Gorging on Government

By Novak, Julie | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Gorging on Government


Novak, Julie, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Australians are more dependent on government than ever, writes Julie Novak. And it's undermining our democracy.

In modern Australian political culture it is widely conceived that any citizen has an equal opportunity to become Prime Minister, if they so choose.

The varied backgrounds of our 26 Prime Ministers from Edmund Barton to Kevin Rudd appear to give some credence to this general claim.

Our longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, had a distinguished law career before entering politics, playing a key role in the fateful 1920 High Court Engineers' Case.

Other former Prime Ministers included teachers (Lyons), miners (Cook), railway workers (Chifley), air force pilots (Gorton), and grocery store managers (Scullin).

The ascendancy of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in November 2007 was on the back of his prior background as a career public servant. He served as a diplomat in Australia's embassies in Beijing and Stockholm before assuming the role of Director General in the Cabinet Office of the former Queensland Goss Labor government in the early 1990s.

But is it really the case that absolutely anybody could become Prime Minister if only they put their mind to it?

Beneath the veneer of the political beauty contest lies a deeper issue at the heart of real exclusivity that is the possession of political office. It is the nature of the relationship between voters and the state itself.

A self reliant citizenry procuring their incomes primarily through private market exchanges would tend to favour a public sector limited to core functions of protecting private property rights and freedom of contract, maintaining the rule of law, and providing a restrictive set of services ensuring individuals live peaceably with each other.

On the other hand, if a critical mass of people emerge whose livelihoods are dependent upon government benefits then a political constituency develops propelling the further expansion of the state.

When this occurs, aspirant political representatives increasingly compete against each other for high office by offering more generous employment conditions in the public service, or proposing new and more handsome welfare benefits and services for potential beneficiaries spread across the community.

As the number of dependents upon the state grows it becomes politically difficult for those who would traditionally argue for smaller government and lower taxes to advocate policies loosening the velvet chains of government dependency from the wrists of the general public.

The consequence is that liberal conservative parties get drawn into an undignified auction with their political opponents over who ought to lavish the largest amount of taxpayer financed preferments upon the electorate.

In the Australian context the contest between the major political parties over who provides the most extensive public sector maternity support scheme is a case in point.

The numbers of Australians with an interest in the maintenance and growth of big government are startling.

The first group of dependents are people working in Commonwealth, state and local public sectors.

In 2007 it is estimated that there were about 1.7 million government employees, representing 10.9 per cent of the adult population. By comparison 1.5 million people were employed by governments in 2000 (or 10.6 per cent of the adult population).

An additional 217,500 people (about the size of the greater Hobart region) were directly added to the public sector payroll over the period, an increase of almost 15 per cent.

The second group of people depending on government wholly or partly for their income are working age welfare recipients.

Given the strong economic conditions experienced for much of the past decade the total number of income support beneficiaries, including those on unemployment payments, declined from 2. …

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