Too Much Laissez and Not Enough Faire

Econospeak is used to veil entrenched ideology in Australian politics and in fact has nothing to do with economic rationale.


In recent years there has been a dominant theme in politics surrounding the economic narrative of Australia. It is a narrative portraying the Coalition as the responsible parents telling the public what is good for them after the irresponsible teens of the Labor Party stole dad’s credit card. Debt is bad surplus is good, so the story goes. The stern Coalition voices have constantly touted facts and figures around government debt declaring us intergenerational thieves effectively destroying the future of Australia with our selfish entitlement. There were theatrical tales of a debt crisis, government overreach, inefficiency, unemployment, deficit and WASTE!

Abbott economicsSource: News Limited.

The Coalition politicians acting as economists were not speaking truths. They were using economic language, econospeak, to convey their thinly veiled ideology of class warfare.

The Great Australian economist Richard Denniss has been telling us that politicians have a tendency to not use econospeak in the way it was intended. Like Catholic priests of old who preached in Latin to an illiterate flock it is an act of smoke and mirrors. How can one question ideas that they don’t understand? It is a tactic designed to silence criticism. Econospeak similarly gives the elite some power of persuasion by inflating the importance of concepts such as public debt through a language most of the public do not understand. What the elites did not anticipate was that even if the Australian public don’t necessarily understand econospeak they do have a nose for recognising bullshit. Hidden within this language was an ideology of small government that protects the interests of business, the wealthy and social conservatives. The ideology soon proved to be an unpopular one.

This is not to say that Labor have never been guilty of the same. It is in the economic debate that the major parties rarely come to bipartisan agreement. Keating’s capital gains tax, the fringe benefits scheme, the GST, the carbon tax, the mining tax, just to name a few, show how economics has always caused a great divide. Economics is the issue where the continuation of class warfare is most apparent and both parties are able to flex their ideological muscle. The ALP fighting for middle and lower income earners and the Coalition favouring business interest and high-income earners. Both points of view have an important legitimate place in a democracy but has led to the politicisation of economics in Australia. Ideological economics has thus created polarised economic thinking beyond any notion of sound debate and critique.

The symbol of ideology in politics is delivered through carefully considered language. Econospeak is not ideological but as political language expert Marnie Holborrow says “all language has potential to be ideological”. Ideology is formed within language and when repeated from lofty heights of the media and politicians the representation of ideology acquires status through ‘natural truths’ and ‘common sense’. When the words such as “living beyond our means” and “reckless spending” reached the ears of the voting majority it seemed nonsensical to leave the ALP in charge of our finances. No one in their right mind would vote for a group who ignored such obvious ‘natural truths’ and ‘common sense’. 

Another powerful use of language in public persuasion is the use of narrative. A debt crisis became the narrative for the Abbott opposition to steal away any dignity the Labor Governments still held after a tumultuous six year tenure. Creating this metaphor was masterful work from an opposition. By focusing on this metaphor that debt will be the destruction of Australia’s future masked the social impetus of the real issue at hand. The debt narrative became the invisible envelope of the Coalition ideology. Most tragically however is that it took focus away from the real issue of the Australian economy. The economy was slowing and we needed to do something about it.

Economists almost never agree on a healthy level of government debt. What they do agree on is that that a debt is bad surplus is good narrative has no place in a slowing economy. It is a simplification of a serious problem. Almost no economist would recommend spending cuts during the bust phase. Thus the Coalition were not referring to what the economy needs but what their interest groups and constituents want.  As is often the experience of party politics, short term political interest trumps rational policy development.

Through the late 90s and the early 2000s Australia had enjoyed the longest unbroken period of economic growth of any developed country ever. This was a culmination of an increase in housing consumption funded by bank borrowing and international debts, export prices being much higher than import prices (‘terms of trade’ in econospeak), increase in resource investment and an extremely well timed Chinese resource demand that saved us from the global financial crisis. Thanks China. The Australian public became spoiled by increases in income, low taxation rates and we demanded more. The Government provided these spoils not through increased productivity of our economy but with the bounty of housing, resources investment and consumption increases.

By 2011 China began to tighten their resource loving belts and their resource consumption fell into a steep decline by 2013. Real expenditure and real income had grown extraordinarily high very quickly (real being econospeak for ‘adjusted for inflation’). This had made the Australian dollar more expensive for internationals than it had ever been before carrying serious consequences for our export sector.

This is what economists refer to when they speak about a ‘boom’.  As is true for the natural science of physics however what goes up must come down and in economics this is called ‘the business cycle’. Although growth trends can be permanent in the long-run, short-run growth is slightly more tumultuous. A boom such as the one experienced in the resource sector of Australia then will be met with a ‘bust’.

During the hedonism of the resource boom Australians had spent in a way that assumed the good times were to just keep rolling in. Households spent their spoils and the Government cut taxes. Ross Garnaut eloquently names these the ‘Salad Days’. We are left with a high price level making it hard for many industries in Australia to compete internationally and impossible to maintain sustainable full employment. The ‘Dog Days’ phase in Australia is about facing consequences of our dizzying highs of the resource boom with a bleary eyed, headachy hangover.

It was the Dog Days that made the ALP fiscal management under Julia Gillard look so terrible. This spurred the inception of the debt narrative from the Abbott opposition and politicisation of debt heightened. Gillard and her treasury crumbled under the pressure of politics and made a premature promise of a Government surplus. As a result forecasting by treasury became terribly optimistic. As the deficit prevailed and forecasting was incessantly proved wrong the Gillard government started to look worse.

Along came Rudd 2.0. Having been forgiven by his colleagues and remaining a charismatic debater the election phase called on the leader it required. In Labor’s past charismatic leaders such as Keating had managed to sell “the recession we had to have” to the voters and Rudd offered a glimmer of such hope. Rudd shadowed Keating’s pragmatism and followed advice from the economists ignoring the debt metaphor. Three days before announcing the 2013 election Rudd made a large upgrade to the deficit. Unfortunately the powerful tool of language and metaphor had already dug its claws into the psyche of the Australian people and Rudd paid a high price in his credibility.

The debt metaphor success is not owed to a lack of intelligence of the Australian people. It is a part of our psychological make up to fall victim to such narratives. The battle between good surplus and evil debt showed an easy to follow logical economic theory for the voting public. Nassim Taleb in Fooled by Randomness argues that the world is not as homogenous as our psychology would like. As a result our brains go in search of patterns of causality that is much more simplified than any reality allows. Taleb argues that the destructive aspect of the media caters to our “heavily warped common sense and biases and is a plague on modern civilisation”. The same could be said of the endemic political ‘zingers’ resonating from the House of Representatives in Canberra. It is a prophet making roulette wheel indicative of the human need to simplify complexity. The zingers of federal politics tries to simplify extremely complex notions in just three words. Again the use of language proving to be a powerful tool in making ideology seem rationally plausible.

The truth about debt is that it is unavoidable. To use the turn of phrase intergenerational theft, such as Abbott did to the National Press Club, is not only wrong it is detrimental to good policy. With the benefit of hindsight we can now pinpoint this as the seed that grew into his catastrophic economic mismanagement and the political suicide of the Abbott government and his familiars.

Governments fund raise either through taxation or the issuing of bonds (shares in government debt that pays interest and promises a return at maturation). Since taxation is politically difficult and can have damaging effects on consumption the latter is quite useful in stimulating the economy.  The current ten-year bond rate is at an all-time low of 2.55%. When government spending can enjoy such low interest repayments it generates a return greater than the cost of the bond (debt). To take advantage of such a bond rate is a very good idea. Another example of debt narrative politics trumping truth.

The thin veil of economics conveying ideology started to evaporate after the 2014 budget. The invisible envelope of the debt narrative could only last so long. The Commission of Audit report espousing GP co-payments and welfare cuts with no mention of increased taxes on superannuation or high income earners was a warning sign. Tony Sheperd who chaired the commission had made the decision that an average GP visit of 11 times a year had to indicate a high prevalence of paranoid hypochondriacs sucking medicare dry. It appears he either  forgot how averages work, didn’t know how much a chronically ill person requires medical attention or has never read up on health economics (not surprising since he has no background as an economist). Preventative health measures like visiting the doctor benefits the economy far more than letting people become ill. This along with a few other examples sounded the alarm bells that this budget was not going to begin a journey to surplus. It was beginning a journey to a faulty and warped neo-conservative neo-liberal utopia.

The forewarning of the Commission of Audit report brought with it a budget that will go down in the history books as a collection of some of the most reviled policies in history. The budget reflected ideological priorities of the Coalition that sought to minimise debt only through meagre austerity measures that only targeted low income earners. $5 and $7 GP co-payments were not going to pay down government debt and given the revenue was to go directly to a medical research fund this policy would have zero effect of the government debt. And so the story goes as the budget was unpacked by commentators and outraged members of the public alike what was left staring them in the face was not in fact mature fiscally responsible policies but unfair policies. After incessantly touting a desperate need to cut government spending on pensions, welfare, health and education Joe Hockey’s first budget left the budget amounts spent on wealthy Australians relatively untouched. Through the muddied layers of econospeak an ideology was revealed and rejected.

The following budget saw a much more mild and positive Joe Hockey try to sell the notion that everything is fine. Not perfect but a much more logical approach than the previous year. Instilling confidence in the public encourages them to spend and invest. Consumer confidence had been seriously under-valued since it served no purpose in giving the Coalition a leg-up as leaders pushing their political ideology.

Politicians try to convince people that it is the market guiding their decisions. The truth is the market has no feelings. It is there to serve us, both as citizens and as consumers and will not predictively bend to political ideology. Political decisions have huge effects on cultivating an environment for economic growth. It is a political choice to spend billions on corporate interests keeping a mining industry alive that has seen its day. It is a political choice to not spend billions on investment in climate change abatement. It is a political choice to argue that doubling coal exports is necessary if we are going to be able to afford investment in renewable energy. These political choices as always are steeped in ideology.

Tony Abbott and his cohort were temporarily successful at selling a trumped up narrative of government debt crises because the Australian people were facing uncertainty. They were facing diminishing employment and income. The Coalition successfully sold them a bad idea by taking advantage of their confusion between causality and correlation in a slowing economy. Although language holds excessive sway in politics it does have limits. The rejection of the Abbott government’s economic management came from a recognition that it did not do what had been promised and did not represent an economic reality.  

The Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank: Australia’s next move

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has joined a Western cohort supporting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proposed by China, marking an historical shift in Australian foreign policy.

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Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has joined a Western cohort supporting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proposed by China, marking an historical shift in Australian foreign policy. The AIIB is expected to be established by the end of 2015 and is designed to combat the growing infrastructure deficit in the Asia-Pacific region currently valued at an estimated $8tn. By harnessing China’s vast financial resources and expertise in infrastructure development; the AIIB claim they will play a vital role in providing economic assistance to the less developed parts of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

Jin Liqun, secretary general of the interim secretariat is establishing the AIIB and has said that they will be structuring the bank on existing international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Beijing will also be providing at least 50% of the capital needed for the bank, estimated at US$50-100bn, with non-Asian countries making up a further 25% of AIIB shareholders. The Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the AIIB will follow international multilateral rules and procedures within developing countries in Asia, financing the bulk of loans for infrastructure projects.

For over sixty years the cornerstone of Australian foreign policy was fostering an alliance with so-called western states, particularly the US. Upon first hearing of the proposed AIIB, Washington warned its allies of China’s growing diplomatic clout and suggested that states should think twice before signing up to the AIIB, raising concerns about its governance and multilateralism. Despite Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and members of the World Bank supporting the AIIB and offering to cooperate, the US has warned of the potential for a new investment bank to weaken the existing international financial institutions. This opinion is not surprising given the US’s leading role in both the World Bank and IMF that has served its strategic interests since World War 2.

Under US primacy Asia has experienced more stability and higher economic growth than ever before but this era is coming to an end. States such as China, South Korea and Japan have grown in power, making US domination in this region nonsensical. As these Asian states continue to grow economically, Washington will have to bow out of Asia gracefully so as to avoid conflict and allow for continued order and development.

China is well aware that leading an operation like the AIIB will serve its strategic interests, as it tries to further cement its position as the major player in Asia. A lack of nuanced foreign policy from the US could lead to Chinese dominance over Asia and conflict in the region, instead, what the US must do is encourage powerful Asian states to work together in developing a new order of Asia. Australian foreign policy academic, Hugh White argues that it “defies the laws of strategic gravity” to assume US primacy will last forever and that pursuing this will lead to a diplomatic defeat for Washington.

Australia will continue to do what it has always done in foreign policy, and that is to continue to pursue Australia’s best interest. These recent power shifts in Asia is what’s causing the government to change its tact, but our self-interested values hold true. What is interesting about Australia’s decision to be a founding member of the AIIB is its value of economic links over our historical pursuit of security via our US buddy system. The rise of China continues to be seen as a threat to US hegemony as well as US security, with both nations upping their military power with each subsequent governmental budget.

US acquiescence to China will be one of the first times American exceptionalism has taken such a blow. It will take a lot for Washington to release their grip of Asia and move towards a new balance of power, but for the sake of rationalism they must. The AIIB and the consequential rise of China provides Australia with an opportunity to really make its mark as a key player in Asian foreign policy, proving itself to be an independent tactical power on the global stage.

What’s best for Australia is a peaceful US and an orderly, economically vibrant Asia. To pursue this ideal, Australian leaders should pressure the US to ease its control over Asia and international financial institutions. The US must concede primacy of Asia to not only China but Japan, South Korea and India so as to ensure cooperation rather than another hegemonic power struggle.

By recognising power shifts in Asia, Australia can play a pivotal role in shaping the region in the next 100 years. This new order should encourage cooperation amongst Asian powers without a dominant state. The AIIB and its orientation within Asia should be an economic and diplomatic goal for Australia. By contributing to the development of the AIIB, Australia can ensure the bank encourages development in Asia, whilst protecting our own geo-political interests.

Australian Politics: An “Un”popularity Contest…

In my last post I aimed to pinpoint the source of our repeating disappointment in our elected officials and decided people had a tendency to not really know who they are voting for. Continuing in this theme I am now going to endeavour to understand today’s leadership spill in the Liberal Party and why this annoying phenomena is so damned popular with the public and those in government.

In my last post I aimed to pinpoint the source of our repeating disappointment in our elected officials and decided people had a tendency to not really know who they are voting for. Continuing in this theme I am now going to endeavour to understand today’s leadership spill in the Liberal Party and why this annoying phenomena is so damned popular with the public and those in government.

It seems that the current climate in Australian federal politics is running on a new system of leadership spills every time polls take a nasty dip. Although it has been known in the last century to happen once every few decades, this every 18 months business is starting to get tiresome. John Howard was elected Prime Minister of Australia when I was in grade 2, age 8, and there he stayed until I was 19 years old. By todays standards that achievement truly boggles the mind. John Howard’s tenure as PM was not free of leadership chatter however, and differing from today’s spectacle he even had a ready and willing challenger waiting for his time to shine from the side lines. In my years of early adulthood leadership spills are becoming commonplace and it seems they are not going away any time soon either.

Diagnosis: Crisis of Authority.

Someone recently described the 2013 federal election to me as a loss for Labor rather than a win for the Coalition (thanks James). Instead of partaking in intelligent debate and making difficult decisions prior to an election, so voters can make an informed decision, we are faced with the captivating passionate declaration of “I am not (insert unpopular opponent) so vote for me!”. Thanks to this system we now have “democratically” elected officials doing things we abhor in our names and with our tax dollars.

The Australian polity are crying out for a responsive, sane and smart leader. Is it possible those adjectives just listed are oxymora to the title “politician”? This could suggest that our entire system of democracy is just not working. Without authority, our leaders cannot inspire respect. Respect that is integral to any civil society and the success of its democracy.

The solution to the Governments unpopularity does not lie in a shifting of leaders. It lies in the big juicy truth pudding that is their policies. Let’s aim for the next election win (whoever it may be) to be about policy and philosophy. Regardless of its leader a political party must have a mission and let that mission be something that Australian’s want. Well, at least more than half of them.

Whatever these poor, lonely backbenchers may think of Tony and his leadership their disunity and disloyalty is making for a bigger crisis for the Liberal party….. not that I mind though.

The Rise and Fall of Tony Abbott

My take on why the majority of Australians are unhappy with our government when a majority of us voted for them.

The recent brewing leadership spill of the LNP coalition seems to be a bright shiny golden arrow pointing to the number one problem in Australian politics.

Australian voters just don’t pay enough attention.

If you put a 1 next to your local LNP member on your green card in the 2013 federal election you should have known Tony Abbott thought human caused climate change was total “crap”. You should have understood that “Stop the Boats” meant you were voting for a system that rejects those most desperate for our help and sends them paddling into a realm of uncertainty (especially on our behalf) where safety is not only doubtful but completely disregarded as a priority. You should not have been shocked by the austerity of the Federal budget since it was what was promised from the get-go. You should not have been shocked by the cuts to ABC, SBS, Education and health since it was outlined in parliament regardless of any promises made on election eve. You should have known that policies like the Paid Parental Leave favoured the wealthy over the poor and never once was it implied that a father might choose to take six months off work rather than a mother.

So why, when such a huge majority of Australian voters did want an LNP government, are we up in arms about our current leader? To be fair, Abbott and Hockey are delivering on their ultimate sanction: returning to surplus through austerity measures. Perhaps it is that voters just hadn’t thought this far ahead, or thought hard enough about consequences of these solutions. Do they not understand how economics and austerity work? (the obsession with surplus might suggest not).

It seems to me, that the Abbott led Libs and Nats were able to make their resounding whopping of Labor Party butts through a masterful use of slogans, emotive rhetoric and media made effective by a disregard for solid truth by we, the voters. Politicians have come to realise that in our fast-paced, face-value loving 21st century society, appearances matter more than reality.

Politics is just another form of competition and survival of the fittest. Through apathy of your average Australian voter, politicians have been able to make the competition easier for them and less beneficial to us. The unbalance made worse by the 60% of voters that are rusted to one party or another with unflinching devotion.

Is all this to be healed by a change in leader? No. Because this is how a modern democracy works, it is the same horse with a different jockey (or “captain” in Tony’s terms). Not long after the election of 2013 Malcolm Turnbull was asked on live TV why the government was choosing to go ahead with his lacklustre NBN policy when there are clearly better options available to us through modern technology. His response was that this was the policy taken to election, it has been voted on, the people of Australia have spoken. According to politicians this is how decisions must be made because it makes life a hell of a lot easier for them. After all, they are the professionals whilst we are the amateurs.

So if you are someone who voted Liberal in 2013 and have found yourself scratching your head or feeling disappointed in our PM then next time make your vote count. Do your research, question your own philosophy and above all else critique, critique, CRITIQUE because the truth is, they need us to survive.