Doing it for ourselves

I’ve previously written about conservative politics being unconvinced about the very purpose of government. It is becoming clearer, through repeated example, that the Australian people are unconvinced about the very purpose of government.

The recent bushfires and the ongoing drought are just two of the more recent examples that show how Australians will step up to the challenge, dig deep, give generously and demonstrate just how all-round spiffy they are.

The point that gets forgotten in this ongoing round of self-congratulations is that they shouldn’t have to.

We maintain a government not because we desperately want somebody to rule over us, but because there are things in a modern society we should not have to do for ourselves.

At least some of us recognise this. If we look just a little below the surface of all the many examples of altruism, we can see an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

When Australians are able to make statements such as “They are facing catastrophic conditions. The town has been left to fend for itself”, when we read articles that “Volunteers are keeping Australians safe, not the Government”.  When we can seriously suggest that “We have reached a point where the long-running downgrading of our institutional apparatus of government means that the most efficient way of getting money out to people in desperate circumstances is via non-government organisations like Vinnies and the Red Cross” we need to ask if our government is doing the job we pay it for.

The bushfire crisis has been on the front page for a month or two. The ongoing drought crisis has been going much longer, and here also we see individuals stepping in where the government has not.

“I feel f—ing sick because I am taking honest people’s money and they shouldn’t be helping me. But 100 per cent, the government is where the money should be coming from.”

All this is just the latest symptom of a long-standing ideological disagreement about what government is for. Conservative governments have an ideological opposition to providing assistance.

The idea that governments should provide services such as healthcare and hospitals, education and schools, social security and welfare, is relatively recent in historical times. Prior to the 1700s all these services would be provided by the churches or not at all. Government’s role was to maintain law and order and support the armed forces, and that was about it.

If you look at modern-day Coalition budgets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what we’ve returned to. In any area you name the Coalition has, since its election in 2013, slashed and burned, cut and where possible dismantled. Government bodies have been merged, defunded or decommissioned. Public benefit projects like the NBN have been hollowed out and repurposed to avoid them becoming useful to the undeserving poor. Public benefits have been taxed, indexed and regulated into submission.

Coalition governments are welded onto the idea of privatising profits and socialising losses. That’s how they approach energy generation, mining, any provision of services where they can get away with it. And allowing the public to pay out of their own pockets what they should instead expect from the apparatus of State is the ultimate outcome of this ethic.

As I previously wrote:

Money to pay for education, fire services, health, broadband, has to come from somewhere. The social structures – primarily church – which previously might have supported these things no longer have the resources or the popular support to be able to take up the slack. Charities around the country are crying out for support and berating the government for not providing enough basic resources/support; something has to give. In this environment, the idea of “small government” doesn’t make sense.

The government has to be big enough to do the things that the monasteries aren’t around to do anymore.

Of course, the budget cuts that cut deepest are not the ones to frontline funding. The government has learned its lesson from Tony Abbott’s 2014 shocker budget: the Australian people do not like to see cuts to the bottom line of the ABC, of healthcare and social security and roads.

Instead the government makes budget cuts that are relatively invisible: slashing and burning a path through the public service. This allows them to crow that they are “increasing funds” to education, healthcare or other services, while concealing the fact that there’s nobody left in the responsible Departments to process the paperwork. So waiting lists blow out, but also, money is left unspent at the end of the financial year. Not because services don’t need it, but because those who needed it could not access it. Thus we have money left in the NDIS allocation that can be re-allocated to drought relief. Does anybody want to make a wager that this funding will be effectively used in a timely manner?

The Australian people want these services. They have come to expect them. But Coalition politicians just want to win elections, and they’ve convinced themselves (with some justification) that the way to win elections is to cut taxes. When they cut taxes, they can’t afford to pay for these services.

That’s when the beneficent Australian public – the battlers, the Quiet Australians – rise to the challenge. This is when we see crowdfunding campaigns to pay for playgrounds, to enable life-saving operations not covered by the PBS, to support art bodies that have lost their funding or to provide hoses and trucks and face masks to firefighters. And we give. Australians want these services and we’ve shown that we’re happy to pay for them.

This is evidence of a disconnect in the electorate. The same people who donate generously to charitable causes are often the same people who will cheerfully vote in a Coalition government and cheer on the hollowing-out of any ability or willingness Government might have to do its part.

Of course no politician ever saw a way of raising money they didn’t like.

Now we have political aspirants crowdfunding their election campaigns.

We have government bodies, starved of public funds, reduced to fundraising to be able to achieve the things their constituents want.

When we accept the thought of crowdfunding to pay for services that should come out of our taxes, we let governments off the hook. We allow the argument to be framed in terms of what we can afford. When we allow politicians to sway our votes on the basis of promised tax cuts, we should remember that in doing so we are contributing to a worldview in which governments don’t pay for firefighting, individuals do. Where governments don’t pay for healthcare, societal infrastructure: instead the market will provide.

But there are certain things only Government can do. Nobody can crowdfund a closure of coal power stations, or the building of solar farms. We can’t crowdfund an ETS into existence. How, practically, can we the people contribute to the things our Government ought to be doing for us?

Every time we see an article about What you can do to save the planet or confront a blog comment challenging you about how often you fly and whether you use light bulbs, this is contributing to the distraction campaign. Individuals, acting alone, cannot save us from global environmental collapse. Not while governments continue to support coal mining, gas exports, coal-fired power and the infrastructure that supports them.

So don’t let the government get away with claiming that it can’t afford to pay for these services. Don’t allow it to laud the efforts of well-meaning, altruistic Australians without demanding an explanation of why the private altruism was necessary. We have a government for the purposes of providing healthcare, emergency management, social welfare and a host of other social provisions that we can’t do on our own. We expect our government to provide these services without fear or favour, to the needy regardless of how loud or visible they are.

If our government is not doing these things, it is not fit for purpose. So why exactly does it exist?

(Co-posted on The AIMN)

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