Cheese On Toast: Not for New Zealanders the reckless, ideologically-driven fiscal mayhem that Joe Hockey saw fit to visit upon their Australian cousins. Here in the Shaky Isles, Finance Minister Bill English delivered up a steady-as-she-goes financial statement so wholesome and tasty that even Labour’s own supporters could not resist giving it a big tick when the pollsters came calling.
FINDING A CONTRAST more dramatic than the respective receptions of the Australian and New Zealand budgets would not be easy. With hardly a sector of Australian society spared the heat of Joe Hockey’s fiscal blowtorch, a bushfire of dissent has erupted across a broad political front. Not surprisingly, Australian public opinion has turned decisively against the Liberal-National Coalition. So much so that, according to the New Zealand National Party’s pollster, and well-known blogger, David Farrar:
“I don’t think the question anymore is whether Tony Abbott has lost the next election, and the Coalition will be a one term Government. I think the question is now how many terms in opposition will they have?”
What has angered Australians the most are the crude ideological justifications offered up by Tony Abbott’s government. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s swingeing fiscal cuts were, he insisted, a necessary response to a genuine fiscal crisis. Rescuing Australia from the long-term economic imbalances inherited from the previous Labor Government would require sacrifices from every sector of Australian society.
Hockey’s economic justifications have been greeted with scorn by just about every Australian economist not infected with the Australian Centre for Independent Studies’ (CIS) uniquely virulent strain of neoliberalism. These resistant economists have pointed out that Australia’s economy is more securely foundationed than most comparable countries, and that bringing the deficit under control in no way necessitates the social carnage Hockey’s budget threatens to create.
So why did Abbott, Hockey and their colleagues sign up to such a self-defeating document? To answer that question it is necessary to examine the Australian neo-liberal virus more closely. Cultured for nearly forty years in its New South Wales laboratory, and marketed under the “Classical Liberal” brand, Australian neoliberalism not only features all the usual justifications for restoring to the ruling elites as many of the powers stripped from them by successive waves of progressive reform as possible, but it also insists that this can be done without incurring a democratic backlash.
Much like the ACT Party here in New Zealand (which maintains close personal and philosophical associations with the CIS) the far-Right faction of the Australian Liberal Party purports to believe that if its policies are explained calmly and rationally to ordinary voters, then eventually the scales will fall from their eyes and they will understand that policies which hitherto had appeared to be directed against their interests are, in fact, aimed at propelling them into prosperity.
Joe Hockey: Expecting ordinary people to vote for their own impoverishment.
In spite of all historical evidence to the contrary, these neoliberals simply refuse to give up their belief that ordinary people, rationally propositioned, can be made to vote for their own impoverishment. It is an ideological affliction which both Labour and the conservative parties on both sides of the Tasman have struggled to confine to the margins of electoral politics since the early 1980s – not always successfully.
The Australian Labor Party negotiated the international neoliberal surge of the 1980s and 90s with particular skill (and thus avoided the decade-long civil war that so debilitated the New Zealand labour movement). The Australian Liberals under the (mostly) pragmatic John Howard were similarly successful. (Setting aside the brief reign of the arch-neoliberal ideologue, John Hewson.)
The equally pragmatic National leader, Jim Bolger, was unable to drive his own arch-neoliberal, Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, out of his cabinet until the fall-out from her “Mother of All Budgets” had driven National to the very edge of destruction and contributed substantially to the demise of New Zealand’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system. The resurrection of arch-neoliberal extremism under Dr Don Brash came very close to unleashing fiscal savagery of the sort Abbott and Hockey are currently perpetrating. With a little bit of luck, however (not to mention the Labour voters of South Auckland) National and New Zealand managed to dodge Dr Brash’s bullets.
Which brings us to John Key, Bill English and New Zealand’s 2014 “Cheese-on-Toast Budget”. Not for New Zealanders the reckless, ideologically-driven fiscal mayhem that Joe Hockey saw fit to visit upon their Australian cousins. Here in the Shaky Isles, Finance Minister Bill English delivered up a steady-as-she-goes financial statement so wholesome and tasty that even Labour’s own supporters could not resist giving it a big tick when the pollsters came calling. With increases to paid parental leave, and free doctor’s visits for children under 13 years, how could they not?
Which is not to say that English’s budget is entirely ideology-free – it isn’t. It’s just that the history of the past thirty years in New Zealand (if not in Australia) has taught the more thoughtful and moderate elements of the Right that it is better to give a little than to take a lot. The protection of elite power, conservatism’s fundamental mission, is best achieved by surrounding the privileged with crowds of contented citizens munching cheese-on-toast – not with angry mobs waving pitchforks.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, May 27, 2014.