Wednesday, 28 May 2014

My Budget Blues

Homeless woman in Wilshire Boulevard bush shelter, LA 2007
I did say last time that I'd be writing about authors and publishing, a subject dear to my heart.  But then the Abbott government brought down its first-term budget and I’ve scarcely been able to think of anything else.  ‘Brought down’ is the curious traditional phrase for a government announcing how they intend to spend our money, but it seems that Abbott and Co are hell bent on bringing down the country as well.

I became an Australian citizen in 1972, some fourteen years after I migrated.  By then I was convinced that I couldn’t return to my native America, that I was Australian by powerful circumstance.  It would have been unfair to take my four Australian-born children away from their Australian father, or their Australian grandparents, who had played such a big part in their lives.  But it was more than that.  There was so much I liked about Australia. 

There was a lot I hadn’t liked – the amazing sexism, for one, though we didn’t have that word for it then, and hadn’t got to the point to openly prosecuting the deep underlying misogyny.   There was the heavy censorship of films and books.  Although it was forever denied, to the outsider there was a readily perceived and well-delineated class system.  The treatment of Aborigines couldn't have been worse, though for someone brought up in racist America that in itself was no surprise.  There was the infamous White Australia Policy, more blatant if no worse than what applied in America, and a certain small-mindedness I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  After a while I realised what it was: the country’s notorious, lamentable cultural cringe.  

But still, fresh from Los Angeles in 1958, I was amazed by many things.  Most of all by a country built on the idea that government had a vital role to play in sustaining the lives of ordinary people.

I was amazed by Sydney’s marvellous public transport, especially the trains. I took them to my night classes at Sydney University, something that was available then to part-time students like me.  We paid my fees by monthly instalment, and though they took a chunk out of my labourer husband’s pay envelope, it was do-able.  I was astounded too by the affordable medical care.  It cost less for him to take me to Australia to have our first child here than it would have had we remained in the US.  And he had told me before arriving that I would never see a fat person here, and much to my astonishment he was right.  People of all ages played some kind of sport; they weren’t content to merely watch it, as they were in America.  In any case, professional sportsmen made nothing like the money they got in the States.  And as for my baby, I was assisted for free by the nurses at the local infant health clinic, formidable, bossy women who nonetheless deserve high praise for steering an unbelievably ignorant young woman through the many vicissitudes of mothering. 

I was dismayed by the cost of manufactured goods but didn’t understand how necessary the policy of import substitution was in encouraging local manufacture and hence providing jobs.  In fact, I knew next to nothing about economics, micro or macro.  All that changed when in 1974, two years after I became a citizen, I went to work in the prime minister’s department as the head of its new women’s unit.  That was my crash course in how economies worked.  The Whitlam government came to office on a mandate for social reform but their efforts were hobbled by their own inexperience, the 1973 oil crisis, and eventually by the constitutional crisis when the opposition used their majority in the senate to block the government’s supply.          

Australia now has over twice the population it had in 1958, and its more enlightened immigration policies have dramatically changed its ethnic composition, so it’s unsurprising that my adopted country would be no longer recognisable as the one I came to all those years ago.  But there's another reason, more to do with that persistent cultural cringe.  The monarchy and its paraphernalia notwithstanding, Australia's focus has shifted further and further from Britain to the US - ironically for me, the country I left behind.

There are so many ways in which Australia has been Americanised that it would take another post to go into them all.  The salient point here is that, despite a majority of young Australians feeling okay about hanging onto a British queen or king (essentially because Prince William and Kate are beautiful, adored celebrities), their eyes are firmly on America.  It’s New York, not London, they yearn to go to now, and it’s America that our politicians too, at least the ones in charge, appear to want to emulate.

While Britain's Thatcher was the first to implement free market fiscal policies, Reagan, the Hollywood actor president, wasn’t long behind.  For after all it was in my native country that the ideological basis for modern market capitalism was formulated and from where it spread.  It’s a little publicised fact but it was actually the Whitlam government that first took rigorous steps to rein in government spending in the wake of Milton Friedman’s landmark visit in early 1975, and by 1983, when the Hawke Labor government was voted in, opening up our markets was an established aim of both our major parties.  The postwar policy of import substitution that had helped built up industry in many countries, especially here in Australia, had become an economic blasphemy.

Aside from the GFC, the most serious long-term outcome of blind adherence to market economics in both the US and Britain has been the dramatic growth in inequality.  The Chinese demand for our minerals created an unprecedented boom in Australia, but crucial public expenditure on transport, housing, health and education was neglected while parties wooed voters with tax cuts.  That’s how the venerated ‘surplus’ was achieved under Howard and Costello, which left us with a gaping shortfall in vital services and infrastructure.  The Keynesian blip adopted under Rudd saved us from the worst effects of the GFC, but the Coalition has consistently dismissed this, maintaining that there was no threat of the GFC here and that Labor has created an economic crisis with projected expenditures on health, education and disability support.  Like most of the Coalition's assertions  (the big one being that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change) these claims are easily contested, but Abbott's relentless demagoguery worked and got them back in office.          

Yet the budget has seen the government lurch further to the right than any of us could of imagined, clinging to 'trickle-down' economics, the dangers of which are being dramatically played out elsewhere in the world.  To put this ideology in place, promises have been broken. What’s worse they’re trying to tell us they weren’t promises, wagging their fingers and calling us ‘whingers’ if we don’t happen to agree.  But the scariest thing has been the revelation of a vision for Australia that is meaner, more short-sighted and backward-looking than anything earlier conservative governments have stood for.  

Under the banner of saving future generations from a largely misrepresented debt, they are lopping off one opportunity after another for our young people and subjecting them and any children they might have to the harsh consequences of unmitigated climate change.  There’s an appalling lack of consistency in all this, and no reduction in the deficit.  They will build roads that few will afford to drive on, instead of the high speed rail networks and efficient public transport we need.  They will spend money on school chaplains and dodgy US fighters, and a substandard national broadband that will go nowhere near coping with 21st-century demands. 

I could go on, but your eyes will begin to film over as I pile on instance after instance.  Suffice it to say that, dames and knights and visiting royals aside, it’s America our government is looking towards.  They’ve bought the whole kit and caboodle – big business, small government, ‘Christian’ values, ‘illegal’ immigrants, decaying infrastructure, homelessness, rigged education, and high-tech medical services no one but the well-off can afford.   A society riddled with the woes of inequality,  all of  it represented in this horror of a budget.  If it gets through the senate intact, Australia will be truly unrecognisable -  unquestionably the 51st American state, and one of the poorest, least competitive, and socially dysfunctional at that. 

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