Showing posts with label policy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label policy. Show all posts

Monday, October 11, 2021

Fear is driving good economic policy out of the political market

When it comes to politicians, some are good shots and some are cheap shots. These days, the successful politicians – you wouldn’t call them leaders – have relied heavily on cheap shots. The cheapest being to spread fear.

The simple truth is that humans have evolved to continually check their environment for threats. Those who weren’t so obsessively cautious died from some misadventure before they’d managed to have kids.

One way of defining civilisation is that it’s the quest to remove all threats to life and limb. This is the largest role performed by government and the main thing our taxes pay for.

The welfare state – including universal health care and social security payments – is about removing the threat of people dying because they’re too old or sick or disabled to work, or just can’t find a job. The welfare state is a giant risk-sharing system, a massive insurance scheme.

But though our lives have become infinitely less risky – one reason we live much longer than our great grandparents - we go on scanning our environment for threats. Which is good news for the news media - and the reason most of the news they choose to tell us is about bad things – and for less-scrupulous politicians.

Politicians have long known how easy it is to play on our fears to their own advantage. In our more racist past, the “Yellow Peril” was a frequent issue in election campaigns. Scott Morrison’s AUKUS nuclear subs deal led pollster Peter Lewis to wonder whether Morrison would consider “tapping the Coalition’s longstanding brand advantage on national security for a fear campaign about China’s rising influence”.

As the independent economist Saul Eslake rarely loses an opportunity to remind us, in recent years it has suited politicians to greatly exaggerate the risk we face from terrorists. Both sides have been happy to play to our fears that all those people arriving in leaky boats would take our jobs and clog our highways.

But issues of economic management are far from immune to the fear treatment.

Since politics has become so professionalised – a career path you start on after university, rather than a contribution you make after succeeding in some other field – politicians are people who worry more about what they have to do or say to attain and retain power than about why they need power to fix all the things they believe need fixing.

The more we’ve come to distrust our politicians – all politicians – the more they’ve realised the only thing they can say that we’ll believe is how bad their opponents are. Ask a minister how the government’s policy would work and the answer you get is disparagement of the opposition’s policy.

Invariably, any plan to tackle pressing economic problems, or just make the economy work better, has pros and cons, winners and losers. Bingo. A pollie with a plan is a pollie fighting a scare campaign.

One man with a massive plan was economist-turned-pollie Dr John Hewson. He lost the unlosable election in 1993. Another man with a plan was Bill Shorten. He had to fight scare campaigns on every front.

This was partly the Liberals’ retaliation for the success of Labor’s under-the-radar social media Mediscare in the 2016 election. Guess what? The coming federal election will be the battle of the scare campaigns, with as few substantive policies as possible.

Gresham’s Law says bad money drives out good. A new law says scare campaigns drive out policy reform. Or maybe B-grade pollies drive out A-grade. When it comes to standards of political behaviour, it’s always a race to the bottom.

One price we pay for this is that it encourages pollies to take no thought for the morrow. “I’ll just get re-elected and cope with whatever problems arise, if any do.” It raises muddling through to bipartisan policy.

Another price is that we go through the ritual of electing governments with little knowledge of what they secretly hope to do – or may have to get on with if circumstances force their hand. Why risk outlining your intentions when it’s safer to make up stories about your opponents’ evil intent.

But not to worry. An ever-helpful media will spend most of the election campaign pressing them to bind their hands by “ruling out” this and ruling out that. Thanks, guys, that’ll really help.

Since the rise of Tony Abbott, the Coalition has benefited greatly from scare campaigns about the cost of acting to reduce carbon emissions.

But pressure from G7 leaders, international financial markets, sensible Liberal voters threatening to elect independents, and now even the Business Council, may force Morrison to campaign on the claim that moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy could do wonders for the economy.

It’s true – but who’ll believe him?

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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Canberra's latest innovation: politics without policy

The most remarkable development since we returned to work this month is Scott Morrison’s barefaced announcement that the government has enough on its plate rolling out the virus vaccine and getting unemployment down, and so there’ll be no attempt to deal with any of our many other problems before the election late this year or early next.

There could be no franker admission that we live in an era of leaders who lack the ambition and courage to lead. Only on those problems so acute the mob is baying for the government to “Do Something!” will something be done – or grand announcements made that give the appearance it’s being done.

It’s Prime Minister as odd-job person. You don’t look for ways to secure our future, you sit there waiting for pressing matters to turn up: a light bulb that must be changed, a dripping tap that needs a new washer. Acute problems, yes; chronic problems, through to the keeper.

It’s the confirmation of what all but the rusted-on voters have long suspected: that our politicians are motivated far more by the desire to attain and retain office than by any great desire to make the world a better place for us to live and bring up our kids.

The opposing political parties continuously accuse each other of being “ideological” – of being mad free-marketeers or tax-and-spend socialists – but this serves mainly to con along their side’s true believers and conceal from the rest of us the political class’s overriding objective: to win the next election by fair means or foul.

It’s not hard to decipher Morrison’s thinking. Like the premiers, his popularity has soared following our successful containment of the pandemic, so his prospects of re-election are high – provided nothing goes wrong between now and then.

That does mean he must ensure there are no major glitches in the rollout of the vaccine – to which he will have to pay much attention – but he needs no further achievements to improve his chances of winning.

Indeed, anything else he attempts to fix offers more chance of losing the votes of the disaffected than of adding votes to his existing pile. According to informed sources (aka well-briefed gallery journalists), there’s little enthusiasm for “reform” of taxation, religious freedom, industrial relations or superannuation.

The government’s existing proposals for modest changes to industrial relations rules – about which the unions are making such fuss at present – will be put to the Senate next month but, should they fail to pass, will be dropped.

Some Liberal backbenchers’ urgings that the legislated phased increase in compulsory employer super contributions from 9.5 per cent of wages to 12 per cent be reversed (which I support) and the success of the non-profit industry super funds be sabotaged in other ways (which I don’t), have yet to be decided on, but will probably be rejected.

We’re told that Morrison’s thinking in turning away from any further policy improvement is that, after all the upheavals of 2020, the voters just want everything to calm down for a while. But that’s probably always true of many politician-weary voters. Sounds to me like a convenient rationalisation for a deeply cynical and self-serving political calculation.

You might expect this to hugely disappoint a policy wonk like me, but I confess my feelings are divided.

Morrison’s decision strike cuts both ways. He won’t be doing many things he should, but he won’t be doing many things he shouldn’t. The need for tax reform, for instance, is always with us – and urgent only in the minds of tax economists, who think of little else, and those well-to-do urgers hoping it will involve them paying less while others pay more.

There are, of course, many big problems he’ll be doing nothing to improve: the misregulation of aged care, the need for better-considered mental healthcare, the way the universities have been hung out to dry during the pandemic, the neglect and destruction of technical and further education, the many respects in which governments help oldies (including their parents) screw the younger generation.

The most urgent and important area of neglect is, of course, our response to climate change. But the federal Coalition is so deeply divided on the issue – and Morrison so hog-tied by loudmouth Liberal backbenchers and the Neanderthal Nationals – that it’s a delusion to expect genuine progress without a change of government.

And maybe not much then. As we speak, Labor is working on how many of its own policies to throw overboard. As Labor was reminded by its shock defeat in 2019, the trouble with policies is that they’re much harder for you to sell than for your opponents to misrepresent.

A big part of the reason politicians have become so lacking in policy courage is the way election campaigning has become so negative. After last time, the coming election is shaping as the battle of the scare campaigns.

Bulldust will fly on both sides. Both sides are readying themselves by having as few policies as possible. An unthinking electorate is being rewarded with policy-free elections. How edifying.

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