Last Saturday, I attended a dinner to celebrate John Coates’ 32-year term as President of the Australian Olympic Committee. With no disrespect, my mind wandered a bit during a line of high profile speakers. The Governor General, alongside International Olympic Committee President and swimmer Susie O’Neill on behalf of the athletes, hailed Coates and her career. They said his work was defined by his commitment to “putting athletes first” – that it separated him from his peers and was the reason for his achievements. They praised his role in winning the Sydney Olympics and getting the green light for the Brisbane Olympics in 2032, saving the Tokyo Games, his dedication to securing the independence of the COA, for establishing the organization’s educational activities and programs to promote Aboriginal participation, and for achieving greater gender balance in the composition of Olympic teams.
It reminded me of our current election campaign, which was about halfway through at the time. I wondered why it wasn’t ‘putting the Australian people first’. Isn’t it reasonable to expect our political leaders to put our people first? Democracy is after all “for our people” – governments are expected to look after them when they need it and provide national leadership on key policy challenges. It’s instructive to recognize that the campaign trail has spent most of its time scoring against adversaries, shifting blame, and gotcha moments. There has been a void in people policies, including an overhaul and reset of health and hospital services and their funding, as well as child, elderly and disabled care. There is also a void in the focus on improving our resilience and our preparedness for the inevitable: more natural disasters and future pandemics. All of this in the context of what should be competing visions for the future of our country and a competition of political ideas for deliverable and sustainable paths.
It is very unfortunate that childcare has become a sort of political football in recent years, rather than a serious political development goal. The opportunity was also missed to make it an integral part of pre-school education. This is despite the temporary adjustments to child care during the pandemic making clear the significant costs and benefits of scaling it up.
Likewise, the Royal Commission on the Care of the Aged set out a way forward, challenging the government to ensure adequate nursing services, establish minimum standards of care per patient and address a range of important issues. to deal with undertrained, underequipped and underpaid staff. It should have been obvious for this campaign, but only the Labor Party tried to remedy it. It has generated little better than mockery from the government, which has sought to dodge its responsibilities for elderly care and for the consequences of its neglect of this sector before and during the pandemic, when many lives were lost in nursing homes.
Disability care has also been overhauled and will be a major challenge for the new government, with the bureaucracy and costs of the National Disability Insurance Scheme skyrocketing, and major gaps in essential patient care brought to light. To give an idea of the urgency, concerns have been expressed that the system is under such pressure that it could implode. Yet there was little discussion about it during the campaign.
Although there has been more emphasis on overall economic management, the debate has been superficial at best, with the government boasting and exaggerating its success in the face of a narrow definition of what is managed. The main economic challenge is that the growth and jobs figures, on which the government seeks to rely, simply do not match the lived experience of most Australians struggling to pay rent and the grocery store. The government has denied responsibility for these pressures on the cost of living, even as it spent billions on stimulus during the pandemic and ensured the Reserve Bank flooded markets and key sectors such than housing with volumes of liquidities which contributed to a significant acceleration of inflation. The only possible outcome is for the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates several times over the next year, which will limit our ability to grow.
Although the government claims that its recent budget is a blueprint for future growth, that is not the case. The recent budget is quite simply the biggest pork barrel in our history. This will do little to support growth and employment. There is no national productivity strategy that would ensure growth, jobs and rising real wages. The major economic challenge that neither candidate addresses, and which will also be a global challenge, is the management of stagflation, ie the slowdown in growth coinciding with the acceleration of inflation. Likewise, no one is addressing the need for fiscal repair, with structural deficits stretching as far as the eye can see. It will force anyone in government to consider raising taxes and cutting spending in the second half of this decade. Of course, Morrison always talks irresponsibly about further tax cuts.
There is also a pressing structural need to reform our federation, whose weaknesses have been revealed during the pandemic. Along with these reforms, we need to reform tax and transfer systems, including state ones, to remove inequalities.
Both major parties are calling for policies to address housing affordability, with similar programs to help with the security needed to buy a home, especially for first-time homebuyers. But of course, these programs will certainly put upward pressure on real estate prices and will more often benefit developers. Neither side has spoken about how they will tackle the consequences of rising interest rates for owners of existing homes, with what is likely to be a devastating situation of mortgage stress, especially for those who borrowed too much. There is already significant stress for landlords and tenants.
I was stunned to hear Morrison’s comment in anticipation of interest rate increases. He said: “It’s not about me… It’s about Australians themselves and the decisions they make and understanding the pressures on the economy and who they think will be better off. able to manage these pressures in the future.” So is it our fault he failed?
Even more stunning was Morrison’s response to the cash rate hike, with the Prime Minister declaring ‘we have prepared for this’. Really? I do not recall him admitting that at the time of the budget or since.
Along the same lines, victims of the pandemic, floods and bushfires should worry that Morrison appears to have learned little from these natural disasters. He is no better prepared for the inevitable repetitions of such events and does not seem to understand the need for them. He also appears to have little shame for the delays in providing financial assistance to these victims and offers no apologies for allocating those funds to the seats he wants to keep or win in the election.
There should be a thorough discussion about an effective national resilience strategy, perhaps to establish a national resilience institute to coordinate this preparedness as well as a national center for disease control. There should also be appropriate education initiatives.
With polls and focus groups so important in the conduct of politics today – and with all these initiatives identifying climate change as the key election issue – it is very troubling that there has been so little attention to the issue to this day. None of the main parties offers a comprehensive and effective political response.
Labor are still a little coy after the blows they suffered in the last election, while the LNP is once again split over an answer. Already, the Nationals are breaking with the net zero commitment. It was obscene that the government was prepared to sue a group of young people to argue that the government does not and should not have a duty of care to the next generation in its climate response. It seems the only ones willing to accept the scale and urgency of the challenge are the Greens and climate independents, who will no doubt have a significant impact in the likely event of a minority government. The choices they make can save our children from being completely sold out by the current generation of politicians.
It’s unfortunate that so many media see themselves as players in the power game, even hoping to be kingmakers by supporting their favorite sides and pollies. The bias of some has been appalling and a massive abrogation of their responsibility to hold candidates and parties to account, to demand honesty and integrity and to force policy debate in the national interest. Instead, they seem to simply seek to ingratiate themselves with future governments or politicians. It’s become reality TV for smart kids – and it will have tragic consequences for our democracy in the longer term.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 under the caption “Reality TV for Smart Kids”.
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