortable lifestyle. In short, we like to bite the hand that feeds us. We developed democratic institutions early and with great speed, yet this very democracy created its own problems. Practically anyone (male) could be elected to office, and this created an attitude of contempt for parliament as a house of common riff-raff and opportunists.

The Hawke-Keating governments of the 1980s and early 90s would start to dismantle the protected Australian economy and give some tough economic lessons to the electorate. Pensions and the like had to be paid for, the Australian economy couldn’t live independent of the world economy. We would have to get used to these new realities, as the world had changed.

Laura Tingle gives qualified praise to the Hawke-Keating achievement in bringing the country along on these economic changes. The section dealing with the Howard government is interesting, as Tingle argues that Howard brought the country back to the old Australian ways of an entitlement mentality. Famous for hand-outs and various forms of what came to be called ‘middle class welfare’, Howard also promised to keep Australia safe from outside forces, namely asylum seekers arriving by boat.  Howard talked small government, but enlarged government entitlements.

When Rudd came to power, he promised that government could fix, amongst other things, hospitals and the environment, but found it all too hard. He over promised and under delivered, creating more voter dismay and anger.

The conclusions Laura Tingle reaches in Great Expectations have a grim aura about them. The blunt truth of her essay has the power to knock you over the head. Notions of dole bludgers and Aboriginals living the good life on welfare are a strong part of the Australian culture. We get angry over the smallest things, and are always aggressively alert to being ripped off by government.

Laura Tingle’s suggestions to fix our problems are quite simple. We need to put away the squabbling, sit around the kitchen table, look at what bills we need to pay and balance that against how much income we are earning. Those who need help should be given it; those who don’t need assistance should pay their own way. What we think we are entitled to may come into conflict with what we can actually afford to pay ourselves.

Quarterly Essay 46: Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation, by Laura Tingle. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863955645  RRP: $19.95