The Essential Report Archive Read the latest report

Ask not what you can do for your country

1 Feb 2011

First published on The Drum: 01/02/2011

The nation opened their hearts to Queensland as floods threatened communities and cities over summer, but now they are being asked to open their wallets it appears to be a very different story.

After more than two decades of being conditioned to expect prosperity without sacrifice, Australians seem in no mood to kick the can when it comes to rebuilding Queensland’s infrastructure.

In the first public polling of attitudes towards the proposed floods levy, Essential Research has found majority opposition to the modest impost proposed by the Prime Minister.

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the Government introducing a one-off levy on taxpayers to pay for damage caused by the recent floods?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens Qld NSW Vic Other states
Total approve 39% 63% 23% 48% 46% 35% 37% 43%
Total disapprove 53% 31% 73% 41% 46% 57% 56% 51%
Strongly approve 12% 24% 3% 19% 11% 10% 12% 14%
Approve 27% 39% 20% 29% 35% 25% 25% 27%
Disapprove 24% 20% 28% 21% 21% 25% 27% 22%
Strongly disapprove 29% 11% 45% 20% 25% 32% 29% 29%
Don’t know 8% 6% 5% 10% 9% 8% 6% 9%

What happens now will be fascinating, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will zero in on the government’s ‘big new tax’ just as he did on climate change. And if these responses are anything to go by he will be on fertile territory.

Meanwhile, the government will appeal for community spirit to support the people of Queensland and hope like hell that people separate it from the less successful elements of the stimulus package.

And the independents will make long speeches as they attempt to make up their minds which way to go.

But while the immediate future of the flood Levy will shape the nation’s short-term political agenda, the difficulties the Prime Minister faces in selling the flood levy raise broader questions about the way Australians have been conditioned over recent years to view the role of government as being limited to handing out the goodies.

Under the Howard government, this took the form of direct payments, cash bonuses for everything from having a baby to getting old. Even when the GST was introduced it was offset with a fistful of cash payments, delivered straight to middle Australia.

Howard managed to sneak in a whole series of levies for gun buy-backs, for East Timor reconstruction, even for the sugar industry, but always with a degree of bi-partisan support that allowed it to slip in under the radar.

During the Rudd-fest the focus turned to stimulus, external events making a virtue of keeping the community awash with money. And so we saw school building programs, incentives to go green (provided the house didn’t burn down) as spending money become a public virtue.

Now, for the first time in more than 20 years, the public is being asked to give something back in the national interest.

You have to go back to the Hawke-Keating government’s Wages Accord for the last appeal to national sacrifice, a social contract to forgo wage increases to fund schemes of national benefit, such as universal superannuation and expanded health care.

Funds for these programs did not come from nowhere they came from the hip pocket of workers, but there was an absence of carping scaremongering that can so easily poison good public policy.

This flood levy is so modest that it is likely to be introduced with only limited political fallout.

But what is of more concern is that the climate being created largely through the work of the Opposition leader, is to make it harder and harder for the government to ask the public to make a sacrifice, to collectively invest in the national interest.

It is a disturbing development given some of the challenges of the national political agenda.

A campaign for a national scheme to support disabled people has just been launched, a campaign to provide all Australians with disabilities basic support at home, at work and in training. But it will require funding or it will be little but lip service.

Meanwhile, the imperative of addressing climate change by putting a price on carbon will become more pressing (despite the protestations of deniers), which will inevitably mean higher power prices – the Opposition leaders much-loved ‘big new tax on everything.

And still we have the mining industry convincing ordinary Australians that the world will somehow end if the mining industry is forced to put something back.

One thing is for sure. If politics becomes a zero-sum game, where the only consideration is “what’s in it for me?” then the role of government will continue to contract. And if the flood levy is a harbinger of things to come, it will leave all policy makers up the creek without a paddle.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC