Originally published in The Australian Financial Review on November 14, 2016

In the modern version of “the battle of ideas” political interests trump political ideology nearly every time. Take, for example, the alleged supporters of “small government” who have been strategically silent as the Australian resource industry pushed for a $100 billion, wholly government owned, nuclear waste dump in South Australia.

First published by the Australian Financial Review here.

Similarly, many of the alleged proponents of free speech are strategically silent about laws that prevent taxpayer-funded workers on Manus Island from speaking up about what they witnessed. And the alleged free marketeers who oppose the Renewable Energy Target are strategically silent about the NSW government plan to force car drivers to buy petrol diluted with ethanol. The largest producer of ethanol in Australia, Manildra, has donated more than $1 million to the Coalition since 2010.

To call Coalition MPs ideologically obsessed with small government and free markets is to flatter them unfairly. Sticking to an ideology is hard. Applying a consistent philosophical approach to policy inevitably leads to new fights with old allies. Should small government principles be applied to the war on terrorism? Should market competition from new entrants be allowed to erode the value of casino licences or taxi licences? Don’t hold your breath waiting for such questions to be put to, let alone answered by, the people bemoaning the quality of public debate in Australia.

I know, political parties are a “broad church” and compromise is as important as principle. I agree. But while the so-called free marketeers in the Coalition allow themselves the flexibility to compromise behind closed doors, the tenor of our public debate reflects no such realism.

Of course it isn’t just major party politicians that dump their ideology when political interests beckon. Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who said he wouldn’t even stop to help a policeman who was bleeding to death on the side of the road, is often credited with being an “ultra-libertarian”. But despite securing public money for his inquiry into “the Nanny State”, one of Senator Leyonhjelm’s big issues is the pursuit of more red tape to protect people from the “infrasound” supposedly generated by wind-turbines. Apparently it disturbs the sleep of climate sceptics. Surely the free-market solution to such a problem would be to move house?

A bob each way

And despite his alleged concern with the oppressive power of the state, Senator Leyonhjelm was willing to support the Coalition’s removal of a wide range of individual rights via the reintroduction of the ABCC. Of course his support for such authoritarian laws was contingent on the legalisation of rapid-fire shot guns. Interests trump ideology.

Speaking of building industry watchdogs, former Senator Bob Day once ran a profitable building empire which helped fund his Family First Party and his decade-long war against public spending and regulation, especially of his industry. But now that his business is bankrupt and his creditors are owed millions it is clear why subcontractors and customers need the red tape he has raged against. They need it to protect them from businesses like his. Bob Day also used his time in Parliament to secure $1.8 million in public money for one of his companies to pick up the tab for building industry apprentices. Interests trump ideology.

Of all the names Donald Trump has been called, ideologue isn’t one of them. Thoughtful people across the political spectrum are understandably concerned at the incoherence of his policy positions and the lack of any apparent plan to fund them. Of course he is not the first to promise a magic pudding, he is just the most shamelessly unconcerned.

But while many have wondered how the largest economy in the world might pay for a $25 billion wall across the Mexican border, the Australian business community was never too worried how Malcolm Turnbull would fund $50 billion worth of corporate tax cuts. Faced with a choice between feigning concern with a budget emergency and taking a company tax cut, it wasn’t really a hard choice for the BCA. Interests trump ideology.

Stripped of all the equations and the econobabble, economics is about hard choices. As one of the richest countries in the world we can afford to do anything we want, but we can’t afford to do everything we want. Phoney debates about ideology play an important role in concealing the real choices we face. That’s why when interests trump ideology, some people really believe in their interests.

Richard Denniss is the chief economist for The Australia Institute

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