Paul Keating was not the only veteran of bruising political battles to offer free advice last week. Ken Henry, head of treasury during the Howard and Rudd years, spoke to the Tax Institute. The speech was highbrow. His jokes veered dry: “There is no point planting a seed in a desert when what is needed is continental-scale reforestation.” But amidst the thicket of facts and words, Henry made some sharp points.
Illustration by Joe Benke.Credit:
When it came to tax breaks, old people were winning. Young people were being done over. The “intergenerational social compact” would fracture. We had to collect more tax. Incrementalism was not useful: it simply “set up a single target on a battlefield occupied by well-resourced attack forces”. Henry was too polite to quite say so, but all this boiled down to a harsh critique of the state of Australian politics and the Albanese government’s approach so far. Much more needed to be done and if something didn’t change soon, Australia was stuffed.
Henry’s arguments about the scale of policy changes that are necessary aren’t new. Similar points have been made by experts like Rod Sims and Danielle Wood. To a fair extent, they are even accepted – at least theoretically – by both the treasurer and the head of his department. And yet, there is a sense that such facts exist in a universe parallel to the one in which Australian politics is actually conducted. They are deferred to in much the way people these days reference biblical parables: nice to say, everyone agrees in their beautiful truths, but nobody really believes you can live that way.
They have not, in other words, done the slightest bit of damage to the consensus that continues to prevail among the hardbitten practitioners of politics, including MPs and journalists: that reform is hard, incrementalism is smart politics and deserves applause. Find a way to increase revenue by $50 billion a year, as Henry suggests? Ha. Ha.
If this divide between reality and the way our political class behaves feels familiar, it might be because this was the hallmark of the Morrison years, when facts often seemed, above all, an inconvenience. And perhaps this sense of déjà vu is not surprising, given that – as deputy director of The Australia Institute Ebony Bennett pointed out at the weekend – much of the government’s approach now is a result of its attempt to minimise political attacks in opposition. So far, its small-target campaign has been seen largely as a mildly unfortunate encumbrance that will fade with time. We are beginning to get a sense of how dramatic its effect still is, and how long-lasting its effects might be.
Former treasury secretary Ken Henry didn’t sugarcoat the challenges facing Australia. Credit:Arsineh Houspian.
Which brings us to AUKUS – which, as Paul Keating reminded us last week, was supported by the Labor opposition within 24 hours of being briefed, a consequence of that small-target strategy. Here, as in the budgetary space, there is a consensus on basic facts.
The conventional wisdom is that the future is highly uncertain. There is general agreement that the previous government’s approach to China was cartoonish. It is accepted, too, that Australia has an atrocious record when it comes to submarine procurement, and that, working alongside the US, we have made plenty of terrible decisions before (Iraq, Vietnam). But somehow these facts have become separated from the consensus of those same hard-bitten practitioners that AUKUS – a far-reaching submarine procurement decision conceived by Scott Morrison, made alongside the US and aimed at China – should be doggedly pursued.
Keating set out to shatter this consensus. For all his faults – most notably his embarrassing refusal to grapple seriously with the Chinese government’s mistreatment of Uyghurs – he succeeded in doing so. This raised questions about much of the media’s quiet acquiescence to AUKUS, but in fact the question it should raise about the state of public debate is far broader. Over the past year, this government has achieved acquiescence in three central areas: climate, tax and security. Its safeguard mechanism was apparently sensible, its super changes apparently significant, its AUKUS actions responsible. In each, there were widely-acknowledged facts that should have provoked deep scepticism among seasoned observers, but somehow didn’t.
The former prime minister Paul Keating set out to shatter the consensus view that AUKUS should be doggedly pursued. Credit:US Navy/ Kate Geraghty
The affair is a reminder of just how much power a government wields in anchoring a debate: merely by announcing policy it sends a strong signal about what the centre of debate should be. With time, that power ebbs as observers become more suspicious of a government: policies are more likely to be examined in relation to the reality they are supposed to confront. There has been much talk recently of an end to Albanese’s polling honeymoon. But Keating’s intervention last week – though it is unlikely he meant its effects to be this broad – should mark a much more significant moment in the life of this government: the moment it could not take a broad consensus on its essential wisdom for granted.
(Important caveat: it is not that there is no opposition to this government. There is plenty, much of it hysterical. What has been lacking is a willingness from the more reasonable sections of the media to intelligently interrogate the government on whether its solutions match its problems.)
This is especially important because of consensus on another issue. The public service, everyone agrees, has been hollowed out in recent years. The Robo-debt royal commission revealed massive problems. The logical assumption should be that the quality of advice our government is getting is not what it once was. Or is this another area where acknowledged facts are somehow quarantined from the way we talk about what is actually happening?
If the assumption is fair, then there is greater need than ever for serious contest in our public debate. Keating and Henry are not gods to be worshipped; their arguments are not irreproachable. There is reasonable debate to be had about the currency of their views. But perhaps the more important question for the political class – MPs, journalists, public servants, experts and staff – to ask itself is this: why is it we are still listening to these two men, long after their time in government? Might it be that they pushed at the boundaries of public debate, departing from consensus in order to ask what was necessary? That they refused to accept that reality and political debate should be kept at arm’s length from each other?
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