Who do you trust?

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Thursday, 8 November 2007

In February this year I wrote:

The Howard Government will be remembered for progressive gun control in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, helping to liberate East Timor from Indonesia, drawing Australia into the Iraq morass, the expansion of Federal control (particularly in the area of Work Choices), balaclavas on the wharves, attacks on the welfare state (particularly its crackdown on single parents, disability support pensioners and unemployed people), repressive treatment of asylum seekers arriving without visas, paternal intervention in Indigenous affairs, neglect of David Hicks’ rights as an Australian citizen and taking over of the Murray Darling River system. (Howard’s gone to water).

In that article I stated that: “In political terms, it matters not one jot whether Howard’s plan delivers more water, better environmental outcomes or more secure water supply to irrigators. The next election will be well and truly over before the outcome of the Howard plan can be assessed. So Howard is running on water and Rudd’s joined the swim”. Before concluding that:

Clever, consistent politician that he is, nothing will save Howard from losing the next election. The Government, even with its new faces, looks tired and all the spin in the world won’t be enough to hide its 2007 use-by date. There are just too many people who have woken up to the fact that they have been conned by clever words and half truths. They want a change and will turn to the dream team to provide it.

Many of my friends at the time suggested I was being overly optimistic about the chances of a Rudd-Gillard victory. Since that time, the public opinion polls have consistently shown Labor maintaining a strong lead.

In the February article I suggested that the Murray-Darling water plan would be the last major initiative of this government. I was wrong is one particular regard. The intervention in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory announced in June is an initiative in Aboriginal policy, albeit one that returns us to the 1960s (See Altman, J. and Hinkson, M .(eds.) [2007] Coercive reconciliation. Arena, North Carlton). Minister Brough has even re-established the old ration voucher system for groceries that I had had to utilise when I worked as a social worker in the NT Welfare Branch between 1965 and 68.

In late June I wrote:

Howard’s failure to address the practical problems confronting Indigenous people is a disgrace. Over the last 11 years the Government he leads has not significantly improved the health, housing, sanitation, employment, nutrition and even access to clean drinking water confronting the majority of Indigenous Australians in most rural and remote areas.

To rub salt into the wound he has denigrated those who have requested he come to terms with the need for symbolic reconciliation. He has refused to say “sorry”. He has demonised those who have sought self-determination for Indigenous Australians.

Now, in the dying days of his government, he is again attempting to stir up a storm of moral panic about the mess that confronts many Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas of this continent. It’s time he admitted that his government’s policies and actions are a substantial part of the practical problems facing Indigenous Australians (We are having a ‘save the Aboriginal children’ blitzkrieg).

Since February, there have however been some amazing continuities with previous Howard Government policies. Perhaps the detention of Dr Mohammed Haneef was the most alarming (Jumping at shadows, The treatment of Haneef is beyond belief). On the 24th October the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said he had told the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions that he thought the case against Dr Haneef was weak. Presuming that Keelty’s statement is true, then it is even more disturbing that Kevin Andrews, the Immigration Minister, cancelled Dr Haneef’s work visa. Andrews has always claimed he had evidence from the Federal Police, which he could not disclose, justifying his decision to cancel the visa.

There was more than a hint of racism in Andrews’ handling of the Haneef matter, but Kevin Andrews did not rely on explicitly racist pronouncements. In early October, Andrews declared that the Howard Government was suspending further refugee applications from Africa, until June 2008, because people from the war torn parts of the African continent were finding it hard to assimilate into Australian society. Such claims were refuted by the Victorian Premier and Commissioner of Police (Govt under fire over ‘racist’ refugee ban). Once again we are seeing the race card played in the run up to a Federal election.

Tax policy

In the opening days of the 2007 election campaign proper, Howard and Costello announced their $34 billion tax cut spread over a number of years was conditional upon the budget staying in surplus. Rudd held his nerve and waited until the Friday of the first week to announce his me-too tax policy, albeit with a delayed tax cut to those fortunate enough to pay the highest rate of tax. Rudd said the $3 billion saving would be used to provide an educational tax concession for lower income families who purchased educational items for their children and to establish a small fund designed to shorten elective surgery waiting lists. Rudd was plugging into the research which shows that many electors would prefer improved services over tax cuts.

The Howard/Costello rhetoric on tax policy, which has prevailed during the last 11 years, is that tax cuts give back a bonus to those who have made a productive contribution to budget surpluses. In those 11 years, those who pay the most tax have got the biggest tax cuts. Those on the minimum wage, those who can’t find work, those who make the greatest caring contribution to partners and children with a disability, those who stay home to care for children, and those with the most severe disabilities get little or no advantage from such tax cuts.

Low income workers and their families are the ones who most need publicly provided dental health and other community services. They are not in a position to communally pool their $4-8 dollar weekly tax cuts in order to buy a MRI machine for their local hospital. They can not afford to pay for private hospitals and commercial dental services. Access to private dental and hospital services is only available to the very people who have benefited most from the tax cuts. Such a government policy is the very antithesis of having a social policy.

Interest rates

During the 2004 election campaign the Liberal Party promised to keep interest rates at record low levels. Howard asserts that he did not promise this, saying he only promised that the Liberals would always be able to keep interest rates below what a Labor government would. Since that time there have been five interest rate rises with another one on the day after the running of the Melbourne Cup.

Interest rate rises were a problem for the Keating Government and it is true that, at their peak, the prevailing interest rates were more than double what they are now. The major difference between then and now is that the price of the average home mortgage is in 2007 more than double what it was then.

Howard must be regretting ever uttering his oft repeated question in the 2004 election campaign: “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low?”

Welfare policy

For the last 11 years, Howard has run hard on his welfare policy of “mutual obligation”. Essentially his argument has been that if unemployed people, single parents and disability support pensioners are provided with a poverty line social security payment then “it’s only fair that they give something back in return”. This glib assertion has found support among some sections of the population who object to their tax dollars being spent on people who they see as making insufficient effort to help themselves (The real moral jeopardy of ‘Welfare Dependency’). How they believe they are in a position to know the extent of effort people who are unemployed or who have a disability are making to gain employment is beyond me.

It’s time for citizens of this affluent country to come to the realisation that if the concept of “mutual obligation” has any utility in the 21st century then it should mean that those who are gaining the most from the thriving economy have the greatest obligation to contribute to the welfare of those marginalised by the present system. When we do come to this position we might see that:

It’s the armless and the harmless
the senseless and the lame
who always pay the social cost
who always get the blame.

It’s the snivellers and the chisellers
the swindlers and the vain
ripping off the profits,
and it’s always been the same.

When I speak of social justice
you ask “What will it cost us?”
Advance Australia fairly,
Advance Australia squarely,
and let us reach the further shore
in the best way that we can.