In Australia, the Abbott Government has developed a narrative which successfully couples austere economic management with strong political leadership.
The election of Francois Mitterrand in 1981 was heralded as a triumph of a new style of politics – a politics that aspired to change lives. By 1995, after two terms as President of France, Mitterrand had come to believe that the contemporary context no longer encouraged visionary leadership.
According to Mitterrand, the era of great political figures that aspired to change lives and transform societies had ended. He famously asserted to his biographer, Georges- Marc Benamou, that he would be the last of the great presidents. Soon, “there will only be financiers and accountants”. The growing tendency to rhetorically separate economic policy from social outcomes is one of the great tragedies of modern politics. A healthy economy has little meaning if it does not enhance citizens’ wellbeing and security. Economic policy is social policy. It is the means through which the vulnerable are protected and it has the power to liberate the marginalised. Properly calibrated, it provides the foundation from which all people can enjoy rich, balanced lives. Economic policy is also an expression of political values shaped by particular cultural contexts. Chris Patten, a conservative member of parliament who served as Governor of Hong Kong and later on the European Commission, once noted that, “Europe’s jobless figures would be unacceptable in America; America’s inequality figures would be politically intolerable in much of Europe”. Is the current debate on economic policy a reflection on Australian values? Both sides of politics in Australia agree that a high level of employment is necessary to provide the greatest level of opportunity to the Australian people. Unemployment is, rightfully, our most important economic indicator. The importance of actual equality (as opposed to the agreed objective of equality of opportunity) should provide an important point of difference upon which politics as a contest of values depends. Egalitarianism, so central to our national self-identity, will lose its relevance to modern Australia unless we actively cultivate equality of ‘wealth, power and opportunity’. Creating an economic indicator that measures inequality may help re-align economic policies with shared social benefits. Values are dynamic and can be shaped by political, social and economic discourse. The accepted economic orthodoxy of the past two decades has changed the heart and soul of Australians. Our attitude to the most vulnerable members of society – asylum seekers, the unemployed, single parents – has hardened considerably. Prosperity need not come at the cost of wisdom, decency and consideration for our fellow citizens, but it would now require leadership of great vision and aptitude to restore the bridge in our consciousness that once connected economics and society. Have modern leaders become little more than glorified accountants, as Mitterrand predicted? Margaret Thatcher, a contemporary of Mitterrand, understood that economic policy could drive cultural change. In an interview for The Sunday Times in 1981, Thatcher proclaimed that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul”. Economic policy is simultaneously slave and master of the things that we value. Conservatives have rhetorically coupled economic austerity and small government with values such as individual responsibility and accountability with considerable success. Sound fiscal management is an important role of government but we must demand more from our leaders – political leadership has for too long been seen to be solely an exercise in economic management. In Australia, the Abbott Government has developed a narrative which successfully couples austere economic management with strong political leadership. It has also clearly articulated the values that underpinned its economic policy. The ‘Age of Entitlement’ is over, Joe Hockey often repeats. We have entered the ‘Age of Responsibility’. Economics is the method by which soaring wealth disparity must be addressed. It is the instrument through which the mass of the people is given the opportunity to enjoy greater happiness and secure, full lives. We must define the outcomes that will best serve the mass of the Australian people and design economic policy to meet these objectives. This objective cannot be achieved without great leadership – one which restores the technocrats and accountants to their important supporting roles. Andrew Hunter is chair of the Australian Fabians fabians.org.au