Daily Archives: 11 August 2012

Laura Tingle’s Great Expectations

Laura Tingle, Great expectations: Government, entitlement and an angry nation (Quarterly Essay Issue 46, 2112)

In 1965, my classmates and I helped to fight the terrible Chatsbury/Bungonia bushfire in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. I vividly remember a woman whose house had been burned down crying out in rage and distress, ‘I’ll never vote Labor again!’

It’s easy to mock such blame-the-guvmint mentality, and we did. We weren’t without compassion, but we were 18 years old and not very forgiving.

But these days – I grow old, I grow old – the misogyny, anti-science and book-burning that characterise our blame-the-guvmint discourse feel too serious for mockery. In this riveting Quarterly Essay, not a cheap shot in sight, Laura Tingle brings decades of experience as a political journalist to bear and argues that they are the symptoms of a deep, longstanding and unfaced confusion over what we can expect from the government, a confusion that has been pushed to something like crisis point by the economic rationalist reforms introduced by Hawke and Keating, extended and exploited by Howard, and maintained, with some ineffectual backtracking, by Rudd and now Gillard.

To diagnose the confusion, she goes back to the autocratic/paternalistic beginnings of the colony of New South Wales and the development of its democratic institutions, drawing on historian John Hirst – Convict Society and its Enemies and The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy. The glimpses she gives of his books make them seem like ideal contrapuntal readings for the late Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore: the vicious brutality Hughes describes was far from being the whole story – for many if not most convicts the colony provided much greater opportunity than they would have if they had not been transported. For example, the children of convicts had access to public education well before children of similar class background in Britain.

The history is interesting. The essay’s thesis is lucidly argued. As we come closer to the present time, the narrative takes on an authoritative feel – Tingle never says it in so many words, but there’s an ‘I know this, I was there’ edge, especially to her account of Howard’s and Rudd’s prime ministerships. Her conclusion:

Australians will be forced in the next decade to consider what level of government intervention we really want and what form it should take. That will require us to forge a much more explicit new settlement, a much clearer social contract than the one we have had to date. We must assess what level of government intervention works in an open economy and how best to deliver it. We will have to go back to the idea that government assistance is on a needs – not an entitlements basis [a change brought about largely by Howard’s strategy of bribing the electorate] and work out which needs we are prepared to support. Our politicians will have to face up to the question of what governments can realistically promise – and what they can no longer pledge to provide – and change their messages accordingly.

I’m looking forward, as always to the correspondence about this essay. It would be good to see a Marxist response, though on past showings there’s unlikely to be one. My own grasp of Marxism is pretty crude and old fashioned, but it seemed to me that what Laura Tingle calls variously ‘the world’ or ‘an open economy’ or ‘market forces’ is actually international capitalism – driven by profit to the exclusion of other considerations. What she calls government paternalism is the role of government in restraining capitalism, protecting people from its ruthlessness. She traces the process by which we have been misinformed and bribed into accepting the dismantling of structures that served the common interest and replacing them with for-profit structures. People’s anger, then, comes not so much from an unreasonable sense of entitlement, as from an intuition that behind the confusing smokescreen of economic techno-talk, and in spite of the many handouts of the Howard era, something valuable has been lost.