Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Floods expose national loss of respect

It's a pity Julia Gillard announced her flood levy after Australia Day rather than before it. Instead of spending the day telling ourselves what wonderful people Aussies are, we could have reflected on our darker side - why we're developing a Jekyll and Hyde personality.

As many acts of minor and major heroism during the Queensland floods have reminded us, Aussies are good people to be around in times of crisis.

We rise to the occasion; we pull together. If we're on the spot and see someone in difficulties we'll do all we can to help them, then look around for anyone else who needs helping.

Even if we're not personally involved, even if all we know of the disaster comes to us on the TV news, our hearts go out. We yearn to contribute towards the needs of those poor sods. Sling $20 or $50 into a bucket for the Premier's Relief Fund? Think nothing of it.

But ask the better-off half of us to pay a temporary tax levy to help fund the rebuilding, which will cost only the wealthiest among us more than $5 a week, and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, we can think of half a dozen reasons why we shouldn't have to pay.

I've already donated - why are you coming back for more? If you compel people to pay, fewer will donate. I pay too much tax already, why are you hitting me again? Why can't you just cut some of all that wasteful government spending? Why are you so obsessed with balancing the budget - why can't you just add the cost to the deficit? Don't you realise how much the cost of living's rising?

They sound like reasonable arguments but, in truth, we just don't want to pay no matter how worthy the cause. Why such a change of tune? Because the government got involved. When we thought it was personal - I give my time or money to help other people in need - that's fine.

But introduce the government and it all becomes impersonal and amorphous. The link between me and my money and the people it will help is broken. The government's budget is a vast, bottomless pit. Why ask me to throw more money into it? Surely there's someone earning far more than me who should contribute? And, in any case, what about all the money you're already wasting?

Many objectors don't seem to have paused long enough to learn that their donations go to helping individual families who've suffered loss, whereas the levy will go towards rebuilding public "infrastructure" - otherwise known as roads, bridges and ports.

So alienated have we become from the work of government we regard it as a giant soft cop - a magic pudding, where the idea is to take out as much as possible ("I've paid taxes all my life ...") and put in as little as possible. How is this circle squared? Who knows, who cares?

But there's more to this affair than just our pathological objection to paying more tax. It's a dramatic demonstration of the way Australians are losing the ability to fall in behind a leader.

All of us know the nation's problems won't be overcome without decisive leadership. We regularly bewail our politicians' lack of courage and conviction, their reluctance to risk their personal survival in the country's best interests.

Yet we give our leaders so little loyalty. The announcement of a government decision is taken as the occasion for the outbreak of dissent. All those with a reason for objecting cry out and their criticism is amplified by the media, whereas those who agree fall silent. No one feels obliged to actively support the leader, even if just because she is our leader and someone has to accept ultimate responsibility for deciding what we'll do and how we'll do it.

Of course, no one wants to live in a country where the leader's will is never challenged. We each have the democratic right to oppose all government decisions by all legal means. But we also have the democratic right to support, defend or even just acquiesce in the judgment of the people we elected to lead us.

Why are we becoming so much more prone to arguing the toss than falling into line? And how do we imagine making leadership so much more difficult for the leader of the day will leave us better governed? Why are we training our governments to timidity?

Part of the explanation is partisanship - our willingness to put loyalty to party ahead of loyalty to our community and its need for effective leadership. I didn't vote for these people, so I'll regard everything they try to do as illegitimate.

Trouble is, there is little partisanship running the other way. Consider the deathbed bastardry of Labor's own Kristina Keneally in objecting that NSW taxpayers deserve special concessions under the levy.

No, there's more to this than partisanship: there is a general loss of loyalty and respect for whoever is our leader. The government is always and everywhere fair game. Consider the lack of public censure of the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, for his utterly obstructive behaviour.

Having narrowly lost the last election, he's behaving like a spoilt child, refusing to support any policy proposed by the government, whether good, bad or indifferent.

His self-righteous opposition to the flood levy and all tax increases is extraordinarily hypocritical, considering he proposed his own special levy in the election campaign and supported at least six temporary levies imposed by the Howard government, not to mention that ultimate "great big new tax on everything" known as the GST.

What he's saying to the nation is: I'll do all in my power to make Parliament unworkable until you make me leader.

Oh yeah, we reply, fair enough.

We have a democratic right to make our country ungovernable - and it seems we're well on the way to doing so.