News Following Josh Frydenberg’s yesterday’s heroes is the last thing Australia needs

Following Josh Frydenberg’s yesterday’s heroes is the last thing Australia needs

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The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

And that has a lot of people – including many serious economists, the Labor Opposition and trade union leaders – very worried that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is about to demonstrate the wisdom of Santayana’s insight.

Out of the blue at last Friday’s National Press Club appearance Mr  Frydenberg nominated two champions of neoliberal economics from the 1980s as his “inspiration”.

Britain’s “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher still makes conservatives dewy eyed as they recall her tax cutting, union busting, deregulation and privatisation years as Prime Minister.

It’s a job she held for more than 11 years before her party decided that she had outlived her usefulness and despatched her in a party room coup.

Mrs Thatcher’s friend and ally implementing the “trickle down” economic dogma of the time was US President Ronald Reagan.

Mr Reagan’s fervour was such that his first Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, quit when the President delivered massive top-end tax cuts but gave up the fight to get  the spending cuts needed to pay for them through the Congress.

The trickle down didn’t happen. The Budget was left massively in the red and there was no pandemic to blame for it.

Both leaders set a framework of widening social inequality that fed enormous resentment, sowing the seeds for the disruptions of Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in America.

Mrs Thatcher is a curious leader to call on for inspiration at a time when Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a message of Australians “all being in this together” as the nation confronts the coronavirus crisis.

Mrs Thatcher famously said there was no such thing as “society” – rather it was up to “individual men and women” to work out their own problems and achieve their own prosperity.

Mr Morrison on Monday was very reluctant to identify completely with a Thatcher policy agenda with its legacy of bitter division and exclusion.

Mr Morrison framed his response in terms of the “JobMaker Plan” that is built on enabling a business-led recovery “bringing business and unions together to create the industrial relations conditions to get people into work”.

scott morrison grass
Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The Prime Minister said he was “leading an Australian response to this” but he is not all that far from his treasurer or Frydenberg’s heroes of yesteryear.

For one thing the government’s scaling down of support for businesses and the unemployed in the months ahead on the pretext of “affordability” is Thatcherite retro thinking.

Replacing a $70 billion support package with one worth $22 billion can only lead to much higher unemployment – something the Treasury’s own analysis shows.

And that projection was based on assumptions that Victoria – 20 per cent of the national economy, would be over the worst of its shutdown in four weeks’ time.

532 new COVID-19 cases on Monday suggest this is very optimistic.

And what is just as problematic: The message that employees should be grateful if they don’t see a return to pre-Covid rostering, work conditions or pay so long as they have some sort of job.

Business won’t be leading any recovery, especially in retail and services if customers don’t have the money to spend.

This is after all the biggest fallacy of supply side economics: It does little to boost demand, only the government can do that in these circumstances.

A point Reserve Bank governor Phillip Lowe made last week when he called for a different mindset to the one pretty well in vogue for the past three decades when it comes to economic stimulus, debt and deficits.

Margaret Thatcher though could prove a dangerous hero for another very senior politician with dire consequences for Australia.

As our defence and foreign ministers arrive in Washington for the annual Ausmin talks, it is widely expected they will come under enormous pressure to be more anti-China.

A desperate Donald Trump trailing badly in the polls may want to emulate Mrs Thatcher’s come-from-behind landslide election win in 1983 after she took Britain to war in the Falklands.

An engineered confrontation in the South China Sea would really make 2020 an “annus horribilis”.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics