The central purpose of government in a democracy is to be the role model for, and protector of, equality and freedom and our associated human rights. They should set an ethical standard for the people to emulate.
Yet we are subjected to atrocious behaviour from our politicians. They seem to have no qualms about rorting expenses, using public money for political purposes or their position for personal gain, doling out jobs for the boys and girls and contracts without tender to mates, slandering their opponents and downright lying if they think it will help their cause. The behaviour in question time is appalling as are the seemingly endless stories about sexual harassment and assault.
That sets a bad tone for the country.
Economic responsibility should include protection from the negative consequences of free markets. The government must defend us against unscrupulous merchants and employers, and the extreme class structure that results from their exploitation.
Figures from the March quarter show that, even though more of the population was in work than ever before, the share of national income going to wages sunk to a near all-time low of 49.8%. Before COVID the wages share was 53%. At the start of the 2000s it was 56%.
During the first two years of the pandemic, the world’s ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes to $1.9 trillion, while over 160 million more people were forced into poverty.
Yet employers scream blue murder if asked to share increasing profits whether through wage rises or taxation. Wage theft and tax avoidance/evasion are rampant whilst governments chase spurious overpayments in welfare, make compliance with Jobseeker harder, and refuse to increase income support payments.
More often than not, governments put corporate interests in front of workers, consumers and the environment.
Allowing mining companies and irrigators to dictate water usage has led to dire environmental consequences. Water theft is ignored. Pollution breaches attract miniscule fines. Required environmental offsets are not adhered to. Unapproved earthworks to trap, and then sell, flood water have devastated properties with little consequence or delivered nothing for all the government money thrown at them.
Businesses fraudulently collected JobKeeper – no problem – yet nurses and teachers who kept working throughout the pandemic are fined for withdrawing their labour in order to campaign for more staff and wages that don’t go backwards.
Instead of society’s infrastructure, including roads, posts and telecommunications, and water, sewage and energy utilities remaining in public hands and solely dedicated to the common good, many such services have been privatised, increasing costs and reducing the quality of service to users as companies strive for ever higher profits for shareholders.
That such assets should have public ownership is expressed in the idea of the “commons.” They should be owned by and shared between the members of the current population, and preserved for future generations rather than sold off by politicians for a one-off sugar hit to a budget.
A privatised care sector with inadequate regulation and oversight has also been a disaster. I was astonished to hear Bill Shorten say that 90% of NDIS providers aren’t registered. I was also dismayed to find out when my mother went into aged care that there is no required staff to resident ratio.
When we owned the Commonwealth Bank, it could influence interest rates through competition. Medibank Private did the same thing with private health insurance costs. When we owned our air and sea ports, the government could control charges. All whilst returning a profit to public finances.
That an energy superpower like Australia is suffering soaring prices and threats of blackouts is a shocking example of lack of forethought in sacrificing an advantage to private profit.
John Howard sold off Telstra and put the money into a sovereign wealth fund established mainly to meet future liabilities for payment of superannuation to retired federal public servants. As of the end of March, total funds under the management of the Future Fund stands at $249bn – the golden egg fiercely guarded by a broody old Peter Costello. There is about $50 billion just sitting there in cash. The Emergency Response fund has $4.6 billion in it and the DisabilityCare Australia Fund, $14.5 billion. Surely we could find better uses for this money?
The housing crisis, both in affordability and supply, has been exacerbated by governments offering generous tax concessions to investors. They have also been remiss in oversight of development approvals. Suburbs are built without the social infrastructure to support them or, even worse, in areas at significant risk of flooding, bushfires or coastal erosion.
Political donations are shrouded in secrecy and lobbyists, many of them former politicians or staffers, have easy access and too great an influence on policy. Ministers are not required to tell us who they meet with or why.
We blithely ignore the social harm caused by gambling and alcohol, presumably because of the money governments collect from these powerful industries.
When governments have access to the best experts, the latest evidence and analysis and the benefits of a fiat currency, and yet these problems persist, it’s hard not to think that politicians think more about themselves than they do about making decisions in the best interests of the country.
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