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Great Expectations– just what do we want?

June 2012

  • Laura Tingle

In a new Quarterly Essay published this week, Laura Tingle asks what exactly Australians expect from Government, and why are we so angry at our political class?

Australia’s politics and our public discourse have become noticeably angrier. “Shouty,” some people call it. And yes, the social media seem to amplify it and make it uglier. People think they can say just about anything to anyone in the semi-anonymous world of the Twitterverse.

In popular culture, some of the recent confected outrage may well have been imported as a package and a formula from elsewhere, notably the United States. In the political realm, we are underwhelmed by our politicians, by our institutions and by the quality of services that government provides.

As a nation, a polity, we have not sat down and worked out what exactly we expect “the government” – by which I mean its administrative side, as well as the politicians of the day – to be and to do. We haven’t settled the idea of what we think we are “entitled” to get from government. The only things we seem to have been sure about over the years are that government has not met our great expectations that it will look after us, and that we are nonetheless entitled to be looked after.

Politicians may be the conduits who try to persuade us from time to time that they can make government work better. We talk endlessly of how they let us down, of how hopeless they are. I think this is only partly born of the fact that they may actually be hopeless. It is also – and this is much less discussed – born of the fact that we don’t really know what we expect of them, or of government, in the first place. A friend of mine calls Australian politics “aorta politics”: as in, “They oughta do something about it,” even if what “they” oughta do is not clearly defined.

I will explore Australians’ expectations and experience of government, and community and the state, and how they have changed over time. That is, what Australians expect the commonweal to provide for us, what we have come to believe we are entitled to, how this has translated into our political debate and how it has influenced politics in the past and the present. It is a slightly slippery topic, because it extends from the more immediate question of what we expect of our politicians through to notions of state paternalism and the reality of the services government delivers.

I am writing at a time when the people of some of the oldest Western civilisations on earth are being rudely forced to confront the question of just what they expect of the state. In Greece, a comfortable, creeping growth in the size of government has risen up to bite the citizenry. The shock being felt is not just over an argument about the need for budget restraint; it goes to the question of what constitutes the Greek state, its scope and its mission.

I also want to consider on the changing nature of what politicians and the polity can in reality do for us. At the heart of anger is disappointment or frustration. It is a disappointment at something expected, or hoped for, that has not been received. It is a frustration that things should be different. But what is it that we expect of government in Australia, and how have these expectations been formed?

The Australian commonweal has developed a little like the streets in Sydney’s central business district. Down by Sydney Cove, the streets still essentially follow the goat tracks established by the first settlers. At the very time of an unprecedented revolution in Western thought about government and the rights of man, our nation started as an autocratic, bureaucratic penal administration, rather than a polity. We grew into a colony that perpetually wrestled with what a country at the other end of the world thought of us, trying to impress England with the idea that we were not barbarians but were more British than they were, while simultaneously growing proud of what we had established that was different and distinct.

We spent much of our first century with our politics focused on begging for favours or freedoms from a foreign parliament. Our colonial parliaments developed grudgingly, with incremental increases in control over our own affairs. And, of course, “stuff” just happened which pushed the economy and the population through waves of rapid change: the wool boom; the gold rushes; recessions and depressions; and, more than anything else, constant mass migration.

The colonies moved towards a federation travelling on ideals of unity and good for all. They even agreed to call the country a Commonwealth as this reflected an idea of the common good and the utopian and advanced way in which Australia seemed to be developing. Yet the actual constitution was constructed on the basis of economic interests rather than any great utopian ideas about the rights of man.

The services we enjoy receiving from government also developed in a piecemeal way. From the earliest days, Governor Arthur Phillip insisted that the children of the First Fleet’s convicts should be educated. Phillip’s pragmatic rationale was that education might stop the first generation of free-born white New South Welshmen following in the criminal footsteps of their parents. It was not meant to rewrite the rulebooks for what government did, even though it meant, from the very start, that children born in a penal colony would gain an education that was not available to their contemporaries in the country from which their parents came.

Our school history lessons so often concern the idea of a confrontation between authority and the battling individual, between people claiming or asserting economic rights against an inflexible or unfair state – whether it be the Emancipists, the Squatters, the Rum Corps or the Eureka Stockade. These legends – along with that of the Diggers’ scorn for hopeless English officers – have become part of the Australian cliché about our contempt for authority. They also reflect another cliché, about the Aussie battler doing it tough and being badly done by. But just as significantly, these legends are also reflections of the haphazard way in which our governance developed.

Perhaps this is why, if you were to ask Australians, “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” most would respond with a blank look. We might believe that our country – our government – can do something for us, but, beyond military service, there is no deeply entrenched value ascribed to doing something for our country, or government. Public servants (who do generally have a commitment to the national good) are more often than not held in contempt, as are politicians.

Compare this with the United States where there is, confusingly, both a deep hostility to government, yet also a much more established tradition of civic service, whether it be in local, state or federal government or in the thousands of elected jobs for which Americans must run.

Government is rarely portrayed in any of our conversations as a force for good. More often it is seen as amorphous, badly run and ill-defined, the plaything of politicians that is separate from most of us. Similarly, Australians are dismissive and cynical about why people enter politics. We rarely discuss decisions in terms that recognise the compromises that government, and democracy, inevitably entails.

Our expectations of what government will do have seemed to grow over the years. Of course it will be there to assist us after bushfire or flood, not just with our immediate emergency needs but also by helping with rebuilding and providing income support. When we travel to war-torn and unstable countries, we expect government to rescue us from trouble, and, sometimes, to get us home.

We still expect government to intervene in industrial disputes that are causing the rest of us inconvenience, and to support workers left without their entitlements by collapsing businesses. We expect government to provide easily accessible hospital services, and good schools and childcare and roads and public transport. We expect it to protect little children when their families won’t. We expect to be protected from violence and crime. We expect to be protected from our bad decisions about shonky investments made in the name of chasing a higher return. 

Yet, at the same time, we see public anger that we have become a “nanny state.” We see anger about tobacco and alcopops laws. There is anger when government tries to find a way of allocating water among millions of users that is sustainable and priced rationally.

This lies at the nub of the problem: our expectations and our sense of entitlement are confused and this makes us angry. Politicians spruik the virtues of small government, yet propose vastly expensive schemes without explaining how they will be funded. Politicians talk about fixing a problem like climate change, then opt for a policy that does little to address it. Politicians tell us we should be pleased we have escaped the global financial crisis, yet we complain that escaping it hasn’t made it any easier to pay the mortgage or the electricity bill.

Our current “shouty” politics follow two momentous shifts in our relationship with government in the past couple of decades that have not been well understood. These are changes which have dominated my working life as a journalist and which I have observed up close. The first was the process of deregulating the Australian economy in the 1980s and the 1990s. The second came with the election of John Howard in 1996.

Paul Kelly defined the way we see the 1980s and 1990s in his seminal book The End of Certainty, in which he argued that the great era of deregulation dismantled the pillars of the Australian settlement that were implicitly or explicitly agreed at the time of federation: White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence. Kelly argued that deregulation unleashed powerful new forces in Australia’s politics, as well as its economy, which smashed this settlement. Writing as it was happening, his great achievement was to place the change in an historical perspective.

Yet there are things we can observe now which were not so apparent in the early 1990s. Kelly believed that the choice in politics would be between those who pursued this new Australia exposed to the demands of globalisation, and those who sought to retreat into the old world. But that is not quite how it has been turning out. What was not apparent then was that our politicians would not prove universally capable of leading us to understand the implications of dismantling the cosy “protection all round” world.



This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 46, Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation (Black Inc.) RRP $19.95, also available as an ebook.

Laura Tingle is political editor of the Australian Financial Review.




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