JIM COOMBS. What makes good government?

Recently in P & I the question has been raised as to how we can get better government – parliamentary reform, more professional public service, changes in economic policy and so on. But it is the answer to the question above which seems to have got lost. 

The present government and, to a large extent, the opposition, operates on one answer to the question. The unfettered pursuit of profit is to be the objective of policy, as this provides (so they say) “jobs and growth”. Just any job, just any “business” ? Is this good ? It seems we all work long hours for much the same money in a more hectic and unsatisfying style of life of mindless consumption of more than we need or really even desire.

In one of my other lives I worked as research assistant to Barry Jones, who was then  backbench Labor MP for Lalor. He was at the time preparing a book entitled “Sleepers Wake !” (note the nod to Bach). It was an attempted popularisation of the concept of “Post-Industrialism” which predicted that, with the then (late 70s) advances in technology, the need for more work and consumption would diminish and we would move to a “leisure society” where the good life would be available to all, the emphasis would be on consumption of services, education, the arts and leisure activities such as sport and travel. The main exponent of this view was an American Daniel Bell, whose prognostications I typed out for insertion into the Great Work. As social prediction it sits alongside Marx’s one of imminent proletarian revolution in 1848. It just did not work out that way. But why?

It was about that time that the neoliberal (whatever that means) economic model became the vogue, and the freeing of business enterprises from all forms of restraint would lead to growth and economic advance. Well, it sort of did. In Western–type economies the majority seem to have a lot more goods at their disposal (albeit distributed less equally) but mostly less time to enjoy their SUVs and flat screen TVs and Netflix.

The buzzword was deregulation. Let the businessmen get on with their job, generating profit from whatever they could sell, from dodgy erectile dysfunction remedies to online sports betting, and no doubt some good stuff, like smart phones (?).

Which lumberingly gets me to my point: Isn’t good government one which promotes the things which are good for the people, and discourages those that are bad? Yet the surprise is palpable when the opposition in Tasmania proposed the banning of pokies if elected in a few months time. Now that is government interference in the market for a social objective. Indeed, surely it is the role of government to regulate, and to promote what it sees as good and to stop or discourage what it thinks isn’t. Governments have prohibited the sale of absinthe, viewing it as poisonous. So a good government would do the nation a favour by restricting the advertising of alcohol in connection with sporting events, as they once did with carcinogenic cigarettes. They would restrict or abolish sports betting on the ground of the damage being done by it. “Nanny State”, I already hear the neolibs cry. Tell that to the families destroyed by unhindered promotion of liquor and gambling. Good government looks after its citizens, and if that means taxing unhealthy products like junk food, dubious “complementary” medicines, quack health schemes, well that is their job, or should be. A good government would aim to reduce pollution, and move to adopt advice that some activities cause climate change and move to phase them out where viable non-polluting alternatives are available. It would even move to save the Barrier Reef, the Murray-Darling and endangered species, notwithstanding that “business”  could do well if they didn’t.

On the other side of the coin (not Bitcoin), good governments should promote by tax advantages activities which improve the health and welfare of the citizens.  Remember when they used to subsidise milk drinking for children, who now grow obese for lack of directive taxation of sugary drinks. The wasteful (and economically dangerous) constant speculation on the stock exchange could be made sane by taxation of repeat transactions within a short period. Activities producing real goods and services should receive favourable tax treatment, frivolous or immoral ones should be taxed heavily. I could go on. Even Mao Tse Tung resiled from ”let a thousand flowers bloom”. To say, if it’s “business” and turns a quid, it must be good, is just plain nonsense and a good government would do its job and govern.

Jim Coombs is an almost retired magistrate and former economist.

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3 Responses to JIM COOMBS. What makes good government?

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    I often think of ‘Sleepers Awake!’ when wondering : What Can Be Done? (get it?) but (not a B Jones admirer, myself) I often stop – wondering and just write a Letter to some official or other. Not so much washing my hands of it all, but maintaining the Gadfly Initiative.
    Canberra economists (that is: anyone making Policy Expected to be Read) are innocent of the laws of cause and effect, I feel. Kahnemann & Tversky are foreign entities to them; the ‘consult’ (pay Others to Do the Work); they ‘model’ – then claim that no ‘model’ can be perfect; they belittle the (powerful) concept of emotional effects of / on decision-making; they follow the herd – viz the ABC’s total [preoccupation with market movements this week – possibly the biggest Non-News of the decade so far? and then, of course, they move on the overpaid work in what used to be called Big Business, leaving Australia edging towards the cliffs of banana republicanism. Oh, and, of course they now want Parliament to legislate against ‘sex’ in ‘the workplace’. Good Luck with That!

  2. Peter Small says:

    Anguish about the decline of good Government, is widespread throughout the community. The older generations ring their hands in despair; the younger have given up!
    So what has gone so badly wrong?

    Whilst the World is increasingly complex, and globalisation, technology and the geopolitical implications of the decline of the American Empire all have impact, I am inclined, after just having finnished Judith Brett’s biography of Alfred Dreakin, that the current dilemma in Australia is compounded by our own doing, or to be more precise, the doings or the lack thereof by myfellow Victorian Liberals.
    Judith Brett portrays Deakins determination going back to the 1880s in the Victorian Parliament to fight for liberal values against the Conservatives. Deakin of course was championed by David Syme of The Age and the protectionist lobby.
    This liberal / conservative battle continued into federation with protection and free trade ; NSW free traders / conservative against Victoria liberal and protectionist.
    The Liberal Party in Victoria, used to be the bastion of liberal values. Menzies, a western Victoria from a family of Methodist said when he created the modern Liberal Party that he wanted party based on Liberal values not Conservative.Fraser, another Western Victorian was of the same ilk.
    During the 1960s many thoughtful politicians, some with an economic training, and others with practical experience, from all sides of politics started to see the folley of protectionism and realised that if Australia was to prosper, tarrifs had to be reduced and Australia had to join the World economy.
    Today Australia has benefited enormously from free trade and globalisation, but there are also many many, unintended consequences that our political leaders, Governments and Parliaments are failing to address.
    This is compounded by my Liberal friends in Victoria in their eagerness to embrace free trade, forgetting their liberal heritage of Deakin, Menzies and others and handing power to NSW Liberals, the Conservatives Deakin so distrusted and ever since I was a little boy, regarded as corrupt.
    In the wake of all this we have the Victorian Liberals in tatters, bereft of liberal values, and Menzies forgotten people, forgotten, and perhaps more seriously of all Fraser’s “dangerous allie” embraced by our leader’s as our protector.

  3. Simon Warriner says:

    Jim,
    an interesting issue. I think it might be better asked “who makes better government?”

    While ever we continue to elect our representatives in government from a pool of individuals whose membership of, and allegiance to, political party organisations declares loudly their failure to understand and address conflicts of interest we can hardly expect anything other than what we are getting, which is an accelerating decline in standards of government and administration to the advantage of those profiting from the lack of understanding by government members and their opposition of the dangers of conflicting one’s interests.

    The fix, perhaps, is the development of an organisation to take the role of champion for the presence of the independent political representative, making the case to the voting public that there is a better way than voting for tweedledum , tweedledee or any other wannabe party contenders who will inevitably take up the role of corporate stalking horse de jour once in control of the parliament.

    That organisation could also define and critique independent representatives, would have zero input into policy and need funding and a high public profile. I have been considering what such an organisation might look like for some time. If interested you can email me and I will send what I have developed thus far

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