The elevation of Simon and Sonya Dorries of Brisbane to national fame by Dennis Shanahan today is an elegant example of how colossally f-cked up our support payments system is and how utterly skewed political debate has become.

The Dorries, bless em, have 7 kids and one on the way. This it is well beyond even Peter Costello’s urging that couples have “one for the country”, and presumably no one pointed a gun at them and forced them to have so many kids.

Mr Dorries earns “a bit above $100,000”, but they see themselves as “the quintessential ‘working family’. To which the only sane response is WTF? Eight kids and a six figure income? The only thing that’s quintessential of is a gated community of Catholics.

According to Shanahan, Dorries “isn’t complaining” but goes on to lament that they will lose their Family Tax Benefit A due to changes in how his income is assessed.

Which should beg the question of why someone earning over $100,000 a year receives any welfare. Instead, it’s apparently evidence of how out of touch the Government is.

If the Dorries were so quintessential, they’d do what most families do – find a job for the non-employed partner. In an economy where firms are begging for more workers, Mrs Dorries would find a job, and a lot more money than their lost Family Tax Benefit, quick smart.

However, the sense of entitlement implicit in Shanahan’s piece doesn’t distinguish the Dorries. It’s pretty widespread across a lot of households, even if this family is unusual in its tendency to procreate (there’s already 7 billion people on the planet – a few more won’t hurt, surely). This is the one element of Mark Latham’s ongoing fulminations against “aspirationals” that is actually on the mark.

In a new era of inflation caused by fuel and food costs and the skills shortage, political debate in Australia is mired in a mindset that insists Government can and must do something. In the absence of a miraculous capacity to wish away the populations of India and China (while, somehow, preserving high levels of demand for our mineral exports), Governments can do nothing except ensure the economy is operating at its most efficient. To the extent that the Government is focussed on addressing infrastructure and skills issues, it is doing the right thing, even if Wayne Swan isn’t the best Government Minister to explain that story.

The demand that Governments do something isn’t peculiar to Australia, of course, as riots in Europe and SE Asia, and John McCain’s petrol stunt demonstrate. But it is exacerbated here by the previous Government’s deliberate tax-and-spend policies, which encouraged a sense of entitlement to government support that now drives the debate over petrol, groceries, child care – wherever prices are going up. The economic model advocated by the Hawke-Keating Government – an efficient market economy with minimal intervention and a strong but means-tested safety net, has been transformed by the Coalition into a Government-dominated model in which high taxes are churned into untested income support and handouts, and that can’t be changed without screams from the likes of the Dorries family.

There is, of course, one long-term solution to that mentality. A massive, and permanent, cut in taxes that would significantly reduce the size of government in Australia, and force any politician wanting to give handouts to voters to jack up taxes in order to pay for it. But the last time I checked, no one except a few thinktanks and The AFR were still pushing the case for small government in Australia.

We’ll be hearing a lot more from the Dorries of the country for years to come.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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