Richard Denniss and the scourge of neoliberalism

Fern Tree Tavern hosts some dangerous ideas

Richard Denniss and his new Quarterly Essay

Richard Denniss and his new Quarterly Essay

This island community we call Tasmania (or is it Lutruwita?) has a radical streak.

Think of the 1850s and anti-transportation, or the federalist lawyer and politician Andrew Inglis Clark, or our unique voting system that carries his name, or our bold, brave experiment with hydro-electricity, or the “clean-green” movement that stopped it in its tracks.

We’re not above dangerous thinking when the occasion demands. On these cold, dark evenings up here on the Mountain we tend to think a lot, to keep warm, and that was the spirit in the crowded front bar of our local watering hole, the Fern Tree Tavern, last Thursday.

We’re lucky in Fern Tree to have publicans who like to host some serious public thinking every week or two. One of the partners, Leanne Minshull, also happens to manage Tasmanian activities for The Australia Institute.

Hence last week’s guest extraordinaire of sharp tongue and sharper mind. As well as being the chief economist of the Canberra-based think-tank that employs Minshull, Richard Denniss is author of several books about society, money and “affluenza”.

Denniss is now taking aim at neoliberalism, an idea thought up 70 years ago by economists with the reasonable aim of limiting state power. Its alternative vision, in the name of individual freedom, was a world dominated by private property and the “invisible hand” of the competitive market.

In the 1980s it swept through Britain and the US. Keen not to seem like unclad emperors, successive Australian governments floated the dollar, dumped tariffs, deregulated finance and privatised many public functions, including (except in Tasmania, thankfully) electricity.

Those were strange times to work in government, as I did then. I well remember the market-testing madness that overtook the public service in the late 1990s, when John Howard’s men decreed that any activity listed in the phone book’s Yellow Pages should be handed over to the private sector.

To many Australians, myself included, it seemed like a revolution. It was astonishing to observe politicians and bureaucrats willingly ditching time-honoured probity, equity and justice standards, the product of centuries of collective effort by all sides of politics.

In Dead Right, the latest Quarterly Essay, Denniss takes stock of this fire-sale of our public inheritance, in which some politicians and public servants who led the selling orgy took lucrative consultancies with beneficiaries of their largesse, to augment already generous pensions.

In the name of continuous growth and “global competitiveness”, neoliberalism radically increased inequality and hardened social division, says Denniss: “Australians now work some of the longest hours in the developed world, unpaid overtime is the norm for most workers, and our unemployment benefits are among the stingiest in the developed world.”

Denniss points out that decades of economic growth have delivered Australia unprecedented wealth, measured per person – richer than Russia and on a par with the richest European countries – a lucky break driven largely by overseas demand for our minerals.

Yet we claim we can’t afford to pay our unemployed enough to live on, or to provide universal health care, free education for our children and other things considered to be citizen’s natural rights.

The country is rolling in money, yet people in increasing numbers – one in four Australians according to a survey released last week by the not-for-profit group Good Shepherd Microfinance – are too poor to pay a mortgage or buy everyday items. Where has all the money gone?

We need look no further than the rich list. I don’t want their money, but like most Australians I want a fairer proportion of their windfall from this country’s natural resources to find its way back to funding our sadly neglected public good.

Neoliberalism, says Denniss, is now a spent force, with even its most ardent past acolytes now reversing their stance on the central issue of private versus public ownership. The question is, what must we now do to restore damaged Australian values and institutions?

Simple: first we fix the tax system so that everyone shares equally in the cost of those cherished egalitarian ideals, then we use the billions of reclaimed tax dollars to make a better country.

A better country, says Denniss, would include things like a charter of rights, a sovereign wealth fund, a federal corruption watchdog, education to support democracy, and a national interest commission to help direct resources where they’re really needed.

Most of these ideas have been kicked around for years. Fearing unforeseen consequences, leaders treat them like the plague. But they all speak to the appalling deficit in humanity that has marked governments of all colours since they first took on the mantle of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism conned people into thinking that governments should defer to self-serving elites. But as Denniss says, in electing our representatives and holding them to account, we voters have all the power. All we have to do is to use it.

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