Peter Smith

The age of envy and dependency

People in need who would shy away from asking their neighbours for charity have little compunction in asking the government. That is understandable. If I were receiving charity I would just as soon not want my neighbours to know, never mind be the donors. But standards have changed. There is now seemingly no shame in relying on charity when dispensed by the government.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that those in genuine need should feel shame in receiving government, or any other, support of one kind or another; they shouldn’t. I am simply saying that community standards in this regard have changed. Now people willingly appear in the media as recipients of government support, complaining, particularly at budget time, that more should be done for them and others in their position. I seldom detect any sense that they understand they are asking other people to pay their bills, some of whom might well be struggling themselves. Government has sanitized this redistributive process. You don’t have to feel bad anymore about confiscating your neighbours’ earnings and savings.

The clamour for more revenue to be raised and allocated to worthy causes is limitless if the last half a century is any guide. Surely it is extraordinary at this time of deficits and growing debt that a major new program of welfare expenditure on disability care is being put in place without any precise consideration of who it will cover and who it won’t, what it will cover, what it could potentially cost years into the future, and how on earth it will be funded. And, surely, it is even more extraordinary that it is being paired with extravagant new expenditure on education. The problem is that it really isn’t extraordinary at all these days. It’s simply more of the same, albeit with exorbitance.

Julia Gillard might take note that tears won’t wash out a word of unaffordable, and therefore undeliverable, promises made to the disabled and their carers. It is one thing to renege on promises made about a carbon tax and budget surpluses, quite another when the most vulnerable members of society are involved. The disability scheme and its funding should have been constructed in a bipartisan and considered fashion, to ensure it can be responsibly delivered; not through Gillard trying to hijack Abbot on route to the election.

By convention, governments are meant to tread water when close to an election. That’s why they’re called lame ducks. But, hey, what does trashing a convention mean to this debacle of a government with its cast of ex-union mediocrities, kept in power, to Australia’s great cost, by the indescribable independents.

Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, having presided over deficits and debt year after year and this latest unfunded spendathon, without the hint of embarrassment, then glibly challenge Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey to explain exactly what existing and promised goodies they would cut away. Well, have no fear. Abbott and Hockey are caught in the headlamps. Every special interest is ready to pounce if their particular allocation of taxpayers’ funds is cut. Sure Abbott and Hockey will do a bit (and Abbott’s budget reply speech was masterful and must have put even more fright into the Labor government, if that were possible – if you doubt that watch Penny Wong’s pyretic parliamentary media conference) but the prevailing paradigm is against them. Rolling back the age of entitlements appears to be a forlorn quest best contemplated, in principle only, on foreign shores.

The age of entitlements is having a warping effect on society by promoting envy and undermining self-reliance. It is hard to see how this can be countered. We are probably left with trying to minimise its deleterious effect on economic growth and prosperity.

Creating an understanding that wealth, and therefore the capacity to fund welfare, is primarily created by the private sector would be useful. Maybe a coincidence of interest could be engendered between the welfare industry and business which would filter through the body politic and society as a whole. I am joking. Listen to the Greens, the ABC commentariat, Laura Tingle et al of the Fairfax press, and appreciate the attenuation of general intelligence that must have occurred to allow them to operate on the public stage without the accompaniment of rotten tomatoes and guffaws.

The best we can do is to balance (or close to balance) the recurring budget of our own accord; which is one reason, among many, why it is essential that Abbott becomes PM. But even the most obtuse (correction – the Greens excepted) will eventually see, in the end result, unless we do it ourselves, that external forces will be brought to bear to force austerity at debilitating cost; including potentially (among other welfare recipients) to the disabled and their carers.


Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

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