More than a fistful of dollars

If this election is to be about economic management and national security, – the Coalition’s supposed strengths – voters should question what those things mean and whether the Coalition does them well or even just better than the other lot.

But even applying the staid old definitions of national security as spending big on military hardware and economic management as being low-tax and frugal with public money, just one stand-out case should put the lie to the myth that the Coalition is better on these scores. 

That case, of course, is the submarine contract: $5 billion of public money (on Defence’s own reckoning) down the toilet and nothing to replace the ageing Collins Class submarines for decades. The Coalition incompetently chose the wrong submarine and squandered public money correcting the mistake.

But national security means more than large expensive weapons systems which in any event can be quickly knocked out of the sky, ocean or land by cheap, nimble new technologies as is being revealed in Ukraine.

The other big stories dominating the screens – fire, flood and heat waves made worse by human-caused climate change – pose a greater risk to our security and should play an equally dominating factor in the election.

And another related big issue – hardly ever mentioned – which again demonstrates the Coalition’s economic and security incompetence is fuel supply. Its myopic stubbornness on climate action and its supine dependency on fossil-industry donations has led it to refuse to encourage electrification of the fleet.

As a consequence, our imported fuel bill is higher than the money we get from coal exports – poor economic management leading to greater security risks.

Turning to other economic and security matters, a healthy, well-educated population is far more important for economic performance than any amount of inefficient distorting tax breaks for mates in favoured industries.

Yet, over the past nine years, the Coalition has grossly mismanaged health and education at huge cost to the public purse.

People on public waiting lists for treatment do not perform well economically. It is the same for people with private insurance thrown back into the public system because they simply cannot afford astronomic gap fees. In its ideological drive to crush the public system through impossibly low Medicare rebates, it has inadvertently damaged the private system as well.

The Coalition refuses to deal with major public-health issues, particularly sugar-induced obesity and addictive gambling, for fear of upsetting donors. Again, at great cost to the economy. 

Many conservative governments around the world have imposed taxes on sugar, not to raise money, but to stop drink manufacturers routinely putting up to 8 teaspoons of sugar in each can. And it works.

No state or federal government dare stand up to the gambling industry, particularly poker machines.

In the past nine years, Australia’s educational standards – on objective national and international measures – have continued to fall. It is directly due to Federal Government incompetence. It squanders money on private schools which would still educate their children well without the money. And it starves poorer public schools who with a little extra money would dramatically educational performance.

The Government is irrigating well-watered garden beds while plants are dying in the water-starved ones.

The result is poorer economic performance.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison uses the term “strong economy” time and time again. But for him “strong economy” means higher national income and higher corporate profits, and only in the short term. 

It is all measured and expressed in absolute monetary terms. No account is made for later environmental costs. Land is cleared and waterways are dammed and ravaged without concern for the costs downstream.

Indeed, the Coalition is such a bad economic manager it does not even care about the economic costs, let alone the environmental ones.

This month, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, when questioned about the cost of the proposed Dungowan Dam in his electorate near Tamworth, said, “We’re not asking for a return, so we’re not really interested in the business case.”

The cost has nearly doubled from $484 million. Who is squandering voters’ money now?

No account is made for the distribution of the wealth. Sure, everyone should be able to make a buck, but high inequality results in overall poorer economic performance. 

Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has put the kibosh on the trickle-down theory. “Trickle down” is the idea that tax cuts for the rich result in them investing more in production thus the wealth trickles down to the workers. 

Stiglitz points out that tax cuts to the rich generally end up in unproductive investment in things like property and shares, rather than new investment. Money directed at the lower end, however, gets spent in the economy immediately (they can’t afford to save it). This promotes demand, more production and more wealth generation.

So, what is the Coalition offering? More tax cuts for the rich – which will just trickle into passive investments. It is very poor economic management.

And finally, let’s come to corruption, in its broadest sense. When governments direct money to mates or favourite projects or regions, it takes money away from more productive projects.

In the past four years, the Auditor-General has highlighted this misallocation of resources in an array of grants programs. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered on grants and projects which have not met economic-value testing, on ministerial say-so.

The exposure of money wasted on car-parks, roads to nowhere, and projects that should be done by local government in marginal electorates since 2013 should have resulted in a shameful retreat from this practice of fuzzy corruption.

Instead, the Budget papers reveal that $17 billion is to be shamelessly blown away during the election campaign. This is not prudent management of public money or the good economic management that the Coalition prides itself upon.

Just before the election was called the Government announced the appointment 19 people to the Administrative Appeals tribunal, six of whom have direct links to the Liberal Party, mostly former MPs or Liberal staffers.

It was just the most recent example of a litany of political hacks being appointed to expert government boards, authorities and tribunals for which they are either unqualified or not as qualified as candidates who would have applied if there had been an open advertised process.

In performance reviews, political appointments are found wanting much more often than non-political ones.

All up, instead of the usual bidding war of fistfuls of dollars this election, why can’t we have a bidding war on measures for cleaner, fairer government. It may be our last chance before this sort of conduct becomes the new accept normal.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 12 April 2022.

4 thoughts on “More than a fistful of dollars”

  1. Who were the other 13 AAT appointments if they were not Liberal hacks as you suggest?

  2. Thank you for reminding us of the litany of incompetancies foisted on us by the ‘government you can trust’.
    Sadly there will be no blowback from the opposition regarding the French submarine fiasco. Labor will not disturb the ‘lock step’ with the government over national security. Regardless, the decision for nuclear submarines has been made and it is pointless to rehash it. Of paramount importance will be the feasibility study under Vice Admiral Mead. On this will rest a generational commitment or another failed defence project. Let us therefore sheath our swords until the report’s release.

  3. I once read a study which argued that nations that rely on resource extraction become corrupt. Australia was highlighted as the outlying exception. Alas, we are trending towards the mean.

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