Friday, 02 May 2014

Ventilating the Commission of Audit

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One of the more common reactions to the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit (CoA) report is that it is all part of a clever strategy to make their intentions appear worse than they are. As Dragonista said on Twitter this morning:

You do realise the more you hyperventilate about the #CoA, the more you are playing Abbott's game?

CoA has many roles, but one is to make the Budget's decisions look less bad, and for us to be relieved.

Ross Gittins ran a similar line in his Fairfax piece:

Don’t be too alarmed by the startling proposals by the National Commission of Audit. Few of its recommendations will make it into the budget on Tuesday week. They were never intended to.

Ostensibly, the commission wants to reverse the tide of a century of federal-state relations, substantially dismantle Medicare, crack down on the age pension while leaving superannuation tax concessions unscathed, reduce Medicare to something mainly for the poor, hit middle-income families and make the treatment of welfare recipients much harsher.

Don’t believe it.

...In this case, the audit report is softening us up for the budget by raising the spectre of a much tougher budget than we’re likely to get. It’s Joe Hockey getting ready to leave unsaid: See, I let you off lightly.

Of course, the argument has some merit: governments always try and manage expectations by manipulating public opinion.

But the idea that therefore we should not get publicly angry about something like the Commission of Audit report, that we are somehow playing the government’s game by “hyperventilating” about it, is bullshit.

Consider the alternative implicit in such comments.

What message do you think the government will take away if we follow this advice and say nothing? What conclusion do you suppose Mr Abbott and Co. will reach if our reaction to their attempt to rebuild the country on the model of some Ayn Rand fantasy is muted in the way these commentators suggest?

He will, of course, take such complacency as acceptance, or at least, tolerance, for his radical propositions.

In other words, the less pushback the government gets, the more emboldened they will be to do their worst.

Honestly, how does staying quiet do anything other serve the government’s agenda?

So let’s be clear: the idea is NOT for the Commission of Audit report to make what they do in Budget look tame by comparison.

The idea is for it to push policy discussion far to the right by giving credibility to ideas like slashing the pension and dismantling Medicare, so that, over the long term, they shift the centre of our politics.

Yes, it is true that maybe only a few of the mooted changes will actually be enacted in the upcoming Budget (as if that isn’t bad enough), but in the meantime, the debate is no longer whether we should do certain things (introduce a Medicare co-payment, cut the minimum wage) but by how much.

In this way, the once unthinkable becomes “common sense”.

Frankly, I don’t think we should care how uncool we look in objecting to this Commission of Audit report. We are not playing into their hands by objecting to what they are trying to do. We are standing up for what we believe in.

Faced with such a document, “hyperventilating” is completely rational and completely necessary.

Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop writes regularly for The Kings Tribune, The Drum and other publications. His new book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, was released on August 26.

Follow him on Twitter @timdunlop