In the course of 2014, around 70 women and children will have died at the hands of a partner, ex-partner or father. We don’t know exactly how many, because governments across Australia don’t keep uniform sets of data, but we know roughly how many based on historical data.
Domestic homicide, however, has been “normalised”. We accept it as an inevitable consequence of relationships, that some men will murder their spouses or ex-spouses or children. “Two people who couldn’t work out their differences, and it’s ended in a tragedy,” a Victorian policeman said about a woman murdered by her husband this week just days after an protection ordered expired, as if killing your spouse were a mere agreement to disagree.
Domestic homicide and domestic violence more generally isn’t natural or normal. It occurs at different rates in different countries. The victims of violence, women, men and children, can be supported by the community. Programs targeting men — particularly young men and boys — to shape their attitudes toward women and families, their capacity to handle stress and communicate emotions lack longitudinal study as to their efficacy, but while that research is being done and such programs tested, victims of violence can be assisted through provision of services, shelter and resources. The level of domestic violence and domestic homicide thus becomes, to a significant extent, a policy choice we make as a community, reflecting how much we’re willing to direct to addressing it.
Indeed, most causes of death, injury, illness or economic damage in Australia are, to a greater or lesser degree, policy choices we make based on allocating limited resources. We’ve all got to die of something, but what, and when, are influenced by both personal decisions and the resources we allocate — the medicines we subsidise, the infrastructure we build and maintain, the services we fund. Electing to not subsidise, build and fund is every bit as much a policy decision. How we die, the way we get sick, how efficient our economy is at maximising community welfare, are decisions we make ourselves, or fail to make.
In a political system like ours, however, allocation decisions aren’t rational, but a contested process in which different interests seek to skew decisions. Indeed, that’s true of any political system, and democracies are the least worst because they tend to be more transparent and accountable. But the process still yields sub-optimal results. Australian policymakers have performed strongly over the last 30 years and have delivered over two decades of economic growth, making us significantly wealthier.
But we also have irrational policy settings unsupported by evidence: we wasted billions on a car industry; we continue to subsidise fossil fuel industries despite the long-term damage they cause; we allow large companies to get away with not paying tax; we arbitrarily ban some drugs but not others; we arbitrarily ban some adults from marrying but not others, etc, etc. And we spend more money than we used to on domestic violence at a Commonwealth level, but only a fraction of what we spend on, to pick some random areas, welfare to middle-income earners, or espionage, or counter-terrorism, or national broadcasting. Despite those 70 victims, year in, year out.
Much of the politics of 2014 has been about the gap between clear reason and the allocation decisions produced by our democracy, and in particular by a government representing the interests of business. That gap was sizeable enough that it swallowed up the Abbott government entirely for much of the year, and it has left it badly damaged midway through its first term. Next year will be the story of whether it can recover, or whether Tony Abbott will need to be moved aside.
“Unlike Labor, this government had the country’s dominant newspaper company in its corner the whole way in its efforts to sell the budget, and it still failed.”
The gap principally opened up with the budget. More so than normal, the government sought to make the budget the centrepiece of its 2014 agenda, not merely because there’s a legitimate task of returning to surplus over the medium term but because the Coalition is perceived as the better economic and fiscal manager. But this approach began to go wrong weeks before the budget. Details began leaking — some intentionally, others less so — of draconian tax and spending measures. The National Commission of Audit, concluded months before, was held close until just days before the budget, then released, then publicly abandoned. We’ve forgotten now how that audit was a key component of the government’s pre-election economic policy: a proper audit would provide the government with a roadmap for genuine savings and substantial reform to reduce the size of government. But the document itself lasted til the end of the press conference Joe Hockey gave to announce it. Then it was binned, its contents so politically radioactive the report is now a no-go area.
When the budget itself emerged — so soon afterward that some voters actually confused it with the audit — it too was politically toxic, but on an altogether more industrial scale. Only, it took the government the best part of six months to realise it. Voters knew it instantly, even before Joe Hockey started pumping hands at the end of his budget night speech. Some of the allocation decisions at the heart of the budget deeply aggrieved voters: making them pay for GP visits, loading them and their children with six-figure debts to obtain a university degree, trying to starve young unemployed back into work, raising the level of tax on fuel. And, most of all, that a government that had sworn it would never break its promises, even if facing a worse-than-expected budget situation, had broken them with a kind of manic glee.
Normally the way to bridge the gap between allocation decisions and both voter and policymaker scepticism is persuasion. In our democracy, particularly in its post-1990s form as a contest of rent-seekers, different interests seek to persuade policymakers, as well as policymakers seeking to persuade voters. But the government appeared not only incapable of persuading anyone — even its own backbench — of the merit of its decisions, its efforts appeared to alienate voters, with the government’s polling, and the Prime Minister’s personal polling, steadily falling away into winter.
This wasn’t merely an issue of poor communication, although that was significant enough. The government insisted it faced a dire fiscal outlook that justified breaching faith with voters on its promises, and yet the government also busied itself slashing its own revenue, depriving itself of billions of dollars from the carbon price and mining tax and reversing the limited moves Labor had commenced to wind back super tax concessions, which cost several more billion dollars. Mining companies, large corporations, high-income earners all appeared to have a privileged spot at the table, especially when the government defied a steady drip of revelations about misconduct by big bank financial planners to persist in trying to repeal the Future of Financial Advice consumer protection.
But more than just the poor policy produced by a government too influenced by ideology and rent-seekers is the continuing diminution of the capacity of our political class to explain themselves and any policy that isn’t unthinking opposition. It happened to Labor in government, which found itself unable to explain itself to voters, and the same helplessness now besets the Coalition; at the last joint party room meeting of the year, MPs were urged to go out to their electorates and explain the government’s successes to voters — something ministers, from Tony Abbott down, had been unable to do throughout the year. Part of that problem is that the media is a far more fragmented space than even a decade ago, making effective communication much harder. But unlike Labor, this government had the country’s dominant newspaper company in its corner the whole way in its efforts to sell the budget, and it still failed.
This learned helplessness arises from the now nearly dead tradition within Australian political parties of vigorous policy debate, which trains politicians and future politicians in the art of trying to seek agreement on complex issues, and the modern media management technique of emphasising a single unified political message, which is necessarily simplified, un-nuanced, an argument that can be reduced to the three or four talking points that an MP can remember at doorstops. Some of the policies disliked by voters were entirely rational ones — especially the fuel excise indexation and, arguably, the GP co-payment. Both remain opposed by voters. It bodes very ill for the tax debate that will unfold next year, not merely for the government, which will have to discuss policies that may — quelle horreur — have losers, and possibly powerful losers, but the national interest, which requires a debate closer to a rational, informed one than one dominated by rent-seekers.
Around two-thirds of the way through the year, a focus on national security and an international tragedy that claimed dozens of Australian lives, well handled by the Prime Minister and Julie Bishop, briefly arrested the government’s polling slide. But by year end it had, if anything, grown worse. Moreover, despite the Prime Minister’s professed desire to remove “barnacles” from his government, in fact it appeared to be pressing on with the same policies on GP co-payments and higher education, and was even walking away from its own rhetoric about cracking down on multinational tax avoidance.
“Tragically, as the year drew to a close, we learnt that even with vast resources and unprecedented powers, our security agencies appeared to be unable to get the basics right …”
But if the irrationality – from voters’ perspective – of the budget was apparent to all, the irrationality of our obsession with terrorism was steadfastly ignored. Indeed, merely to point out that the billions directed at counter-terrorism was in contrast to the relatively limited amount of funding directed at phenomena that claim far more lives was to risk being accused of insulting the victims of terrorism and adopting an irresponsible do-nothing approach to the threat of extremist violence.
But the allocation of resources — including nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars in extra funding mid-year — and powers to security agencies reflects the same skewed decision-making process that gave us the budget, the repeal of FOFA and mining companies controlling tax policy. Intelligence agencies and the AFP in fact are even better placed than the banks and mining companies, because they can place a protective veil (not a hijab, please) of “national security” over their lobbying, which they’re allowed to conduct entirely out of public gaze. They also have the benefit of the self-reinforcing nature of the War on Terror. Western governments, military establishments, security agencies, private defence contractors and the mainstream media all benefit from the perpetuation of terrorism, and far from making us safer, undertake and promote policies that merely create new generations of angry and alienated extremists who will provide the ongoing justification for more spending and more powers.
Tragically, as the year drew to a close, we learnt that even with vast resources and unprecedented powers, our security agencies appeared to be unable to get the basics right, leaving even their political masters deeply concerned at their competence. But a brief study of terrorism in the West since September 2001 will show that the few successful terrorist attacks that have occurred have often occurred despite security agencies having extensive information about the perpetrators in advance. An inquiry is now underway into whether Man Monis can be added to this tragic list.
Meantime, Australians continue to die from a range of other causes, all of which can be affected by the allocation of resources. As a society, we make a decision to spend many more times the money we dedicate to domestic violence on terrorism, the same sort of irrational allocation we saw in the budget, but voters don’t notice it, and it’s in the mainstream media’s interests not to, because domestic violence, or the poorer health of indigenous Australians, or workplace fatalities, or preventable diseases, don’t get rolling coverage, live blogs and hysterical headlines. In rare moments, the gap between rationality and reality becomes apparent; with Man Monis it was demonstrated – a mentally ill perpetrator of violence toward women, including his former partner, not taken seriously enough by either the criminal justice system or security agencies, begging the question of whether the hideous, agonising loss of two people in Sydney could have been avoided.
But normally the consequences of such misallocations aren’t on such gruesome display. They surround us, and we don’t see them, or we accept them as “normal”, or don’t connect them to policy decisions, particularly because most of us live in cities. Thus, we don’t see poor health services in regional and rural communities, or the high rates of workplace fatalities in industries like agriculture, or use poorer roads that claim more lives, or higher rates of suicide among certain groups (suicide among non-indigenous Australians has fallen significantly in recent years, but have remained the same for indigenous Australians). These are not problems that can be “solved” by more money, but they can be improved — if they sat higher in our priorities, closer to where a rational assessment of their importance would suggest . Assuming, of course, that minimising the deaths and maximising the health of our citizens should be the principal goal of public policy, along with their economic wellbeing.
This year, then, has been a rotten year on this score, the worst we’ve seen for a long time. It is the entire country, not just the government, that has fallen into the gap between rational debate and self-interested misallocation. It’s not just Tony Abbott clambering desperately to get out of the hole — we’re in there with him. Let’s hope we all haul ourselves back into the light in 2015. But don’t count on it.