Originally published in The Canberra Times on October 6, 2017

Is the purpose of being in government primarily to keep the opposition from doing it? The Coalition is now in its fifth year in power, yet it spends more time blaming Labor for the country’s problems than spelling out its own plans to improve Australians’ lives.

[This article was first published by The Canberra Times – here]

That is not to say that the Turnbull government lacks a vision. It clearly wants Australia to have a bigger economy, more jobs and greater security. But given that no one is actually proposing to shrink the economy, reduce the number of people in work and create danger for our citizens, the government’s “vision” is as meaningless as its promise to be a “grown-up government”. It sounds good but says nothing.

The big question facing Australia, and indeed all countries, is which parts of the economy we want to grow, and which we want to see decline. What kind of jobs do we want more of, and which do we want fewer of. And as no one wants to make Australia more dangerous, what kinds of risks do we want to work together to reduce?

Modern politicians don’t like to talk about the need for some jobs and industries to decline, but this is a major reason why modern politicians find it hard to get anything done. We couldn’t have ended whaling without reducing the size of the whaling industry. We couldn’t have ended the use of asbestos without reducing the size of the asbestos industry. And, of course, we can’t reduce greenhouse-gas emissions without reducing the number of coal-fired power stations and coal mines.

Governing, or managing, the economy requires the communication of clear priorities and the implementation of policies that deliver on those priorities. Saying you want to “grow the economy” or “create jobs” is neither a vision nor a plan – it’s a motherhood statement. It’s the national equivalent of a 20-year-old saying they want a happy life. The follow-up question most parents ask is as short as it is important: how?

Australia is in the middle of a $50 billion plan to build 12 new submarines. And submarine spending accounts for only a small portion of our defence budget. All up, we spent more than $280 billion on defence over the past decade, which doesn’t include the countless billions of dollars we spent increasing “national security” (via, for example, larger fences around Parliament House and more bollards around shopping malls).

To be clear, I have no problem with a country as rich as Australia spending a lot of money to protect its citizens. I’m a bit conservative in that I think prevention is better than the cure when it comes to all problems, be it national security, health or climate change.

But I have a problem with the fact that our elected representatives find it so easy to find $50 billion on new submarines, or $60 million for new fences at parliament, but find it so hard to find extra funding to help prevent the thousands of suicides that happen around Australia each year or to help counsel the victims of violent crime.

Each year, about 60,000 people call 1800RESPECT to talk to Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia’s trained counsellors, seeking support. That number has surged in recent years from 20,000 calls a year after the sustained advocacy of brave people like Rosie Batty. But rather than respond to a 200 per cent increase in demand with a massive increase in funding, the Turnbull government proposes to introduce competitive tendering to cut the wages of rape counsellors and, in turn, cut the cost of providing the service.

The government’s approach to buying submarines and to providing counselling for rape victims says much about its priorities and its approach to policy development. In the face of rising security fears in the Pacific, we are told we need to spend more money on defence. In the face of rising demand for counselling for victims of violent crime, we are told we need to find cheaper ways of doing things. The submarine contracts are not chosen via competitive tender because we are told we need to get exactly the kind of sub we need rather than buy cheap off-the-shelf subs. But for rape and domestic violence counselling, why find the best we can get when we can save money by playing competing providers off against each other?

Counselling services are highly labour-intensive. Every $1 million spent on counselling creates far more jobs than $1 million spent on submarines, security fences or bollards. The same is true for spending on health, education and disability support. If governments were serious about “creating jobs”, providing more human services would be a great place to start.

As one of the world’s richest countries, living at the richest time in history, Australia can afford to spend more money on anything it wants. Of course, we can’t afford to spend more on everything we want, which is why the real job of governments is not to keep the opposition in opposition but to make decisions that accord with the public’s priorities. But rather than debate what we should do more of, and what we should do less of, modern political debate now revolves largely around the meaningless metaphor of “growing pies”.

Saying you want to ‘grow the economy’ or ‘create jobs’ is neither a vision nor a plan.

You can’t even grow a pie. To bake a pie you need to assemble the necessary ingredients and utensils. Once you’ve chosen the kind of pie you are making and the size of the tin you are using, the only way to make a bigger pie is to abandon the current one and start again. And what’s the point of making a bigger version of a pie no one likes eating?

Which brings me back to the role of government, and the need for politicians to be far more specific about the direction they want our country to head and the steps they intend to take to get us there. If rape and domestic violence is a problem worth solving, we would put more money into it and make sure the money was spent in ways that prioritised the needs of the victims, not the needs of for-profit companies. It’s not a hard problem to solve.

Australia doesn’t need a bigger economy, or a smaller one. It needs more people employed doing the things we want more of and fewer people employed doing things we want less of. If we want to provide the best possible support to women who have been raped, we need to employ more people to provide such services and pay those people high enough wages to attract and retain the most skilled workers. And if we don’t want to provide the best quality care, then we should cut the wages and conditions of counsellors so we can spend more money on something else.

Making and explaining such choices is the role of the government of the day. It’s not easy, and it’s not uncontroversial. Hard trade-offs must be made. But when one of the world’s richest countries claims to lack the funds to look after the victims of violent crime because of the cost of its new submarines and corporate tax cuts, that is not the opposition’s fault. It’s the government’s choice.

Richard Denniss is The Australia Institute’s chief economist. Twitter: @RDNS_TAI

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