Monday, January 29, 2007

Howard the social democrat?

Andrew Norton, editor of the journal Policy published by the Centre for Independent Studies, has a very thoughtful article in the Courier-Mail on how the Howard government has effectively embraced the values of social democracy. Similar pieces have also been published in The Oz by CIS Executive Director Greg Lindsay.

Both authors have very long memories and a rather solid understanding of how governments should operate in a liberal democracy (at least in theory). The whole idea of big government is an anathema for both liberals and conservatives.

What makes Norton’s analysis particularly interesting is that he combines a strong theoretical understanding of small government liberalism with genuine political experience as a former adviser to the Howard government.

Norton recognises the appeal which Kevin Rudd’s recent attacks on Howard will have in certain parts of the electorate.

Most Australian voters aren't attuned to the nuances of Liberal history or ideology. But Rudd's broader attack could resonate in the electorate. A poll conducted to mark Howard's decade as Prime Minister revealed that more of us think that Australia has become "meaner" during his term than believe ordinary people have been given a chance to improve their lives. Three-quarters believe that the gap between rich and poor is growing.

Perceptions and reality frequently don’t match. The Fin Review has, over the past few weeks, run numerous articles on how the size of the Commonwealth Public Service has dramatically increased in size in the 11 years of Howard’s Prime Ministership. Certainly this would be the case even if one took account of the dramatic rise in Canberra property prices and the current accommodation crisis in Canberra which has even affected the student market.

Norton continues:

Over recent years Howard has increased per capita spending in all these areas at a faster rate than did his Labor predecessor Paul Keating … Howard talks like a social democrat too, focusing on the needs of low and middle-income families and linking egalitarianism with social cohesion. … Ironically, though, Howard's departures from social democratic orthodoxy are likely to have entrenched the social democratic state. He has extended welfare dependence far into the election-deciding middle class, while easing concerns that those wholly reliant on income support are doing nothing at the expense of hard-working taxpayers.

Well worth reading.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007