Spending discipline
Using money to shape messaging is being cemented as a permanent feature of conservative budgets

Ultimately, it was $4.90 that did for Al Qaeda. In the thick of the War on Terror in 2002, George W Bush’s officials were still deciding how to deal with captured members of the group, determining whether or not detainees would be subject to the Geneva Conventions. Legend has Donald Rumsfeld and others steamed at the idea of paying terrorists a daily stipend (that, along with access to musical instruments and scientific equipment, is a requirement for POWs under the laws of war). So the concept of the enemy combatant was born, and soon attended by the Torture Memos.

We can sympathise with a reluctance to give pocket money to Al Qaeda, but it remains significant that the deciding factor here wasn’t moral, or procedural, or legal, but financial. And we can see an echo of that gravity in our own budgetary measures today. Because nothing is as exasperating for a conservative government as giving taxpayer dollars to a class of rentier critics.

For the past two decades, right-of-centre governments in the West have been run more and more like businesses, and it’s only natural their rubric of efficiency would be applied to speech and criticism as well. When he was still immigration minister, Philip Ruddock had a mantra of no government-funded government bashing, and that strain runs through the Turnbull budget as well.

The areas where cuts run deepest – foreign aid, higher education, public broadcasting, legal assistance, cultural institutions – are also those that tend to produce criticism of conservative administrations. Perhaps no budget has been so squarely aimed at its ideological enemies as the Abbott–Hockey broadside of 2014, but echoes of its excesses can still be found in this fresh suite of policies. Australia’s foreign aid levels have dipped to their lowest ever; the remainder is skimmed to facilitate offshore detention, and managed by increasingly compliant private contractors.

As well as strangling critics with tightened purse strings, the Coalition has sought in the past to bludgeon them with gag clauses and outright threats. Queensland’s Newman government in 2012 and the federal government in 2014 made contractual attempts to stop taxpayer-funded NGOs criticising the government. George Brandis has a particular disdain for this in the legal realm, and reinstituted conditions forbidding organisations from using Commonwealth money for any activity directed towards law reform or advocacy.

Brandis followed up in his arts portfolio as well: when the Sydney Biennale boycott threatened to embarrass the government and its contractors, he was livid. Either artists could fall into line with de facto support of offshore detention, or Australia Council funding would no longer be available. He even threatened to intervene by ministerial fiat. “You will readily understand that taxpayers will say to themselves: ‘If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?’”

That’s a very odd view of the state’s role in cultural production. We can ask the question in reverse: if the Biennale has Transfield’s money, why does it need the government’s? The arts is supposed to be publicly funded by the government partly because its intrinsic and sometimes political value might conflict with commercial interests. We’re not just subsidising a half-arsed commercial venture. It’s telling that when this traditional conflict does occur, the government is quick to take the side of commerce.

This is all predictable by now, and so are the lines of argument against it. A cowed and beggared university sector isn’t like to facilitate the Innovation Society, and a CSIRO that does no “public good” science won’t be much good at all. Like most attempts at command and control, it ultimately winds up being inefficient. Even the Productivity Commission found advocacy to be an efficient use of government spending on legal resources.

What makes it noteworthy is that those targeted can’t seem to articulate their opposition to the government at all. Universities long ago gave up on fighting for extra funding. Their strategy instead was to lie back and think of deregulation, aiding and abetting a policy of semi-privatisation: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But the latest Turnbull budget has not only screwed them, but pulled out half-way. The cuts remain, but public opposition has arrested full deregulation. So higher education finds itself becalmed – devoid of public funds, but unable to glean the private funds necessary to replace them.

That’s a vicious lesson that should have been clear at the outset: you can’t run a public service as a pure business, because if it was a pure business, it wouldn’t exist. When recipients of funds try to align themselves with the wishes of “management”, they suddenly find themselves unable to articulate their own interests, or even find a rhetorical basis for doing so. It’s not the crude chilling effect of funding cuts that’s the real worry – that rumble can still happen in the media, just. Instead, it’s the lockjaw creeping through a group of bureaucrats who see themselves as pseudo-businesspeople, who have turned out not to be much good at being either.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to the Monthly.

@rgcooke

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