QUARTERLY ESSAY 46 Great Expectations



John Wanna

The social commentator Bernard Salt wrote recently that “politicians should jump on board the disability issue.” He was spruiking the swinging votes that might conceivably be changed if politicians heeded the plight of people with disabilities and their long-suffering families. He reported figures from the latest census showing that 1 million people – a sizeable slice of the community – disclosed disabilities requiring assistance with mobility, household care or communication. His main message was that this group was a vital demographic that both sides of politics should ignore at their peril. Governments should shower promises on this substantial group and their carer families to win them “on board.”

Separately, in an article on baby boomers being the “sandwiched generation” (looking after both kids and aged parents simultaneously), Dr Lisel O’Dwyer, a demographer from Adelaide University, reported the findings from a survey of 612 baby boomers over the age of fifty. They were beginning to feel the onerous burden of looking after their adult children (and perhaps becoming grandparents themselves) while still caring for their own frail, aged parents. The Sydney Morning Herald’s reporter Julie Power summarised O’Dwyer’s observations this way:

Boomers often helped parents with paperwork and bookkeeping, took them shopping or to doctor’s appointments and did housework for them. They didn’t resent doing these jobs, which she estimated saved the government billions in assistance, but they did dislike having to help parents with toileting and personal care, which they felt the government should provide.

This statement struck me as “passing strange,” to use an anachronistic Ruddism. Almost bizarre. We are apparently quite happy to take responsibility for doing the nice bits of caring for family members (perhaps visiting regularly and providing company, reading to them, doing errands and shopping, helping with medications), but somehow governments should take responsibility for the not-so-nice bits of care – the toileting and cleaning! 

I do not see why this responsibility necessarily falls to government, why it should fall only to government or why other more creative options are not even considered. As a nation we are becoming too quick to pass responsibility to government for any inconvenience, any mishap, any onerous duty, any disaster that happens to strike or any untoward event we dislike. Government in Australia’s settlement was traditionally placed as the risk-bearer of last resort; but increasingly it is being considered the option of first resort. And, to go back to the example above, to say that the government should provide personal care merely means that someone else (probably someone unskilled and on low pay) will have to do the unpleasantries.

Both Salt and O’Dwyer expose a political logic Laura Tingle is fundamentally worried about – our predilection for regarding government as a huge milch cow (à la Bentham and Hancock) that endlessly provides for the herd. Or, to use another metaphor, we have come to view government as a giant slot machine, which we keep playing, hoping to cascade regular winnings or benefits. This view has become chronic and debilitating. 

Laura Tingle has done us a great service in convincingly sketching out the underlying conditions of the current policy malaise in her essay Great Expectations. She canvasses familiar arguments about Australia’s historic protectionism (which despite the rhetoric has not gone!); about economic and social expectations that government will come to the rescue; and about how, even in more liberal times, governments still operate from a mentality that they can “fix all.” Tingle traces our default dependencies on state paternalism, with governments anxious to oblige, but, interestingly, she adds the argument that no amount of government largesse ever satisfies us; the more we ask of government, and the more it gives, the angrier it makes us and the more we want. We are an “angry nation.”

From her special vantage point, observing federal politics up close from the press gallery, Tingle wishes to expose (and then change) the impulsive electoral mood that favours instant gratification, but is mixed with complacency, disillusionment and above all else anger. She believes we have been conditioned by our politicians to expect something all the time from government, at every budget, at every election, at every policy twist and turn. Governments fuel our expectations, which far exceed what governments can now deliver – so we are condemned to complain. And as we complain, governments hand out more salving policies that further heighten our expectations. It’s a vicious circle. So, in public policy today, we have extended the old norms of “protection-all-round” to encompass “benefits-all-round” and “compensation-all-round” (and we could go on – “insurance-all-round,” “rescue-all-round” etc.). And Tingle believes all this creates and reproduces bad politics, poor and unsustainable public policies, and longer-term miseries as we lose our productivity and competitive edge. 

As a critique, Tingle’s essay is penetrating and astute, and worthy of serious engagement by the political class of professional politicians, our “virtual” political parties, old-hat lobbyists too stultified to adapt, media commentators who breathlessly cover politics as sport and the wider community valiantly attempting to maintain an interest in public policy. As a solution, it disappoints. How do we make the necessary changes? What changes are needed? How can we reshape ingrained behaviours across the system? How can we rebalance expectations with sound policy provision? And, above all, how do we de-angrify ourselves? 

Tingle relies on many puzzling assumptions to construct her critique. First, she constantly works from an assumption that politicians know, or should know, what they are doing. She is evidently frustrated when she recounts examples of them looking diffident, hesitant, unsure or confounded. But perhaps that is the normal state of politics. We are reminded of this at the end of the essay when she talks of policy being “all at sea” – and mentions the sixteenth-century explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who travelled some 12,600 miles over uncharted waters to reach the mid-Pacific amid mutinies and shipwrecks. She says, “like Magellan, we’ve reached the end of the known world in our political discussion.” Her metaphor reminds us of the powerful image of modern politics conjured up by the famous political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott suggested we “sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.” But it was not a lament; he felt he was accurately representing our political activity. 

So to lambast today’s mediocre politicians, like Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, for not having vision and not knowing what they are doing is maybe to miss the point. They are merely the current crop of deckhands swabbing while we float on the boundless and bottomless sea. When Ross Garnaut handed an economic report to Bob Hawke in 1983 that advocated deregulation and de-protection and went entirely against Labor policy, Hawke adopted it in the absence of any better options. But did he know how it would turn out? The entire Labor cabinet (which then included some talent) was unsure what floating the dollar would mean and what the consequences would be on selected industries. The industry minister, John Button, said something along the lines of “Oh, shit!” as he heard the news on the way to the airport. Hawke went for it and, as it happened, it turned out quite well. Similarly, even with a less spectacular policy change such as the introduction of the GST (a moderate consolidation), John Howard and Peter Costello had little idea what inflation would occur, how much it would raise, what effects it would have on businesses and how many votes they might subsequently lose. It seems politicians almost routinely make decisions without knowing the consequences – the list is endless: carbon tax, mining rent tax, baby bonus, Pink Batts insulation, BER spending, Fair Work or WorkChoices legislation, health insurance etc. 

Secondly, Tingle invites us to believe that Australians have high and insatiable expectations and are regularly disillusioned when these are not met. The weight of these expectations causes politicians to dangle policy bribes in front of us with predictable regularity. But are we certain that people have such high expectations? Most polling on issues suggests that three major issues are of concern to voters: the state of the economy (jobs); their health and that of their dependants; and the education of their kids. Occasionally the environment pops up but goes down again if any economic vulnerabilities appear. Things like personal benefits, social welfare, cash bonuses or lists of entitlements do not appear so salient. Moreover, we know that most people who are relatively satisfied with their circumstances will not make much noise; but those who aren’t will bleat. So, to listen to those who feel we are “only getting the downside” of being part of the global economy privileges the views of the complainants, which may distort our assessments. It is not clear to me that people expected a baby bonus, expected school bonuses, expected annual tax cuts that paid for a cup of coffee or even expected compensation for the carbon tax. The politicians threw out these goodies largely for their own purposes, nervous that voters might not stay with them. Crass expediency may be driven by politicians rather than by electoral expectations. And moreover, it is far easier for federal ministries, often awash with cash but constricted in their spending, to trigger such cash hand-outs. 

Thirdly, Australia, like Canada and New Zealand, inherited British notions of parliamentary control over public funds – which means in reality the ministry’s control over all spending. We accepted unquestioningly that we needed to establish a consolidated pool of funds (consolidated revenue) out of which all spending would be made (bar any borrowing). Historically, such notions dated back to the king’s purse, a generic repository for the Crown’s estate and income. But having a consolidated fund implies we have sitting there each year a big bucket of indiscriminate funds available to be allocated to any supposedly worthy cause. Out of this fund come aged pensions, hospital funding, cash bonuses, portfolio spending, defence and aid money. The fund can be used as a plaything of the current crop of politicians. An alternative and arguably more responsible way of financing public policies is to adopt a more hypothecated approach whereby parliaments establish dedicated independent funds, which are maintained by contributions that cannot be tampered with by politicians. So, for example, many European nations have separate contributory schemes for pensions, unemployment benefits, health insurance, pharmaceuticals and housing, whereby each contributor has “paid in” and enjoys an ownership of a certain level of entitlement. Politics in these nations focuses on deliberating what level of contributions is necessary to deliver the standards of care or benefits the community elects. These nations have often more generous public provision than we are used to, but have far less of the “slot machine” attitude to politics. 

Finally, Tingle’s history of Australian public policy trajectories focuses almost entirely on the federal story. She covers national politics and so perhaps the explanation for her narrative comes down to her proximity. However, federal politics is rather unusual from a wider perspective. It is a government with historically very limited responsibilities, but increasingly with more ambitious policy appetites, and, most importantly, with huge amounts of cash from its many sources of revenue. It can devote many millions and even billions to particular causes that take its fancy. This factor impacts enormously on federal politics, federal election campaigns and ministerial proclivities. Yet in Australia most “government” is at the state and local levels. The states employ some 1.2 million people in combined workforces compared to the Commonwealth’s 160,000 – and most of these federal public servants are located in a few large agencies such as the Tax Office, Centrelink and Immigration. Most of the government services we get beyond cash benefits are provided by state and local governments. Their work is more about managing huge policy responsibilities and big public organisations delivering health, education, safety, land management, water and so on. They have a fraction of the spare cash that the Commonwealth can rustle up; and so their politics is different. State politics is more about relative competencies, scandals in service delivery and waiting lists. So while Tingle’s critique is directed towards government more generically, in reality it is a critique of federal politics – of a level of government that is generally disconnected from policy delivery and implementation, yet continues to believe it can initiate whatever new policy agendas it considers we ought to have. Such activity does not imply federal governments “know what they are doing,” merely that they remain trapped in their conventions of keeping the ship afloat and sometimes on an even keel.


John Wanna holds the Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, ANU.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 46, Great Expectations. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 47, Political Animal.


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