Government and the public purpose in Australia

Government and the public purpose in Australia

Joey Moloney
February 5, 2014

This article was featured as part of ESSA’s annual Equilibrium publication.

Australia is an incredibly affluent nation, enjoying immense prosperity and one of the highest standards of living in history. Such a state of affairs is rare. With the monetary and political capability to address growing inequalities, one would imagine such issues would take centre stage during an election year. Yet in the lead up to the September election, they did not appear to be organising principles in the political positioning of many voters or politicians.

The ever-present ‘cost of living’ has assumed a central role in the political discourse, which in essence means ‘do I feel relatively richer or poorer?’ Or, ‘do I have the means to consume all the things I feel I should be able to consume?’ Such an attitude is perplexing. It is hard to escape the claim that we have forgotten how lucky we are.

A failure to clearly distinguish our needs from our wants has contaminated our expectations. It was not so long ago that such a distinction was forced upon us by circumstance. This failure has left us looking to the state as a resource in the pursuit of perpetually unsatisfying consumerism, rather than as an instrument of social betterment. There are too few voices in public discourse reminding us that ever-increasing consumption and social-wellbeing are not necessarily positively correlated.

That is not to say Australian’s have lost their social conscience; despite the increasingly inward looking attitude of some voters, there are others demanding a government that delivers egalitarian reforms.

Education and disability are the two main policy areas in which reform is being debated. DisabilityCare and the NPSI are fundamentally egalitarian programs that should receive funding priority and collective support across Australia. It seems logically sound that a government should raise revenue through taxation, and redistribute it in a way that promotes equality of opportunity. Some would argue that it speaks to our most basic human instincts that fiscal policy should target those in need.

However, we have seen an on-going debate regarding the funding for such reforms and the prospect for a strong collective will is bleak. Attempts to raise revenue for the reforms were effectively stifled by industry lobby groups. What was peculiar is that many Australian people were seemingly unfussed.

The late American Institutional economist John Kenneth Galbraith made a note of how an affluent electoral majority comes to be content, and resistant to change. He theorised that as a wealthy middle class comes to dominate the public sphere, individuals cease to look at the state as a means to social betterment. Citizens begin to aspire to a sense of social class, embracing the notion that utilisation of private schooling and healthcare is symbolic of individual stature. It is a world where people who rely on the government for the provision of services are perceived as economically inept.

It appears that this observation is apparent in modern day Australia. Rather than collectively pursue an equitable education system, or object when our foreign aid budget is slashed, we look inwards. Claims that scaling back private healthcare rebates was a form of class warfare gained traction, because we were content and change appeared threatening.

This connects with another of Galbraith’s ideas; the dichotomy of private wealth and public squalor. According to Galbraith, as a society becomes increasingly affluent, the quality of the public sector suffers while private sector consumption increases. As our consumption capability grows, we become less willing to share it with disadvantaged members of the community. Due to the simplistic nature of political rhetoric, it becomes easy to believe you are wealthy because you deserve it, and the poor are simply lazy.

A recent survey on taxation by the Per Capita think tank reaffirms that a cognitive dissonance still exists in the public’s expectations of government. Many Australians still believe in well-funded and accessible public services, but simultaneously call for lower taxes.

The underlying implication of this public sentiment is that we are not concerned with inequality as much as we used to be. Australia’s economy has experienced an astounding run of economic growth, but individualism has risen above a healthy level. We have lost some sense of community. Rather than being concerned for the disadvantaged, we focus on acquiring large houses and having unfettered access to entertainment and overseas holidays, all the while complaining that the ‘cost of living’ is rising.

Cast in a global and historical context, Australians are amongst the most affluent people that have ever lived. For the vast majority of us, our needs are satisfied with a fraction of our income. What we do with the residual should not be conceived as a right, for which we elect a government to protect and expand. We should look to our government to first and foremost promote opportunity and fairness, and advance a public purpose towards a good society.

Galbraith, JK 1992, The Culture of Contentment, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Galbraith, JK 1958, The Affluent Society, Hamish Hamilton, Great Britain.

Hetherington, D 2012, Per Capita Tax Survey 2012: Public attitudes towards taxation and government expenditure, viewed 18 June 2013,