Sunday, 25 March 2012

Abbott the Ravager

Prior to the Labor leadership ballot in February, Kevin Rudd said the following:

"And they are the millions of Australians who depend on us to form a Labor government and to prevent Mr. Abbott from inflicting on Australia the ravages of the most extreme right wing government that the country will have ever seen."

It is remarkable how often you hear this sort of thing from Labor frontbenchers - you would think that the government's foremost raison d'ĂȘtre is to prevent Tony Abbott from becoming Prime Minister.  Aside from say, actually governing.

But in any case, for a man who is so often accused of being a rabid right winger, and of secretly harbouring an intense desire to reinstate Work Choices, Tony Abbott really does seem to lack a deeply felt, instinctive sympathy for liberal economics.

Consider the Opposition Leader's pet paid parental leave scheme, which he resolutely clings to despite dissatisfied rumblings from within his party room.

The pure argument, from the perspective of classical liberals, would posit that parents should ensure they are able to support a child financially before deciding to have one.  It would argue that it is unfair on those who make a conscious decision to be childless that they are forced to fund the choices of others.

Is it a nice idea, that a new parent should be granted money without labour, simply by virtue of being a parent?  Certainly.

But is it fair?  Too often the word 'fair' is hijacked so that it may be attached to ideas that are simply 'nice'.

In any case, whether you believe a paid parental leave scheme is necessary or nice, Mr. Abbott has proposed a scheme which is far more generous than the government's.  Which, coming from a leader of the Liberal Party, can only mean one thing - Mr. Abbott is, in this instance, sacrificing liberal economics in order to play politics.

Combine this with the report today by Stephanie Peatling that the Opposition Leader is planning to extend the childcare rebate to cover nannies:

One of Mr. Abbott's first acts in a Coalition government would be to ask the Productivity Commission to examine how much it would cost to extend the childcare rebate for in-home-care, such as nannies, in recognition that existing arrangements do not meet the needs of many families.

The idea that it is the government's job to 'meet the needs' of families does not conform with the spirit of economic liberalism any more than Kevin Rudd's stimulus conformed with the spirit of fiscal conservatism.

Our tax system is already littered with measures which are designed to ease the burden on struggling families - many of which are not even means tested.

It would be easy to accuse Mr. Abbott of using these issues in an attempt to gain political advantage, and such a critique would be fair to a point.  Much has been written about the Liberal leader's supposed problem with female voters - is it any coincidence that his most significant breaks from liberal orthodoxy have been on policies which concern women?

On the other hand however, many of the rebates and credits which are designed to help families are actually relics of the last Coalition government.  Were they proposed largely for the purpose of buying votes?  Perhaps.  But there is more to it than that.

John Howard was a Prime Minister who combined liberal economic views with a broader sense of social conservatism.  His underlying worldview emphasised the family unit as an essential building block of society - everything, in Mr. Howard's view, was rooted in family.

Thus Mr. Howard believed in using the powers of the state to protect and encourage the family unit, and this was reflected in his social spending.  Money was spent not on welfare or social justice, but on childcare rebates and the baby bonus.

Tony Abbott is in the same political family as John Howard - economic liberalism tempered by social conservatism.  The former Prime Minister showed all of us that this can be an electorally potent combination.

But Australia is currently in desperate need of a government with genuine fiscal restraint.  Mr. Abbott, should he one day become Prime Minister himself, needs to assemble a team of economic advisors who will be unafraid to reign in their leader's tendency towards conservative social spending.

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