One of the ironies of globalisation is that
a lot of domestic critics of the Howard government have imported their analysis
uncritically from international debates. For instance, Clive Hamilton writes
of “the economic rationalist view of the
world, which wants everything left to the market, even when the market
manifestly fails”.

While it is true that the Howard government
has followed international trends towards the privatisation of risk and the
individualisation of security, it’s quite wrong to describe the alleged Liberal
party as a supporter of the market, or as representative of a neoliberal
ideological position. The Hawke and Keating governments in fact much more
closely aligned policy to competition and to markets.

There’s endless evidence, if you attempt a class and
ideological analysis that actually fits the facts, that what the
Howard government is about is protection of special interests as opposed to
competition – or illiberal measures (such as WorkChoices) in pursuit of class
grudges. You could look at the absurdities and inefficiencies of the employment
services arrangements which are designed to buy off dissent (through propping
up and co-opting church agencies) and distribute wealth to private training
providers at the expense of awful policy and poor labour market outcomes for
the vulnerable. But what should open any academic or leftie’s eyes to the true
nature of the beast is the latest instalment in the farce that is
telecommunications policy.

As Stephen Mayne wrote in yesterday’s
Crikey: “Crikey has long argued against the dangers
of monopolies, oligopolies, cartels and concentrated corporate power – but when
was the last time the Howard Government died in a ditch for consumers or
genuinely facilitated greater competition in a market place?”

When indeed?

A rational approach to telecommunications
policy, as long argued by Lindsay Tanner, would see the renationalisation of
infrastructure and investment in things like fibre-optic broadband being a
matter for public provision, and access to networks equally available to any
retail competitor.

That would deliver both the social democratic aims of
equitable and inexpensive access for a wide range of citizens to communications
technologies and platforms, while also ensuring that the roles of public and
national purposes were safeguarded from purely commercial or self-interested
motivations. But it would also harness markets and competition to social uses,
while providing a genuine opportunity for innovation within those markets, as
opposed to deals for mates, which is far more the Howard government’s style.

It’s about time that people who are genuinely
concerned with both accurate critique of Howard-style economic and
social policy and with developing electorally attractive social
democratic
alternatives to it realised that the problem isn’t markets per se, but
a sort of
bastardised class mercantilism.