Recently my wife ran into a spot of bother. At the motor registry to pay her overdue rego, she discovered that it was just past the grace period for late payments. Noting this, an officious clerk took sadistic bureaucratic pleasure in refusing to renew her registration without a fresh roadworthy certificate.
Leaving her car with a mechanic, she came to my nearby office and sought mine to go about her business. She also asked me to put the registration fee on my credit card, as she’d mislaid hers. Having once pledged that all my worldly goods I thee endow, I not very graciously complied. Off she then went, leaving me stranded until she returned. My wife’s forgetfulness caused her problem, yet she unselfconsciously handballed to me the consequences of her acts and omissions.
This small example of the prudent subsidising the imprudent reflects the welfare state zeitgeist, in which expecting others to bear the costs of one’s own folly is normal. In our society, far too often those not providing for themselves adequately expect taxpayers to shoulder their burden when trouble strikes.
Indeed, in a much-reported 2012 speech to a London think tank, now Treasurer Joe Hockey lamented that too often a government strives to give citizens everything they want, not what it — and through it taxpayers — can afford. ‘The hardest task in life is to say no to someone you care about,’ he harrumphed. ‘A weak government tends to give its citizens everything they wish for. A strong government has the will to say no!’
Enjoying Opposition’s freedom from responsibility, Hockey lamented that western democracies, including Australia, have enormous personal entitlement systems spanning education, health, income support, retirement benefits, unemployment benefits and so on. He could also have mentioned industry assistance, the arts and elite sport: indeed, the whole gamut of handout programmes that have strangled the public purse for generations. If Hockey were courageous in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense, parliamentary ‘entitlements’ could have rated a passing mention, too.
As Hockey pointed out, too many people enjoy benefits paid for by someone else — either the taxes of those who are working and producing income, or future generations left to pay the debt subsidising these benefits. Now in government, Hockey should appropriate Kevin Rudd’s killer 2007 attack line against the Howard government: ‘This reckless spending must stop’. After a handsome election win, Hockey and Tony Abbott have a historic opportunity to attack Australia’s entrenched culture of entitlement and avoidable dependency. They can enshrine the self-evident truth that a nation’s economic wealth is generated by the prudent, and squandered by the imprudent. The Abbott government’s first Budget can put principle into practice: Abbott, Hockey and Finance minister Mathias ‘Terminator’ Cormann must move decisively to attack the culture of entitlement while their political capital is greatest.
That doesn’t mean governing without compassion. Those needing help, due to matters beyond their control, merit taxpayer-funded support. That’s why, for instance, the National Disability Insurance Scheme is a worthy social endeavour. But if your house burns down in a bushfire and you’re uninsured or haven’t paid a fire levy, why should taxpayers bear the financial burden of your stupidity?
Those digging and willingly stepping into their own holes them should not covet thy neighbour’s goods to get out. Take healthcare. If you drink, smoke, eat or fornicate yourself into a hideously expensive intensive care hospital bed or being hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine twice a week, why must Medicare or your private health insurer treat you equally to someone who is careful of their health, exercises and is moderate of habit? Despite the public health lobby’s happily demonising suppliers of alcohol, fast food and tobacco as purveyors of temptation, if knowingly you made bad choices leading to your sorry plight, that’s your problem. You deserve to bear the financial costs of your folly.
The politically untouchable boondoggle of ‘universal’ Medicare coverage gives the reckless and feckless no incentive to curtail their risky behaviour. Entitlement begets stupidity. But it’s better, and fairer, to penalise punters voluntarily assuming avoidable risks by restricting or removing their access to Medicare benefits and imposing higher risk-related health insurance premiums. Fear of the consequences of their neglect should shock recalcitrants into remedial action.
Not just imprudent individuals feel entitled to bilk their fellow citizens. Why, indeed, should failing carmakers like Holden and Ford try to extort huge taxpayer-funded bailouts to cover poor business judgments and lousy investment decisions? Yet Industry minister Ian Macfarlane is already flirting with Holden: even if it’s meant to be the absolutely, positively last handout (until the next one), Holden and its American parent should instead be told to take their opportunistic rent-seeking back to Detroit.
But politics is, above all, a matter of perception. If our politicians don’t lead by example, why should we do what they won’t? Having endured an unexpected parliamentary expenses mini-scandal in his first weeks, Abbott should not wish it away but instead take an axe to the political culture of entitlement and its nebulous and rortable parliamentary reimbursements and allowances. In future, MPs not attending each other’s weddings at their own expense should simply stay at home and wash their hair. Eclectic reading tastes should be indulged on MPs’ personal credit cards, not the taxpayer’s.
If we are to pay more than lip service to conservative values of personal thrift and responsibility, the Age of Entitlement lamented by Hockey must end. Imprudent individuals must be responsible for their unwise choices, because the prudent aren’t there to pick up their bills. For imprudent businesses, industries and special interest groups, long-ingrained habits of privatising profits and socialising losses must be banished forever. It can, it should, be done.
As a husband, I had a binding obligation to bail my wife out of her unfortunate difficulties. But Hockey, Abbott and Cormann have no such obligations to the army of rent-seekers knocking at their door. Tell ’em no, Joe.
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Terry Barnes was a senior adviser to Tony Abbott in the Howard government.
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