words of wisdom? volume two: the economy
The federal election campaign is now officially under way, which means we’ve been plunged headlong into the black hole of empty slogans, tired clichés, insidious euphemisms, half truths, and complete lies. But, hey, at least we’re all in it together.
There’s nothing like an impending election to lower the tone of political language and to muddy the waters of clear and informative discourse (except maybe the Murdoch press, zing!). This column is dedicated to the twists and turns of phrase uttered by politicians on the campaign trail, as viewed through the thick lenses of Toby Newton’s specs.
I tried to devote myself attentively to Sunday’s debate. I really tried. Instead the earnest, empty repetition of party slogans simply played as a rather annoying soundtrack to whatever menial tasks I ended up doing that evening. The chatter that did find its way into my earhole, however, seemed largely to regard the apparently woeful state of our national economy.
Now, I am certainly not an expert in matters economic, fiscal, or otherwise numerical, but I like to think I understand a little about politics, and despite what the major parties and national media outlets would have you believe, they are not one and the same.
Given the unrelenting focus on The Economy in this and previous election campaigns, you would be forgiven for thinking that a government’s primary responsibility, to the exclusion of nearly all else, is feeding, nurturing, and babysitting the national economy. This notion comes courtesy of the neo-liberal model that largely dictates the direction and tone of political debate here and overseas; a debate that comes with its own language, underlying assumptions, and standards by which value is assigned.
Without getting into a mind-numbing discussion of theoretical intricacies, at its most basic, neo-liberalism emphasises economic individualism, free competition, deregulation, privatisation and lower taxes as means to encourage economic growth and innovation. In the abstract, none of that is particularly terrible, of course, but when it becomes the dominant political model, it has the effect of limiting discussion around the extent of government’s role and responsibilities. Essentially, the neo-liberal, and thus largely unquestioned, assumption is that government’s primary job is that of caretaker and overseer, responsible only for lessening regulatory and tax burdens on business, and privatising public services and industries.
The language from both parties in this election campaign reflects their acceptance of the dominant paradigm and serves to reinforce it. One of the key talking points in Australian politics since the Global Financial Crisis has been the government deficit and the likely timeframe for a return to surplus. With the constant banging on about the surplus you might think that it is one of the most crucial concerns of the government. Certainly, it’s nice to have a bit of extra cash to play with, but the debate over the deficit/surplus disguises the fact that government perhaps should be more than simply a bank, acting as a savings deposit for the nation. Accumulating wealth is fine for private companies – it’s how they’re designed after all – but surely government is there in order to provide certain things to and for the nation beyond money. By placing the surplus at the centre of the agenda, debate about how the government utilises tax payer revenue is limited.
With both Labor and the Coalition making clear that a return to surplus is the ultimate priority, the political discussion is immediately limited to which party can get there first. So whilst lip service is paid to investment and services, the overarching goal is to drastically cut government spending. Proponents of the neo-liberal model argue that a government surplus promotes financial stability, which encourages investment, but it also ignores the often less tangible, longer-term benefits of investment in key infrastructure and services. Debt is maligned as if the money has literally been thrown away. In reality, its purpose is to fund projects that are designed to provide something more than short-term gains.
This constant focus on debt also hides the fact that Australia’s economy is in an exceedingly strong position. Having survived the GFC largely unscathed, the negativity of the language around the economy nevertheless plays into a climate of fear that suggests incorrectly that we’re in dire straits and that all we can do is tighten the purse strings and pray.
Of course, the focus on cutting government spending rather than raising revenue through taxation is similarly a result of the prevailing neo-liberal logic, according to which lower taxes encourage individuals and companies to succeed. Ignoring the bizarre notion that people or corporations will intentionally lower their profits simply to avoid moving into a higher tax bracket, taxes are understandably a hot political issue.
Like debt, the connection between the outlay and the outcome is erased by politicians promoting populist policies that appeal to voters’ back pockets and appease big business (alliteration!). The general assumption, reiterated again and again by the language of both sides, is that saving money through cuts to spending is better (more popular) than increasing revenue. For this reason Labor has been attacking the Liberal Party over fears that it will raise the GST in order to fund its policies. At the same time, Labor’s mining tax, which was expected to raise $3 billion last year, was watered down so much under pressure from the mining industry that it only raised about $126 million. The Liberals have vowed to scrap it, and despite its initial enthusiasm for a super profits tax, Labor has shown no interest in reviewing and fixing the legislation in order to close the loopholes and increase revenue.
Taxes, debt, spending = bad; cuts, surplus, profits = good – so goes the neo-liberal equation and the guiding assumptions of public debate regarding government economic policies. Instead of allowing discussion about how government can play a positive role in strengthening the foundations of our economy and our society, the current paradigm limits government’s job to one of feeding the economic beast and cleaning up its shit.
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