The Politics    Friday, September 27, 2019

Big small government

By Russell Marks

Big small government

© Tracey Nearmy / AAP Image

Why do the right’s freedom warriors keep undermining our freedoms?

There is a conspiracy theory that has long animated the hard right in Australia, as in the United States and other places: that what it calls “the left” is committed to the introduction of “socialism”, and that this socialism would obliterate individual freedom. Anxious warnings about particular policies of the Australian Labor Party and the Greens can be found regularly in the pages of the hard right’s journals (Quadrant and The Spectator Australia), frequently in its mainstreaming operations (The Australian and Sky News Australia) and occasionally in the speeches of its parliamentarians. “I would characterise Labor’s policies as socialist, absolutely,” Mathias Cormann famously declared in 2017.

Specifically, it’s the prospect of individual freedom’s erosion under policies of redistribution (higher taxes to pay for public and social services, including social security) that most concerns the hard right. So it’s somewhat surprising when a right-leaning government implements laws and technologies that undermine individual freedom much more successfully than redistributive tax-and-transfer could ever manage.

Centrelink’s automatically generated robodebts; the Coalition’s plan to drug test welfare recipients; the ever-expanding “quarantining” of social security incomes on BasicsCards; even the Australian Tax Office’s use of “hi-tech cross-checking” systems to detect workers who have overclaimed deductions “even by just a little”, as assistant tax commissioner Karen Foat put it today – these are all examples of high-tech tools that directly diminish individual freedoms.

Robodebt’s automated, algorithmic data-matching is now notorious, mostly because of its use of impersonal and apparently flawed technology to generate debts – sometimes seven years old – that individual welfare recipients then need to prove they don’t owe. Robodebt’s initial targets were young people and single parents. A confidential departmental cabinet submission last month outlined plans to expand its focus to include aged pensioners and Aboriginal people living in remote communities. In a submission to the Senate committee inquiring into the scheme, the department confirmed this week that it wants to run almost double the number of automated “income reviews” that it’s already run to meet its own “savings targets”.

The ATO’s annual warnings to individual taxpayers are even more galling given the ability of giant multinationals to escape tax burdens almost entirely – it emerged this week that Netflix paid $182,000 in tax in Australia despite earning $533 million in Australian revenue. The Morrison government has signalled its intention to go after the tech giants, but it’s much easier to use automated systems to track, audit, fine and punish individual taxpayers who can’t rely on teams of well-paid lawyers and accountants.

The need for departments to think up ever more innovative and effective methods to “save” expenses is made increasingly necessary due to the Coalition’s insistence on two other policies – tax cuts and budget surpluses – and these during a time of economic sluggishness. These policies have their origins in a simplistic commitment to what the right calls “small government”; it was, after all, the denial of individual freedom under Soviet-style “big governments” that animated the right’s intellectual prophets, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Despite the hard right’s conspiracies, nobody in Australia is advocating for a Soviet-style socialist system of central planning, protection for state-owned monopolies and absolute income equality. In his influential argument against Soviet-style socialism, The Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek even allowed for the kind of limited redistribution, economic policymaking and social and public service provision with which Australians are now familiar.

Yet it is those who would be most sympathetic with Hayek’s views – the Morrison government – who are stewarding the regime of “automated inequality” and its surveillance of poor and, increasingly, middle-class Australians. It’s a regime that is actually harming individual freedom, quite unlike the redistributive policies Labor took to the last election.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“I want to see a government that actually cares that workers’ entitlements are met, that cares about the need to increase wages for the benefit of the economy.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese referring to the Morrison government’s stated intention to penalise employers for wage theft after it emerged that Bunnings has been underpaying part-time employees’ superannuation entitlements for almost a decade.

“If it is right to kill a human in the foetal stage for any reason whatsoever, then why would it not be right to kill an adult human for any reason whatsoever if there is no objective point of transition from the moral status of one to the moral status of the other?”

Quadrant marks the passage of the Abortion Law Reform Act through the NSW parliament with an essay by “independent” philosopher Michael Kowalik.

The best of 7am
It’s been more than three months since we launched 7am, a daily news podcast hosted by Peabody Award–winning journalist Elizabeth Kulas. Here are some highlights.


The number of cents per litre by which petrol in Australia is overpriced after global oil prices returned to the levels they were at before the recent drone strikes on Saudi Arabian facilities. Maybe we needed K-Rudd’s FuelWatch after all?

Queensland taxpayers face the prospect of subsidising Adani by up to $700 million if their government strikes a royalty deal before securing access to the company’s rail line, according to the Australia Institute

The list

“I give them everything I can. As of this week, I’ve been working on this film for over two years. Every day this is all I’ve done,” says Jim Jarmusch. The Dead Don’t Die, his mannered but affecting take on the zombie apocalypse, has just opened the Cannes Film Festival. “I’m so sick of zombies, man.”

Commentator’s nightmare, aka Seeing double: Sam Reid (Sydney Swans, GWS), Josh Kennedy (Sydney Swans, West Coast Eagles), Bailey Williams (Western Bulldogs, West Coast Eagles), Callum Brown (GWS, Collingwood), Tom Lynch (Adelaide, Richmond), Jack and Jackson Trengove (Port Adelaide and Western Bulldogs)

“There are no accidents in the rhetoric of protection: it intends to seal off white Western society from the remainder of the world’s population both biologically and geographically. The white female body was, and often still is, regarded as in need of protection, not for the sake of the women but because they function as stand-ins for white society itself.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

The Politics

Image of Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Making his Mark

The dropping of Bernard Collaery’s prosecution is one of the simplest yet most meaningful actions this government has taken

Image of former energy minister Angus Taylor, February 17, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Fools’ equivalence

The Coalition’s criticism of Albanese’s official travel is a sign of just how galling this Opposition is going to be

Image of former defence minister Linda Reynolds during Question Time in the Senate, June 17, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Women’s Lib(eral Party)

Linda Reynolds’ newfound enthusiasm for quotas ignores the many reasons women are turning away from her party

Image of Minister for Emergency Management Murray Watt in Brisbane, June 8, 2022. Image © Jono Searle / AAP Images

In deep water

As climate-fuelled flooding hits Australia again, the Greens are being urged to fall into line on an insufficient 2030 target

From the front page

Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

Photo of the hands of an elderly woman. Image © Yui Mok/PA Wire

Age is just a number

The slow decline of Australia’s aged-care system into a bureaucratic nightmare

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

What the oil and gas industry tells itself

A week after the devastating floods, the fossil-fuel industry described the scarcity of new projects today as “frightening”

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better