Two thousand years ago, the satirist Juvenal said of Romans whom he thought had abandoned the moral and noble: “Two things only the people anxiously desire – bread and circuses.”
Not much has changed. Except we might translate “bread” as “the hip pocket nerve” and the “circuses” are the showmanship so brilliantly displayed in the election campaign by Scott Morrison wearing a baseball hat and kicking footballs.
But just because Labor lost the election, it does not mean that all of Australia’s problems it highlighted simply disappear. It is just that if they are to be dealt with they will have to be dealt with in a way that accepts, at least in the medium term, the “bread and circuses” premise. If those issues are not to be dealt with, someone has to point out the grim economic cost, leaving aside questions of fairness and morality.
Former Treasurer Peter Costello said that the best budgetary spending cut is not to set up the spending program in the first place, because cutting a spending program costs too much politically.
It is a pity he did not make the same observation about the revenue side – that the best budgetary revenue repair is not to give the hand-outs (which he did in spades) in the first place – such as franking-credit tax rebates for people who pay no tax and the halving of capital gains tax.
So we now have to accept that if you try to take lollies away from babies they will squeal in a politically unpleasant way.
Former Opposition Leader John Hewson wrote in several articles in the lead up to the election that voters wanted authenticity and a vision with a detailed plan on how to execute it. He was wrong, just as he was when he lost the 1993 election. Many were wrong about this election, including me. Juvenal was right.
Clearly voters do not want detailed policies and vision. The people voted for a Coalition Government with very little of either. They want bread and circuses.
Sad but true. Indeed, it is a pity Hewson did not win the 1993 election. We would have been spared the social conservatism of the Howard years. We would have preserved the profits of the mining boom rather than squandered them on now locked-in hand-outs for people who do not need them.
The lollies syndrome will make governing Australia extremely difficult because unless governments (comprising about a third of the economy) live within their means, ultimately the economy collapses.
Now for those problems that will not go away.
Let’s start with mining. Australia makes $67 billion a year from exporting coal. Importers do not like paying us this. If they can find a cheaper way of generating electricity they will do so.
That way is here. Renewables are cheaper than coal if you have to build the coal-fired power plant. And much cheaper if you do not have to construct the poles and wires from the coal plant to townships. So India, for example, will go for renewables.
In the long term, our coal industry is like running a video rental store or film-development lab – good while it lasts.
We must find other work and other industries. Ross Garnaut pointed out that our abundant wind and sunshine means we could smelt aluminium and other metals here rather than send the ore overseas. There is a lot of sun at Weipa. And aluminium smelters do not have to run at night.
So leaving aside a moral commitment to saving the planet or the people of the Pacific islands from rising oceans, let us be smart and economically exploit the renewable resources of the future.
And the evidence is in. Renewables are providing many more jobs than fossil-fuel electricity.
Now to education. Employers need educated employees to be profitable and rich. Our education dollar must be spent on education and not on schools which are already providing first-rate education and just use the extra taxpayers’ dollars on non-educational things like principals’ salaries and capital spending on swimming pools and arts centres.
Economically, we cannot waste talent by denying TAFE and university education to so many because we do not fund it properly.
Economically, we cannot afford to keep importing ready-made employees rather than educating our own. The longer-term infrastructure costs and loss of agricultural land to housing are too high. We should preserve our wealth for those who are here and still have a strong multi-cultural policy.
On health, smart wealthy people can get even wealthier if primary health care is available freely to all, because if it is not, the hospital costs down the track will be much higher. So morality and fairness aside, it is good for the economy to provide universal health care. Sure, a section of private health providers are better off with a sicker society, but the other 90 per cent of private enterprise is not.
On transport, Labor identified a need for more public transport and high-speed rail. Smart, very conservative, capitalist societies like Singapore, Japan and Taiwan understand that. If we want a strong economy we should learn from them and not spend so much money on roads and freeways which get clogged immediately. It is insane to drag half a tonne of metal with every person going into the city. The economic costs of congestion with people sitting in stationary cars like ghost unionists on a waterfront payroll should tell anyone interested in a “strong economy” to improve public transport and make city roads more efficient for freight.
On Indigenous affairs, economically, we are stupid to go on throwing money at endless Indigenous programs without addressing fundamental questions of recognition, respect and identity. If those issues are addressed, the economic costs of Indigenous support would slowly fall.
On inequality, leave fairness and morality aside. Research shows that unequal societies perform worse economically than more equal ones. There is a buck to be made in equality of opportunity. The costs of security go up in unequal societies. You lose economically valuable social capital in unequal societies.
And shutting young people out of housing iis bad for the economy.
The argument has to be turned around economically. We should not say we cannot afford action on emissions, education, health, transport, population, Indigenous affairs, equality and housing. In truth, we cannot afford NOT to act on them.
Australia must not assume that we will be among the top 10 richest countries on earth by default. Argentina, a century ago was among the top five. China was in the bottom 20. We have to adapt if we want a strong economy.
So if political discourse is to put the economy, jobs and future prosperity first, we can put morality and vision aside and still be left with the major issues that Labor identified.
So maybe it will not be the greatest treason to do the right deeds for the wrong reasons as long as the deeds are done. With apologies to Deng Hsiao-Peng, it may not matter whether the government is Coalition or Labor, as long as it catches mice.
Ultimately, though, continuing to rely solely on bread and circuses will lead to a decline and fall.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 25 May 2019.