Almost every thinking person would agree that the road to prosperity follows the route of lower taxation and spending, so that individuals decide for themselves how best to distribute their incomes and to deter idleness sustained by the stolen fruit of others’ labours. The second station along the way is less regulation, an approach that spurns both collectivist consensus and elitist decree in order to defend the individuals’ right to exercise control over his or her future.
In perpetual opposition to these simple principles is the voters’ eagerness to embrace the party offering a larger share of the cake — lots of free stuff, as they say. Sadly, history leaves no doubt that, when presented with a choice, the electorate — any electorate, in any country — will be relatively indifferent to measures that grow economies, even when voters grasp that fiscal prudence is the wisest long-term choice.
As they tally the votes in Queensland and we await confirmation of what seems likely to be the second state government ejected from office after a single term, it is worth considering both the similarities and the differences between the Sunshine State and Victoria, where ousted Premier Denis Napthine & Co became the first of the doomed conservatives to be shown the door. While their styles differed, there are lessons in their similarities.
The Victorian Coalition tried to sneak back by avoiding positions that might have been controversial, even at one point going a step further than Labor by imposing a preemptive ban on fracking. On this issue, much better would it have been had they matched the dim greatness of President Calvin Coolidge who, in H.L. Mencken’s ultimate accolade to a politician, “had no ideas and was not a nuisance”.
To their limited credit, Victoria’s Coalition did come close to balancing the budget. Further, they allocated no spending to the most senseless idea to emerge during their tenure, a fast train to the airport, while firmly committing to the East-West Tunnel, a project so sensible that it remains quite unbelievable Labor would match the depths of stupidity typically associated with the Greens by pledging that it really is prepared to incur more than a billion dollars in penalties by walking away from the construction contract.
Tacticly, however, the Victorians’ desire to avoid confrontation was a mistake — and a huge one. After their “accidental” election in 2010 the option of convening a royal commission to examine the corruption and monumental overruns of Labor’s infamous desalination plant, which has yet to produce a drop of water, was not pursued. While this would have provided a forum to air Labor’s profligacy in supporting its union mates’ feather-bedding, it also would have illuminated the Coalition’s lack of resolve. Why? Because such an inquiry would have revealed that, just like Labor and the Greens, the Liberals also opposed the much cheaper option of building a dam on the Mitchell River. Simply put, the Coalition lacked the stomach to face down a noisy minority that could have been expected to dress up as koalas and and stage photogenic protests demanding that rivers be allowed to “run free”.
The Coalition reaped its accidental Victorian victory in 2010 by picking up seats along the southern suburban Frankston rail line. Voters were dissatisfied with their trains’ on-time performance, but the ALP, having spent too much on the desalination plant and public service salaries, could not afford the cost of upgrading the rail corridor. Once in power, the Coalition did little to placate public-transport users in those seats and they reverted to supporting the ALP in 2014. Cynically, the solution would have been for the Coalition to spend big on the commuter line, as the potential beneficiaries would have been adamantly opposed to financing it themselves via levies and higher fares. This is another dimension of the “47 per cent” of the population addicted to state-supplied incomes and handouts. As a bloc, their support leans to the left, which inevitably outbids the centre and the right in its willingness to buy votes with the promise of spending drawn on higher taxes.
Queensland’s conservative government adopted almost the opposite approach. Like their Victorian counterparts, Campbell Newman’s team focused on balancing the budget. Unlike their southern cousins, it was not afraid of confrontation; indeed, it was spoiling for a fight. One of its first actions was to scrap the Premier’s Literary Awards, thereby infuriating the luvee set by stopping left-wing writers awarding public money to other left-wing writers. It was a small saving in the grand scheme of things, but a significant indication of intention that further manifested itself in whittling down a bloated public sector. Yet, aware of the public’s attitude for “free stuff”, it also adopted socialistic vote-buying with spending programs financed, ironically, by privatisation.
The Newman government failure’s had nothing in common with the supine desire not to rile its opponents that characterised the Victorian disease. Rather, the Queensland government was perhaps too forthright in saying what it had in mind. Even though its measures were generally considered sound, this attitude was branded as arrogance — a label that stuck fast and, last week, met a crushing response at the ballot box.
Perhaps democracy has always been shifting towards the tyranny of the self-interested majority. Perhaps, 100 years ago, the politicians of the day did not need to demand between 40% and 60% of national income for redistribution because the voters, or a sufficient number of them, had a different conception of the role of government in their lives and considered such expropriation unconscionable. The long march of the state as a redistributionist purchaser of the voters’ affections has progressed steadily since then. True, we saw the Thatcher and Reagan interludes, but that was all they were — brief interruptions in a narrative that dismisses individual liberty and initiative while elevating the seizure of wealth as a civic virtue. Look to Britain as an example: David Cameron’s Tories won power in part by outflanking its opponents and vowing massive hand-outs to fight climate change.
It seems Victorians and Queenslanders alike want more government, more regulation and they are eager to see other people’s pockets plundered to pay for it all. As they finalise the counting of votes up north, it might be time to re-write Queensland’s unofficial slogan: Imperfect one day, mendicant the next.
Alan Moran is an economist with Regulation Economics