Australia has been relatively lucky. The ‘tyranny of distance’ has isolated us from the disastrous wars of Old Europe. Our huge land can support many times our population, and throughout history its resources have supplied our economy with boom after boom.
As a consequence, Australia entered the 20th century with the highest living standards in the world.
But by the 1970s, we couldn’t even crack the top dozen.
Australians are an entrepreneurial, creative and diverse people. The blame for this fall can be placed solely at the feet of government decision makers, propelled by ideology, the lust for power, or unfortunate ignorance of the consequences of their actions.
Some of these mistakes are obvious. In 1935, the Queensland Government introduced cane toads into Australia to combat pests in sugar cane crops without full understanding of the consequences. Cane toads are now considered one of Australia’s worst environmental disasters, breeding freely and poisoning native animals.
Many of the most harmful policies were the earliest ones, and have been the hardest to repeal.
The Immigration Restriction Act was the first bill passed in the new Federal Parliament and inaugurated the national White Australia Policy. This terrible policy gave bigotry the legislative blessing it was to enjoy for more than half a century.
Another early policy established the doctrine of wage fixing in Australia, rigidly setting workers’ salaries to enable a man with an average sized family to live in ‘frugal comfort’. Sounds like a good thing, unless you are one of the workers who, through no fault of your own, are suddenly priced out of the market and condemned to unemployment.
Centralised wage fixing has been devastating for low-skilled and migrant workers, and it is only recently that it has been substantially pruned back. Even now, many politicians still don’t understand that government can’t set wages, only the market can.
The Australian media also provides an example of disastrous government policy. If it wasn’t for political control over the airwaves, which the government also gained quickly after federation, perhaps media policy could’ve avoided a century-long comedy of errors.
Over the last century, with their power over the broadcast media governments, have held back the introduction of AM radio, television, FM radio, subscription TV and now digital television. Never mind the consumers, media policy since the signing of the 1905 Wireless Telegraphy Act has been designed to protect the established media from so called ‘harmful competition’.
If a service like YouTube required government-managed airwaves to operate, rather than the free-for-all internet, there is no chance it would have been given a license to operate in Australia.
Patrick White’s Nobel Prize in 1972 was a notable success for Australian literature, and the government speedily inaugurated the Australian Council for the Arts. But by isolating artists from their commercial audience, they may have condemned much of Australian art to mediocrity.
How would Charles Dickens’s have novels read if he had not been exposed to the demands of a fickle public?
The steady production of publicly funded Australian films, so many unwatched, is not a failure of Australian taste, but of government policy.
When we failed to win a single gold at the Montreal Olympics, the government’s response was, unfortunately, predictable. The Australian Institute of Sport, modelled on similar institutions behind the Iron Curtain, spends an enormous sum of taxpayer’s money on elite athletes, despite the huge commercial power of sport in this country.
After both success – Patrick White’s Nobel – and failure – the Montreal Olympics – the government has responded by creating vast new bureaucracies. This steadily increasing burden upon the economic and cultural life of Australia is not consequence free.
How has all this occurred?
Perhaps the worst mistake was Canberra itself. The invention of Canberra moved the bureaucracies and regulators away from the economic and cultural powerhouses of the nation, and dropped them into a new, meticulously planned ‘garden city’ in the middle of nowhere.
As the historian Keith Hancock wrote, ‘Canberra is a document of Australian immaturity’.
Isolated from the people they were supposed to be governing, it is little wonder that these vast Canberra bureaucracies increased their own size and influence. Many of the mistakes made in Australian history are a consequence of this. A lesson may be learnt for new and developing countries – never move your government away from your citizens.
Thankfully, steady reform since the 1970s has partly reversed some of the worst mistakes. But if we’d had a strong, liberal, free-trade party in Australia that embraced individualism and economic and social freedom throughout the course the twentieth century, perhaps we could have avoided some of these disastrous policies.
For a long time it has been common to talk about market failures. Let’s start talking about the failures of government.