Reclaiming social justice


2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, 14 July 2015


The biggest challenge for Curtis Pitt will be keeping a straight face, if the leaks from the Queensland budget are anything to go by.

The Queensland Treasurer may be new to the game, but he has had plenty of sound advice from more experienced hands, including Keith De Lacy, a Labor predecessor, who told the ABC: “I don’t think there’s any option except to spend less money.”

Curtis, however, has a more cunning plan in mind, a measure he calls “balance sheet reform”. He’ll cut $4.1 billion of government debt and paste it on the bottom lines of the state-owned power companies. Ergon, Energex and Powerlink have “lazy balance sheets”, claims Pitt. Their debts are too low so he’s determined to help them out. And the $600 million it will cost to service the debt for the next four years will be paid by the energy companies, not the taxpayer.

That, at least, is the theory. Naturally, the energy companies will want to pass on the cost to its consumers, who are the people of Queensland. Which will be tough on the 26,636 customers who had the power cut off last year because they couldn’t pay.

Two months ago, Energy Minister Mark Bailey was ripping into the previous government for pushing power prices “through the roof”. Pitt now wants to push them into orbit. Which bring us to question why the good people of Queensland decided to vote these characters in. They knew Labor would be hopeless with money. You’d have to go back to the 1980s to find a poll in which a Labor leader was preferred to manage the economy. Education? Tick. Health? Tick. Finances? You’ve got to be joking. That’s not really Labor’s thing.

Annastacia Palaszczuk has more political talent than her opponents allow but it would not be too harsh to note economics is not her strong point. In one election interview she could not remember the rate of the GST, which was, to say the least, surprising, since her cash-poor state depends on it. What should we conclude about the mood of an electorate that knowingly elects an economically challenged government and evicts one that was putting the finances in order? Don’t Queenslanders care about the budget? Or perhaps they do want an economically literate government but they want a human government even more, one that understands a strong economy is not an end in itself but a means to an end, and what really matters are the less tangible commodities such as hope, opportunity and security.

The realisation that the days of chest-thumping, Friedmanite government is over is dawning on centre-right parties around the world.

Among the unexpected legacies of the Thatcher-Reagan years is an obsession with numbers and a delusion that anybody, apart from the political class and the captains of industry, gives a toss about reform. On the whole people don’t. In fact they find the word off-putting, which is why a successful reformer such as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key seldom utters the word.

Key’s record has set the benchmark for reforming centre-right government. It’s not just what Key has managed to do but that he managed to get re-elected after he’d done it, and with an increased majority.

The case for more human government is made by Steve Hilton, a former adviser to David Cameron, in a new book, More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First. For Hilton, the need for a vibrant economy goes without saying. But governments have come to see economic indicators as ends in themselves, “forgetting that ‘the economy’ represents something deeper, more important; our actual lives as they are lived”.

“Basing everything on numbers pushes government policy towards mechanical, bureaucratic systems rather than more organic approaches that put people first,” he argues. The task of government, says Hilton, is to lay the infrastructure, social and physical, that will allow people to live happy, healthy and flourishing lives.

“That doesn’t mean ignoring economics, or pretending there’s no need to balance the books,” he writes. “But it does mean describing economics in human terms, making sure that the books we’re trying to balance truly reflect our human priorities, not just the ­arcane and somewhat random accidents of economic history.”

Hilton’s emphasis on the mor­ality rather than the mechanics of policy is hardly novel. The Liberal Party’s founder, Robert Menzies, said a prime minister’s aim should be to establish a country that was both prosperous and just. Menzies promised “a wiser control of our economy” but he also spoke of “a keener sense of social justice and social responsibility”.

Menzies’ 1950s rhetoric sounds slightly shocking in 2015 (who’d have thought Ming read The Guardian?). Today’s morality tales usually come from the Left. Queensland Labor’s state policy platform is weak on policies but rich in sentiment, peppered with endorsements for a kinder, ­gentler Labor.

“Labor puts people before profits,” says Shirley from the Sunshine Coast. “Labor cares about everyone and not just those who can look after themselves,” says Therese of Bardon.

Labor may be divided on many things but it boasts a unity ticket on compassion; it is in favour of it. Everyday in sound grabs and press releases it seeks to persuade us that its opponents are not.

It is an absurd proposition, but it requires the Liberal Party to push back.

Menzies might be surprised to learn how casually the Right has ceded the language of social justice to the Left.

He might suggest they look to their centre-right counterparts in Wellington and London and work out a plan to steal it back.