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Audit report may cut government meddling

Greg Lindsay | The Australian Financial Review | 03 April 2014

It would be rash to run a checklist against the Prime Minister’s pre-election promises so early in his term. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to conclude that Tony Abbott has failed to deliver on his enticing pledge to keep politics off the front page.

Like his Coalition predecessor John Howard, Mr Abbott judged that the average citizen has better things to do than follow every twist and turn of political administration.

As a former journalist, however, Mr Abbott would understand better than most that newsworthiness cannot be mandated by prime ministerial decree. News editors make judgments according to a range of factors, not the least of which is proximity: the closeness of the audience to the story by dint of geography or self-interest.

To keep the business of government out of the news, therefore, you must first take government out of the business of everyday life. The less a government meddles, and the more competently it administers, the more boring the copy it generates. It is a feat few governments have been able to accomplish for long.

All is not lost, however. The National Commission of Audit’s report is expected to be released shortly and, if it is true to its brief, its deliberations will not be limited to mere dry figures.

Future prosperity depends on our ability to seize the fiscal downturn and the national debt crises in Europe and the United States as an opportunity to reassess the proper size and scope of government.

There are grounds for cautious optimism the Commission of Audit’s report might prompt such a discussion.

The three guiding principles in the commission’s terms of reference appear designed to steer the national conversation that way.

They stipulate that government ‘should live within its means’ and ‘have respect for taxpayers in the care with which it spends every dollar of revenue’.

A third principle looks beyond the bottom line: ‘Government should do for people what they cannot do, or cannot do efficiently, themselves, but no more’.

Any success of the Centre for Independent Studies’ TARGET30 initiative will not depend solely on the reduction of public expenditure to 30 per cent or less of GDP. That target is a means to a greater end: the removal of the dead hand of government from the nation’s communal life as well as the economy.

The mistake of crowding out private investment by public sector intrusion is well understood.

Less appreciated is the quashing of private ambition and the have-a-go spirit by the modern inclination to put more in the hands of government. The expansion of the welfare state discourages self-help or reliance on family and friends, private philanthropy, mutuality and civil society when needed.

The consequence of outsourcing responsibility for one’s own well-being and that of our less fortunate fellow citizens to the state is the rise of apathy, fatalism and the familiar cry of talkback radio callers, “what’s the government going to do about it?”

In The Australian Financial Review last week, former Labor leader Mark Latham said: “One of the challenges for both major parties in Australia is to stop politics from dying of apathy. Two major changes have driven people away from political participation. First, after 20 years of continuous economic growth, Australians have become more self-sufficient, more likely to try to solve their own problems, instead of seeking solutions from members of parliament.” If so, then government is failing to get the message as the politicians act entrepreneurially to bring new programmes and initiatives to the public in the strange market in which they function.

I’d like to think that Mr Latham was partly right, but he then went on to discuss options for dealing with public apathy and party politics as though a revivified political system and public participation in it was the solution when, maybe, it’s the problem, or a substantial part of it.

For government, said philosopher John Mill, “the mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs”.

Greg Lindsay is executive director of The Centre for Independent Studies.