'Aus­tralia is in trou­ble': ma­jor­ity me­dia and lob­by­ing de­stroy trust in pol­i­tics, Gar­naut says

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Gay Al­corn

The cri­sis in Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is less about the qual­ity of in­di­vid­ual politi­cians and more to do with the “ma­jor­ity me­dia” and busi­ness lobby groups drown­ing out the in­de­pen­dent cen­tre for their own self-in­ter­est, dis­tin­guished econ­o­mist, Prof Ross Gar­naut has said.

Gar­naut, speak­ing dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion at the 2018 Out­look Con­fer­ence in Mel­bourne, said the big eco­nomic re­form pe­riod of the 1980s came to an end with the ran­corous de­bate about the GST be­fore it was in­tro­duced in 2000, “fol­lowed by years in which ma­jor pol­icy change, re­form, in the na­tional in­ter­est be­came rare, more dif­fi­cult, and tem­po­rary”.

Gov­ern­ments since had at­tempted big re­forms, such as the Howard gov­ern­ment’s in­dus­trial changes, WorkChoices, the Rudd gov­ern­ment’s macroe­co­nomic poli­cies to avoid re­ces­sion dur­ing the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, and the Gil­lard gov­ern­ment’s cli­mate poli­cies from 2012, which were work­ing and “would have al­lowed Aus­tralian con­tri­bu­tion of its fair share to an in­ter­na­tional ef­fort with­out eco­nomic dis­rup­tion or sub­stan­tial cost”.

All were re­pu­di­ated, with the “macroe­co­nomic poli­cies that kept Aus­tralia out of re­ces­sion … shouted down by the ma­jor­ity me­dia and the then op­po­si­tion par­ties to an ex­tent that will cre­ate bar­ri­ers to Aus­tralia re­spond­ing wisely next time we face re­ces­sion­ary pres­sures from the global econ­omy”.

Gar­naut, a se­nior eco­nomic ad­viser to former prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke and au­thor of a land­mark re­view into the im­pacts of cli­mate change in 2008, told the con­fer­ence “Aus­tralia is in trou­ble”. A key rea­son was “a thin­ning of an in­formed, en­gaged, in­de­pen­dent cen­tre of our polity”.

“The ma­jor­ity me­dia and the busi­ness lob­bies have drowned out the in­de­pen­dent cen­tre, with rau­cous as­ser­tion of opin­ions that are con­ve­nient to their pri­vate in­ter­ests. The words that are shouted most loudly are now taken by their pro­po­nents as facts.”

Most dam­ag­ing to eco­nomic pol­icy was the “pro­mo­tion of cash-for com­ment eco­nomic mod­el­ling, where the truth is in­ci­den­tal to pro­mo­tion of out­comes that suit the pri­vate in­ter­ests that com­mis­sion them”.

He said the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples were cli­mate pol­icy and the tax­a­tion of cor­po­rate in­comes. The re­sult had been com­mu­nity dis­trust in in­sti­tu­tions.

“The loud voices do their best to shout down the in­sti­tu­tions that have re­tained pub­lic trust. A sullen elec­torate is in­clined to doubt its po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, and dis­in­clined to fol­low them, both when they are right and when they are wrong.”

Gar­naut de­clined to spec­ify which parts of the “ma­jor­ity me­dia” were re­spon­si­ble. The out­look con­fer­ence is spon­sored by the Aus­tralian and the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne.

He told Guardian Aus­tralia there was a need for a bet­ter re­sourced and com­pet­i­tive me­dia, and there was “a case for fis­cal sup­port for smaller voices.”

There was also “a risk of the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion go­ing fur­ther” with the pro­posed merger of Nine En­ter­tain­ment and Fair­fax Me­dia.

Dur­ing the same dis­cus­sion, the former Lib­eral trea­surer Peter Costello said the frac­tur­ing of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics over the past decade was not the fault of so­cial me­dia, nor the lack of a gov­ern­ment Se­nate ma­jor­ity or in­creased par­ti­san­ship.

In three of the four terms Costello was trea­surer, the Coali­tion did not en­joy a ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate, and the in­tro­duc­tion of the GST was bit­terly fought by La­bor, he said.

“I think it is much more ba­nal than that. The is­sue is the politi­cians are just not sure what the change is that they want.

“The 2007 elec­tion shook the con­fi­dence of the Coali­tion. Af­ter that the Coali­tion be­gan to query whether good pol­icy re­ally did lead to electabil­ity.”

Dur­ing his time as trea­surer from 1996 to 2007, var­i­ous strands of the Lib­eral party could unite around an eco­nomic nar­ra­tive, he said. With­out it, the party di­vided on so­cial and moral is­sues, “be­cause they were the is­sues that were in de­bate”.

Costello noted that when Mal­colm Turn­bull chal­lenged Tony Ab­bott for the Lib­eral lead­er­ship in 2015, he claimed there was no eco­nomic nar­ra­tive. “I would agree with that, but then I kept on wait­ing for the eco­nomic nar­ra­tive to come and I’m not sure that it did.”

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, Jen­nifer Wes­ta­cott, said it was hard to get the sense of ur­gency for re­form, some is­sues seemed too com­pli­cated, and the re­form process was “of­ten ter­ri­ble”.

“The Neg [Na­tional En­ergy Guar­an­tee] was a good process. It was good pol­icy and we still couldn’t get it done,” she said.

Pho­to­graph: Joe Cas­tro/AAP

Prof Ross Gar­naut has told the Out­look con­fer­ence ‘Aus­tralia is in trou­ble’ be­cause polemic de­bate made re­form too dif­fi­cult.

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