[Published at New Matilda, 31 Aug]
The current disarray of the Abbott Government may mark the end of a decades-long experiment in radical social engineering. The experiment has yielded deepening social divisions, an antiquated, colonial-style economy and little capacity to deal with the dramatic challenges of the near future.
The experiment began in earnest with the Hawke-Keating “economic rationalist” deregulations of the economy in 1983 and proceeded with the weakening of the welfare state and labour protections. The Howard years ramped up the libertarian rhetoric promoting selfish individualism and the denigration of public institutions. These changes reflected a global shift to neoliberal ideology, which minimises government and maximises individualism.
Neoliberalism has eroded social cohesion and security of employment and income. To deflect the resulting discontent, governments have turned increasingly to xenophobic alarmism. The associated undermining of civil liberties and the rule of law only accelerate the decline of our liberal democratic society.
Australians have never been happy with neoliberalism. We resented the increasing insecurity of employment and disapproved of sales of public enterprises, to the point of wishing to reverse privatisations such as Qantas, Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank. Privatisations of utilities are widely seen as resulting in higher charges and reduced service, yet still State governments persist in their obsession with selling off electricity assets. We strongly favour more trade protection, which means few want yet another secret “trade” deal like the Trans Pacific Partnership; fortunately those negotiations recently came to grief, at least for now.
Deregulation of banks and finance resulted in the debt boom and scandals of the 1980s followed in 1990 by the worst recession since the 1930s. Global deregulation of finance yielded another and much bigger debt boom, resulting in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 and a global Great Recession. We only escaped because the Rudd Government briefly broke with neoliberal ideology and stimulated the economy by dropping money on seniors, schools and home insulation.
Despite the saturation hype, neoliberal economic performance has never matched the post-war social-democratic numbers: GDP growth 5.2%, inflation 3.3% and unemployment a puny 1.3%.
Neoliberalism is neither liberal nor conservative. Its vision is to break society down to competing individuals, the flip side of communism’s vision to submerge our individuality with the masses. The one is as extreme, and as dysfunctional, as the other. Neoliberalism is extremist, and its imposition is radical.
A healthy society and a healthy and rich life require a balance of competition and cooperation, of self-care and generosity, a profound insight that Taoists articulated long ago and we can easily verify in our personal lives.
The imposition of neoliberalism has substantially changed our society, for the worse. Its radical social engineering has had its own code of political correctness, enforced by media attack dogs who descend on anyone who advocates compassion, collective action or common decency.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s proclamation that “the age of entitlement is over” may have been the high water mark of neoliberal ambition. Its rank hypocrisy, applying to the poor but not the rich, was widely perceived, as was the blatant unfairness of his first budget.
By the end of 2014, with much of its program blocked by the Senate and highly unpopular with the electorate, the Abbott Government had nowhere to go. Its second budget abandoned most of its unpopular measures.
The Government continues to hack away at anything within reach it doesn’t like, but much of its program has stalled. Its only other resort is alarmism about refugees and terrorists, but people increasingly perceive it as jumping at shadows.
The Abbott Government is allowing the Australian economy to be hollowed out. Its default is to tie us to foreign-owned miners and increasingly foreign-owned agribusiness, neither with any future. Coal under our farmland is being flogged directly to Chinese, Koreans and Indians. Our ports and railways are being allowed to pass to faceless, non-taxpaying foreign entities. Three quarters of our dairy industry is foreign-owned. Farmers are being driven into bankruptcy by the strangling Colesworth duopoly, according to Malcolm Knox’s Supermarket Monsters.
The Government neglects keystone industries like cars, which were hurt by the mining boom, and attacks clean-energy industries of the future. We are on a slide back to being a raw-materials-supplying colony.
Australians seem to have had enough. For as long as Kevin Rudd seemed to be pushing for some serious change he was popular. Since he walked away from his centrepiece carbon trading scheme, his and later governments have been increasingly on the nose. Primary votes for the major parties are in long-term decline. People are desperate for something better.
Neither major party is likely to oblige. Labor has been taken over by unprincipled careerists and the Liberals by extreme ideologues and social reactionaries. Each has thoroughly betrayed its origins.
Australia is poised for major shifts in political culture. The impetus must come from the grass roots, as is already happening. We need parties and independents who can revitalise Parliament, who have the vision and courage to take us constructively into the future.
Either that or our rapid drift to being a cringing, divided, backward, fortress police state will run to completion.