Christian Kerr writes:

“Unseemly bickering is another term for
democracy.” Unfortunately, that’s the most immediately useful idea shadow
finance minister Lindsay Tanner has for his party at the moment.

Tanner presented a wonk’s delight in the
second of the Centre for Independent Studies’ The Policymakers lectures in
Sydney last night, “From Building to Learning: The Role of the State in the
Twenty First Century”.
Yup. Wonkery at that level, I’m afraid:

We often ignore rising affluence, because it’s
incremental… It’s easy to overlook the impact of rising living
standards, and base our expectations of government on a society which no longer
exists…The size of government is no longer the big issue. What governments
actually do is changing. The emphasis is shifting from building to learning,
from regulating to persuading, and from alleviating producer risks to
moderating family income changes…

The Howard Government has not reduced the role of
government, but merely reshaped it to support its own political objectives…

Where once we had child endowment and the
aged pension, we now have an extraordinary array of schemes and arrangements to
limit the economic effects of child-rearing, studying and ageing.

This ever more complex financial relationship
between individual families and the state raises significant issues of
individual responsibility and public sector efficiency.

The complex mess that we have
created to respond to these pressures is crying out for sweeping reform…

Great
stuff. Can’t argue with any of it. Read the full speech. There are some great
lines in there about the government running the family budget, how John Howard
is actually outspending Bob Hawke, about welfare churn, lurks and perks in tax
concessions and outrageous regional rots that we wouldn’t have seen in the hey
day of state socialism. And there’s this interesting part, too:

While many are still struggling to accept the shift in emphasis from
public ownership to regulation, a new shift is already beginning. Regulation is
being augmented by advocacy and exhortation. The future state will rely more on
persuasion and less on compulsion. The soft power of governments might be
commonly used in international affairs but it is still largely untapped in the
domestic sphere. That’s now starting to change.

Tanner talks about “regulation
and exhortation” and how it can change our lives.

He stresses its value in
education, equipping Australia with the skills needed to meet the challenge of
the future. Tanner compares government to a football coach and us to the
players. The coach encourages us, but we have to participate.

Nice idea. The talk about
education being better than regulation was good to – that is, it’s better to teach
consumers about rip-offs than “regulating financial services within an inch of
its life”.

Tanner’s an optimist. He believes
in reform and believes that we will rise to the challenges of reform. He talks
about how Labor managed to implement the great economic reforms of the Eighties
and get re-elected, how John Howard survived the introduction of the GST. “If
politicians try, Australians by and large will step up to the plate.”

But back to that first line we
quoted. “We often ignore rising affluence, because it’s incremental.” Tanner
rightly rejoices in the better living standards economic growth have given to
ordinary Australians while recognising its environmental and social impact.

He also
recognises that much of what he talks about is incremental, or hard to quantify.
He talks about the remarkable drop in our national road toll over the last
thirty years. He sees that as product of the “regulation and exhortation” by
government he talks about. And he asks which politician can claim credit for
it.

The
answer is none. It’s all too incremental. Great stuff. Now, how to turn it into
a soundbite…

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW