There it appeared on one of the many entrances to Port Douglas’ iconic Four Mile Beach – literally overnight – a shiny new, expensive metal sign extolling the virtues of fishing and advising people how to catch them.
Then there was the real catch. The sign told us that the money for the signage had been provided by the Federal Government. A bit of digging tells us that applications under the grants scheme closed in September 2021 and the grants were made in February 2022, just before the start of the caretaker period before the federal election.
Pity it took more than a year to put the signs up to reap the electoral award: Your Coalition Morrison Government doing great things for the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ people of the (marginal) seat of Leichhardt.
Never mind. It was a good try. The Coalition won the seat, even if it lost government.
This sign, and dozens more of them up and down the far north Queensland coast in the seat of Leichhardt, are small monuments to everything that has gone wrong with government and public administration in Australia over the past 30 years.
What, for mercy’s sake, is the Federal Government doing putting up signs promoting recreational fishing in remote far north Queensland. This was not a sign directed at the national purpose of preserving the national fishing stock. To the contrary, it was pandering the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’ mob that want to plunder that stock.
Moreover, the haste of the scheme was obvious. The illustration for the species “whiting” looked far too plump to be a whiting, even to this fishing klutz. And the sign suggested that you could take black-tipped reef sharks off the beach as a popular eating fish. Talk about the unspeakable chasing the uneatable.
But the local member Warren Entsch is a good bloke who knows his voters’ priorities and they should be grateful for the signs.
In reality, the signs are a total waste of federal public money – just squalid vote-buying. Nothing on the signs tells anyone anything they do not already know or could not find easily on the internet.
The beginning of the serious misuse of public money to buy votes for the Government of the day began with Prime Minister Paul Keating and his Sport Minister Ros Kelly with the Sports Rorts Scheme v1.0. A great big whiteboard in the minister’s office sorted out the merits of each grant. Really.
Prime Minister John Howard turned it into an art form with the Rural and Regional Grants scheme which funded roads to nowhere and park benches in marginal and hope-to-win electorates.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempted to perfect it with the schemes for carparks and other economically irresponsible spending in marginal suburban electorates.
But the broad picture is more important, illustrating the fact that Coalition Governments have no monopoly on responsible fiscal frugality. To the contrary. The issue is not how badly they spend money, but who benefits and who is denied by the misplaced spending.
In the past 30 years, a lot of federal spending has not been directed at the national good or the benefit of a majority of people but at the prospects for re-election.
In tandem with the misspend was the massive transfer of public functions to the private sector, in the misplaced belief that the private sector – driven by the profit motive – would always do it better. Wrong. It would always do it more profitably, which benefits only shareholders and upper management.
Government was handed to big corporations on a plate. And they did what they do naturally. Like a hungry dog they ate whatever was on the plate.
The result has been government beholden to big corporations; the highly paid; and government contractors, especially in the military. Revenues were trashed with tax breaks for the rich, such as capital-gains holidays and cash for franking credits. Spending on public provision of health and education was redirected to the private-sector.
This now poses an existential threat to the Albanese Government. Coalition Governments could get away with poor public services with misinformation about public finances. Labor Governments cannot. Voters expect better.
Labor is its own worst enemy at the moment. It has to have the courages to change direction in three major areas – immigration, military spending, and tax – so it has the wherewithal to deliver three things that people took for granted in the mid-1980s – free, timely, quality healthcare; free, properly resourced, quality public education; and the expectation that with a bit of effort you could own your own home by around the age of 30.
If it could be done then, it can be done now.
On military spending, Australia is again going all the way with LBJ with expensive weaponry and risk of being dragged into wars that are not in our interest. The latest horror in the nuclear submarine debacle-in-the-making is that $3 billion in Australian public money is to be poured into American shipyards. Our money is to be spent on their soil. This wasteful stuff has got to be reined in.
On immigration, the Labor Government has been completely duped by big business which wants to gain cheap, pliable labour and a bevy of new customers. Latest ABS figures show that Australia suffered a population growth of 563,200 people in the year ended 31 March 2023. This is 2.2 per cent – the level that keeps Third World countries in poverty. Of that 454,400 was in migration.
This is insanity. Media report after media report on housing and congestion extols the virtues of every expensive hare-brained idea and scheme as solutions except the obvious one. And think of the congestion and burden on Medicare and public education. Polls show large majorities are against this.
It is no coincidence that in the mid-1980s when immigration was at 70,000 a year (one sixth of the present rate) we had free timely medical care; good public education; and much less congestion.
On tax, the Government has to abandon the Stage Three cuts and claw back massive tax breaks for the well-off begun by the Howard Government.
Only then can the Government deliver the services that will stop people saying a plague on both your houses and drifting to third parties and hung parliaments.
Votes are not to be fished for piecemeal, but earned through good broad policy and wise public spending.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 19 September 2023. Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.