May 28, 2004 | Jeff Wall

The “Handout Disease”. Let’s quarantine it now.

Forget about Willie Mason’s ADHD (Absolute Dick Head Disorder), Australia faces a more serious disease that all sides of politics would do well to quarantine with some urgency.
We run the real risk of the “handout disease” dominating our political process, and undermining good public policy. We need to quarantine it because it is endemic in our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea.
Having worked for political leaders in PNG for more than a quarter of a century, I am in a better position than most to “identify” this dreaded scourge even before it takes hold.
The uninformed media here generally suggests that PNG’s greatest problems are crime and corruption. Without devaluing the magnitude of either, the handout mentality not only breeds corruption, it makes it very difficult for any government to implement good public policy in the national interest.
I am now sure one of the reasons why the recent Federal Budget has not lifted the standing of the Howard Government is that the handout mentality has taken hold in the Australian community.
In Papua New Guinea, the more politicians hand out, the more their electors demand. And it does not necessarily translate into votes either.
Before the 2002 National Elections, the Morauta Government indulged in a record spending spree – through its ministers and backbenchers. Notwithstanding the handouts, just about all its Ministers and Members lost their seats!
The voters took their goodies, and then voted against them.
Now there were several reasons for this. Firstly, it simply wasn’t possible to give a handout to every village/community or voter. Those that missed out were very unhappy. Secondly, because handouts have been the “order of the day” for so long in PNG, people have come to expect them as a right, and give no credit to governments or politicians for their “generosity”. And, thirdly, a significant number of voters believe that if they elect a new Member he will give them more in the next term to try and hold on to his seat.
The “handouts” in PNG come in many forms – grants for small business projects, funding for local roads or schools, and, in too many cases, cold hard cash dressed up as something respectable.
The “handouts” in Australia may be different – tax cuts, baby bonuses, family benefits – but I think they are beginning to have the same impact.
Listening to the “Open Line” callers since the Budget, I have been amazed at the number of people who have rung to complain there was “nothing” in the budget for them or who have said “they’re only giving us back what is ours anyway”.
There is, of course, a third reason – a healthy scepticism in the electorate that “those who giveth also taketh away”.
We have now got a healthy dose of the handout disease – the symptoms of which are a community expectation that every federal budget will contain tax cuts, or higher family payments, or some other sweetener.
The disease has taken hold at the state level as well, with South Australia yesterday joining the list of states giving stamp duty and similar concessions for first home buyers.
I can recall the era when a “good pre-election” budget was one that did not increase the excise duty on beer, smokes and petrol. With the exception of the latter, these are now indexed automatically and don’t even rate a mention in the budget.
If my diagnosis is right, then the handout disease won’t just hit the Howard Government, it is a danger for Mark Latham as well.
If he tries to match the government’s largesse he might end up actually losing votes from an electorate that is either sceptical of pre-election spending splurges, or, one that has caught the handout disease and believes it is only getting what it is entitled to and deserves even more – or a combination of both.
Is it too much to expect that, between now and the election, either side of politics might actually say something about the need for a stronger sense of “community” in Australia…………..and offer funding for genuine community-building, and not just politically-driven handouts?
Even leaders in Papua New Guinea with the noblest of intentions struggle to overcome this dreadful disease. We need to quarantine it, and develop a vaccination, before we go the same way.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 2:01 pm | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Uncategorized

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed this article, not for its politics which were of course execrable, but for the whiff of fear that hangs about it like the sudden stink of a newly soiled nappy.
    What is the fear that haunts Jeff’s imaginary? Well it is the fear that haunts the imaginary of those who rule us or those intellectuals that identify with them. It is nothing less than the the anxiety that the people may have become ungrateful and ungovernable. Such anxiety can give way to terror in times of social upheaval. We are not there yet, unfortunately, but Jeff is correct in discerning the signs that the lives of rulers will become ever more uncomfortable as those who are ruled acquire new needs and fresh desires.
    It is a beautiful dialectic and I wish it godspeed in its remorseless progress.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — May 30, 2004 @ 9:53 am

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