Hockey Kicks Over The Too-Hard Basket

Set aside the question of short term political impact. Joe Hockey’s speech  to the Institute for Economic Affairs is welcome and long overdue on the issues alone. And when I say overdue, I mean decades overdue for anyone with an historical eye and economic understanding.

It is only now, after European and American financial failures – well, municipal and state failures in America, for now – that a single Australian political figure has had the courage to speak the obvious, rather than focusing on being liked. It would have been nice had Joe done so more consistently across his career.

It is clear our political system’s greatest failing is that the issues that really matter for our long-term prosperity and security are routinely flicked into the too-hard basket.

Political debate is dominated by deliberate misrepresentation, petty gotchas, false outrage, and attempts to pin a chain of negative adjectives in front a politician’s name. And by the classic public choice problem of vote-buying.

That is a huge disincentive to people motivated by policy and good government to get involved in politics at all.

On that point, consider the spin against the speech. Whether or not Joe’s references to Hong Kong welfare structures were politically sensible is irrelevant. It was illustrative only.

What was clearly politically sensible was putting the big issue for the next Coalition government on the table. For once I agree with Van Onselen  in the Oz: the Coalition needs to talk about this before being elected, and to bring the voters along on the debate.

We had a debate about Australia’s relation to the rest of the world in the early 1980s, led by a pragmatic and effective first term Hawke-Keating government. Now we need a debate about Australians’ relation to their own government.

The size and spending priorities of government are key issues for the next generation of governments worldwide. The split between those that fund government and those that live from it – public and quasi-public  sector workers – is the new fault line in privilege. Middle class welfare is too hidden and too often used to buy votes. Voters cannot assume the level and nature of the social safety net will keep expanding, so we have to talk about what it should look like.

One thing Joe could have added. Waste in the public sector is so large that shrinking government payrolls,and changing government to a policy, procurement and contract management organisation can go a long way to setting finances right in the short term.

But in the long term what really counts are Australian’s cultural expectations of government, and willingness to accept politicians that don’t promise them goodies all the time. That will take a lot of work. One speech, and one electoral cycle won’t go close.

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