Rome, October 2009. It was suddenly cold in the eternal city. Only a few weeks earlier I had taken a photo of our daughter, Tosca, standing in the heat of an Indian summer, smiling in her little girl’s cotton shift, in front of the Pantheon.
At home, in the political world, the temperature had also suddenly changed. In fact, climate change itself meant that the beginning of the end of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party was looming, although not yet in sight. In a couple of months, the Copenhagen climate change conference would destroy Kevin Rudd’s remaining hold on the climate debate and ultimately help to destroy his leadership of the Labor Party.
Tosca and I had escaped all this, leaving father and husband behind for an excellent girls’ adventure in Italy. There had been hot, bright days in the countryside and among the ruins and Umbrella Pines. Now it was Saturday night in a chilly and wet Rome. Normally, we walked or caught buses around Rome, but our destination on this night – one of Rome’s more distant hills – saw us competing for a taxi among the crowds at the end of Piazza Navona.
Abruptly we were seeing Rome as many tourists only see it: in terms of its hustling, excitable traffic. Tosca’s fingers dug into my arm as we weaved wildly through cars that were all defining their own laneways through the wet streets.
Amanda Vanstone – former senator, former Howard government cabinet minister – was the Australian ambassador to Italy. I had known Vanstone when she was in Canberra and liked her. We weren’t particularly close. She wasn’t a great “fizz,” as journalists like to describe good sources, but I had always marvelled at her capacity to survive the Howard era as one of the few Liberal “wets.” He moved her in and out of cabinet, into all sorts of testing jobs. She did them without complaint, secretly relishing the times when she could get some policy shift past her boss. She always had a sharp and quirky eye for the workings of human nature. Now she was our representative in a country whose volatile and chaotic modern-day politics leave many Australians both perplexed and smug.
In response to an email asking if she could fit in a cup of tea, Amanda had extended a kind invitation to join her and her husband, Tony, for dinner. We talked of things Italian and Australian as the Vanstones’ dog, Gus, lolloped about, refusing to live up to his reputation for biting guests. The Vanstones brought to the conversation both the detached clarity and intense interest of those who are living far from home.
We pondered the prospects of Malcolm Turnbull – perhaps the last hope of the small-l liberals – and we spoke of the much-maligned traffic after our hair-raising taxi ride across the city. To our surprise, we found ourselves agreeing that despite their reputation, Italian drivers were not as aggressive as those in Australia. Italian drivers looked for their opportunities. Everyone expected no less of everyone else. But they didn’t deliberately speed up to cut you off as people do in Australia.
“Yes, but you see I’ve always thought Australians had an inbuilt angry streak,” Vanstone observed.
Angry? All the clichés about Australia go to our easygoing natures. Happy-go-lucky, no worries, she’ll be right. It had never occurred to me to think of Australians as an angry people. We might be moaners and whingers, but angry?
We think of the Mediterranean cultures as hot-blooded and hot-tempered, yet here we were in the centre of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, discussing how people on an everyday level got on with each other, manoeuvred around each other, so that everybody could get where they wanted to go.
We had just come out of a decade in which the country’s political leader said he wanted us all to be “comfortable and relaxed,” and, later, “alert but not alarmed.” Yet Vanstone’s comment stayed with me, perhaps because I was so regularly reminded of it even in the relatively sedate traffic of Canberra: so many people stubbornly refusing to give way when they could. Why should they let someone else get ahead? Australians might not like to yell and confront each other, we might not gesticulate colourfully, but we find other ways to assert ourselves.
This, of course, was before Tony Abbott’s rise to the leadership of the Liberal Party, and before the June 2010 coup that toppled Rudd and injected a new level of anger into our political discourse.
Someone, it seems, is always in the process of letting us down or telling us a lie. No one in politics is allowed to change their mind, or even adapt to new circumstances, anymore. In the day-to-day political discourse, this is put down purely to bad politics, badly conducted. But are we also getting angrier as a society?
When I went back to Vanstone in late 2011 and asked her why Australians are so angry, she replied that it is because they have expectations that have not been met and a belief in entitlements they are due.
The more I thought on it, the more it seemed that so much of our culture, so many of our public discussions, contain some suspicion or assertion that we might be being ripped off, that someone else might be getting preferment. The belief that we are entitled to a lifestyle that we think everyone else may be enjoying seems to simmer not far beneath the surface.
A most conspicuous example of this is the way the debate about asylum seekers plays out: the swirling myths that people who arrive by boat are handed a goodie bag of entitlements as they step ashore.
The simmering suspicion is not a new phenomenon. But maybe it is a defining one that we are yet to acknowledge in ourselves. In his book Convict Society and Its Enemies, the historian John Hirst documents what he rightly says is perhaps “in all our writings” an un-bettered account of this aspect of Australian society. In 1839, during a heated debate on the future of convict transportation and self-government, a correspondent for the Sydney Herald wrote about the harshness of the relationships within the small but growing community. The Herald’s correspondent, who called himself simply “A Settler,” pointed out that such harshness was in fact a characteristic of all new societies:
People come here to better their condition, many with limited means, their tempers a little soured with privations and disappointed expectations (for all expect too much); cut off from the ties of kindred, old friendships and endearing associations, all struggling in the road of advancement, and no-one who reflects will be surprised that they jostle one another. Every man does not know his own position so well as at home.
Australia’s politics and our public discourse have become noticeably angrier since that cold Roman night in October 2009. “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.
But I want to explore something wider. This is not an essay that seeks to make grand claims about the Australian character or the Australian psyche. Neither is it another treatise pointing out the stunningly benign relativities of Australia’s economic position and social harmony and that, as a result, we really don’t have anything to complain about.
Rather I make the argument that 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.
Our post-deregulation politics has been dominated by politicians reluctant to admit that one implication of opening up the economy is that they don’t have quite as much control as they once did. In the old Australia, our economy contained institutions and policies that both protected us and gave our governments considerable control over events. Wages and work conditions were determined by a central body. Industries could be protected by tariffs and subsidies. The value of the dollar could be set by the government, as could interest rates. Such policies were the embodiment of a paternalistic world in which we had come to expect the state to look after us.
When the change came, there were some notable attempts at shifting people’s expectations. Paul Keating famously warned in 1986 that if Australia did not reform its economy and adopt sensible economic policies, it would end up a third-rate “banana republic.” His remarks prompted a 10 per cent fall in the value of the Australian dollar and galvanised a sense of crisis. Pollsters reported for the first time that people were talking about their collective responsibility to the economy. Bob Hawke and Keating seized the opportunity to push for reform that would better equip Australia for a competitive world.
They persuaded voters not only that they were not entitled to regular pay increases, but that they needed to accept pay cuts to help lower Australia’s inflation rate. They persuaded voters that industry protection was a bad thing, although removing it would cost jobs. They argued that Australians could not presume that the state would fund their retirements through the age pension. The provision of an age pension had been entrenched early in Australia: the still very new federal parliament enacted legislation in 1908. By the 1980s it was regarded as an unquestionable right. To turn this expectation of entitlement around was difficult. But Hawke and Keating promoted the development of superannuation savings as a means of funding retirement, and in doing so pushed the revolutionary idea of self-sufficiency in old age.
Even amid all this, the Hawke–Keating governments used the levers at their disposal to protect Australians from the full force of change. Tax cuts were dispensed to make up for loss of wages. The “social wage” became part of a new national “settlement,” offering free medical care, family income supplements for low-income earners, increased pensions and orderly transition plans for industry.
But just as Australians were being forced to alter – and scale down – their expectations of government for the first time in a century, John Howard made a U-turn and gave us the second big shift in as many decades. The promise was that we didn’t have to change anything. Not only that – we were entitled to feel relaxed and comfortable. Howard’s greatest political moments came when he persuaded Australians that they – and their government – were in control of events that they didn’t feel in control of. His famous battle-cry about asylum seekers arriving by boat – “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come” – remains the best encapsulation of this.
Howard – the supposed advocate of small government – built an entirely new edifice to service the expectation of entitlement. Australians were told that they were entitled not just to tax cuts, but to government support if they had babies, if they stayed in the workforce, if they took out private health insurance, if they bought a home. People who retired with their superannuation savings would never again have to pay tax, regardless of their circumstances. He limited direct government spending on education and health, but gave subsidies to those who used private education and health services. Howard gave us tax cuts as Hawke and Keating had done, but instead of using them to “buy” acceptance of change, soften its effects and achieve better economic outcomes for the nation, he used them as evidence of the Coalition’s commitment to small government. In reality he was dressing up big government as personal entitlement.
There has been a third change, too, the one that Kevin Rudd tried to bring about but failed to deliver in full. After the complacency – and talk of less government – encouraged by Howard, Rudd rode to power on the back of a promise that he would transform the way government worked. Governments, he argued, could change the world. He argued that his could and would do something about climate change, while Howard had argued to the death knock that it could not. Rudd argued for a return to interventions that were made through direct government spending, rather than through individual entitlements. He wasn’t just going to subsidise private health care, he was going to fix the hospitals. He wasn’t just going to subsidise private schools, he was going to provide massive new funding for all schools.
Instead of telling Australians that they had to fend more for themselves in future, as Hawke and Keating had done, or that they were entitled to payouts from the government, as Howard had done, Rudd was changing the message about what governments could and should do. He was delving into the too-hard basket. He promised radical reform, but not reform that would hurt people, as the changes in the deregulatory 1980s had done; this was reform of institutions to make them work better for people.
Rudd told us that he could make our hospital system work better, and our schools. He identified the frustrations of voters with federal–state blame shifting, with the never-improving crisis that characterised our education system and hospitals. Voters had seen promises of more money for health and education doled out at each state and federal election without it materially changing anything.
The vast ambition of Rudd’s agenda, the fact that it – at least briefly – changed once again the expectations of the role of government, has been lost in the ensuing failures to deliver and in the change of circumstance that came with the global financial crisis. Instead we’ve seen a return to deep cynicism about our politicians and what it is that governments can do, and do well.
It is not just the changes in political message that have led to our growing confusion. It is not just that politicians don’t like admitting that they don’t have the means to change things. It is also that the pervasive presence of politicians in the media has forced them to take on an even bigger role in public discussion, even as they have less power to influence events. In a relentless 24-hour media cycle, politicians are the ultimate free providers of content. They are always on hand to comment on anything that might be going – from something that actually does concern them in the political world through to the latest sporting win or controversy.
It used to be the case that questions asked at question time in federal parliament were directed to the responsible minister, not to the prime minister. Ministers spoke only on matters within their portfolio. That restraint has been lost in recent years. With the increased demand on politicians to have something to say on every topic, it is little wonder that many rely on stock lines provided by the prime minister’s office each morning. Or that prime ministers overshadow their governments.
While the role of politicians has been changing, so too have the institutions we deal with every day, as the pendulum has swung from public sector to private. The institutions we rely on to deliver services and run our community were once arms of the state. Now these necessities are delivered by the private sector. Transport, banking, electricity, water, insurance and telecommunications: all these sectors were once wholly owned or else heavily shaped by major publicly owned institutions operating in their markets. Even in the fields of health and education, the rise of the private sector and the relative decline of the public sector has been occurring apace in the last few decades. As a result, we have become increasingly angry about corporations and their influence over our lives, but we also still hold government responsible for the shortcomings of markets that they no longer control.
Twenty or thirty years ago, the image of a group of council workers having a smoko, not working, by the side of the road, was a wonderfully simple metaphor not just for inefficient government, but for our lackadaisical approach to life. Whom do we complain of now? Private institutions, such as banks and telecommunications companies and their outsourced call centres.
Our view of politics has failed to keep up with the implications of this shift from public to private. Deregulation, obviously, involves government ceding control over large parts of the economy, whether it be the rate of interest banks can charge on mortgages, the value of the dollar or the wage-setting process. The politician who once had ultimate control over the person who installed your phone, or who ran the local jail as an employer and manager, has become simply another shareholder, or a contractor of services with much less say, and less clear lines of accountability, than their predecessor thirty years ago. The terms of our political debate are still framed by the expectation that governments can control events, or at least protect the community from them. But because our leaders seem as powerless to control private sector institutions as we are, we are constantly reminded of their impotence – and we don’t like it.
In the early 1980s, federal ministers still controlled the interest rates on housing loans. Then these were deregulated, the Reserve Bank was made more independent, and banks moved interest rates up and down in a reflection of the RBA’s money-market cash rate. Politicians would emerge to take implicit credit when interest rates moved in the right direction, or to explain why it wasn’t their fault if they didn’t. The fact that their actions had little to do with the result was irrelevant.
More recently, with banks borrowing more and more of their funds offshore, the banks have argued that the domestic cash rate is not necessarily an accurate reflection of their cost of funds. So they have started not to move their home-loan rate when the official rate moves. This should be the ultimate test of market forces: if customers don’t like what their bank has done, they can move to another bank. Instead, the political argument becomes one of whether the treasurer of the day has enough machismo to bully the banks into doing what he or his critics want.
Language about the size of government also spiralled out of control in the last few decades. Politicians no longer talk at elections or budget time about how much they will spend in a year, but about how much they will spend in four years. The amounts spent on health and education in an expanding economy therefore always seem to increase. In fact, in the Howard years, as a percentage of GDP, health and education spending declined significantly, as money was transferred to security and defence, to counter-terrorism and waging wars. Popular frustration and confusion about failures in health and education resulted. Coming on top of the loss of control that was still flowing from the deregulatory period, it was no wonder that Australians became confused about exactly what it was governments were supposed to do.
Politicians set expectations. They are also the conduit through which people’s expectations about the state flow. But expectations also build up insidiously over time. We may not know why the givens of any particular policy debate are given. They seep in quietly over the years until someone comes along to challenge the entire edifice that has built up without our realising it.
A person’s sense of entitlement in life – what they expect their life to look like – is all-pervading. A person may have a small sense of entitlement, or a large one. It will shape their sense of how capable they are of changing their life – should they wish to change it – or of creating the life they desire.
I noted earlier that we don’t value our politicians or public service. Yet our leaders have often risen to the challenges laid down for them. In the 1890s, we created a social and economic compact built on a huge wave of prosperity. Whatever the constitution’s limited ambit at the time of federation, you have to wonder whether our present generation of politicians could achieve anything close to this. Is that because the politicians then had to argue only among themselves – state to state – and not against a whole new layer of federal representatives and bureaucrats?
We struggle today to find either a politician or a message that can give effective, inspiring voice to our personal or national aspirations. We fight attempts at intervention that aim to fix our problems, such as the mining tax (yet complain about the impact of the high Australian dollar) or a carbon price (despite wanting politicians to do something about climate change just five years ago).
Much of the debate about the nature of Australian politics, and about our policy settings, naturally refers back to federation, since that was when “Australia” got started. But the structures, and perhaps more importantly the habits and expectations, of much of our governance were established, and had become entrenched, well before that.
This is an extract from Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, Great Expectations: Government, entitlement and an angry nation. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY