Joe Hockey has been badly verballed. His widely reported speech about Western entitlement culture, delivered in London last week, contains virtually none of the claims attributed to it.
Hockey’s speech is another contribution to that small, odd genre of speeches where Australian politicians travel to Europe to inform Europeans how stuffed their economies are.
The victims in his tale were American, British, and European taxpayers – not Australian ones.
There’s nothing in the speech to suggest he wants to eliminate the welfare system in Australia, as some have claimed, or reduce spending on health or education.
Indeed, Hockey thinks Australia is nearly a paragon of virtue. Sure, we have “not completely avoided” excessively high spending, says the shadow treasurer, but we have reduced spending “to manageable levels”.
In a combative interview on Lateline afterwards, he told Tony Jones:
We need to compare ourselves with our Asian neighbours where the entitlements programs of the state are far less than they are in Australia.
Well, of course we do. Small government means low taxes. Businesses find low taxes attractive. If we, as a nation, are to “compete” with our neighbours, we’d better be offering something more than a profligate welfare system. Restraining company and income taxes has to be a key part of that.
Hockey said Hong Kong’s “highly constrained public safety net may, at times, seem brutal” – this is not high praise, and certainly not a recommendation we imitate it.
So why did the speech spark such fury?
Yes, Hockey gave it a grandiose title – ‘The End of the Age of Entitlement’ – virtually begging to be over-analysed. Tony Jones doggedly tried to pin Hockey down on how Australia would look in a post-entitlement age. But at most Hockey volunteered that “we need to be ever vigilant”.
This isn’t much to base a controversy on. Surely, after the past few years, a more vigilant government isn’t a bad idea.
So lots of smoke, but no fire.
At least, no fire where everybody was looking. Hockey’s speech was not without a domestic purpose. It seems clear he did not intend to propose changes to Australia’s existing policy settings, but to stem future ones.
The ‘age of entitlement’ thesis is a none-too-subtle contribution to the simmering debate within the Coalition about what philosophy will drive a future Abbott government.
The Institute of Economic Affairs, where he gave the address, isn’t your run-of-the-mill free market think tank. It is one of the most influential and iconic in the world, borne out of a conversation between its founder, Antony Fisher, and the great economist Friedrich Hayek. It’s the perfect place to stake a claim as a free marketeer.
And no Howard-era policy is more regretted by the free marketeers within the parliamentary Liberal Party than the former prime minister’s embrace of middle-class welfare.
Yes, by international standards, Australian middle-class welfare is low – the lowest, in fact, in the OECD. But that’s not the point. It is a symbol of the two different visions of Australia’s future on the centre-right.
The contest between free marketeers and big government conservatives rages across lots of policy areas – from free trade to cheap milk to labour market reform – but, overwhelmingly, it is in middle-class welfare that it is most sensitive.
Hockey’s boss Tony Abbott is a big fan of the Howard social spending program. Abbott’s manifesto, the 2009 book Battlelines, goes into great detail defending universal family payments.
In the Opposition Leader’s view, “supporting women who have children should be one of the important duties of governments”.
Abbott frames the debate as between those who see having children as a personal choice and those who see it as a social good.
I argued in the Drum last year that when the Labor Party inherited Howard’s social policies after the 2007 election, they changed their justification.
Where the Coalition had spoken of middle-class welfare as a tool to shape society according to conservative values, Labor simply presented things like the baby bonus as a reward for families working hard.
The importance of Hockey’s London speech becomes apparent when we identify a subtle shift in Coalition and government rhetoric on this subject over the twelve months.
Labor’s policy agenda is increasingly focused on means testing. Abbott is starting to adopt some of the “reward” language in response. He has said means testing the baby bonus is an “attack on middle Australia”.
Such an argument – and it’s really a moral argument – contrasts sharply with the more practical, policy-oriented claims he made in Battlelines.
In this context, Hockey’s thesis about the end of an age entitlement has resonance.
Of course, there’s a big difference between professing a philosophy in opposition and pursuing it in government. Especially when your leader has other ideas.
But Hockey’s right. If governments hand out money simply for working hard – or if oppositions suggest that taking such handouts away is a personal affront to families – Australia will very quickly grow an entitlement culture to rival that of Europe’s most moribund economies.