Zero public debt & democracy in the global era

President's perspective

The traditional bifurcation of domestic and foreign policy is redundant in the global era. The long-looming war with Iraq, the ongoing 'war on terrorism' and the Howard government's propensity to exploit community fear are crucial issues, but they must not be allowed to displace critical scrutiny of other policy spheres in Australia today.

As Lionel Orchard argues in his chapter from the Evatt Foundation's book Globalisation: Australian impacts - made available on the Evatt website this month - responding to the problems we face today requires "both the renewal of social democratic nation-building government and the building of democratic capacity at the global, international level".

The failure of the Democratic Party in the mid-term US elections underlines this imperative. Mimicking the failed stance of the ALP at the last federal election, the Democrats were vanquished after me-tooing President Bush on international policy and adopting a timid domestic agenda. Missing in the international action, and missing a domestic agenda with substantive room in it for working people and the poor, the party of Roosevelt, Truman and the Kennedys concealed its way to defeat.

We may deplore the way in which the Howard government has conducted Australia's foreign relations as a form of populist domestic politics by other means, but we cannot refuse the relationship itself. Policy and politics today do not come in separate containers labelled national and international, or local and global, with inherently different agenda contesting the public foreground.

Understanding the present context, and defining the possibilities and limitations therein, means looking two ways: looking inwards at Australia, and outwards at the world, simultaneously. In the global era there is a necessary unity between the national and international, and policy success depends on the political ability to represent the two in their complex balance, so the qualities of one can be rendered visible in the other.

The Howard government's approach to public debt, which is featured in this Evatt Journaal, exemplifies the necessity for double-sided analysis of contemporary politics and policy. The zero debt policy is simply inexplicable; unless you appreciate that it combines rank domestic populism with the WTO agenda to open essential public services to local and international corporate ownership, via the current PPP policies and secret GATS negotiations.

As the Australian Financial Review's Philip Baker outlines in one of this issue's feature articles, the Treasurer, Peter Costello, has brought the public debt issue to the fore by releasing a discussion paper from a review of the Commonwealth government securities market. The Costello paper assumes the privatisation of the publicly owned (majority) portion of Telstra, and frames the government's prospective May 2003 policy decision as a choice between using the proceeds of the sale to realise zero public debt, or to accumulate financial assets to realise zero 'net' public debt.

In other words, under the esoteric guise of a discussion about the pros and cons of the Australian bond market, the Costello paper has assumed away two other more fundamental policy issues: the merits of maintaining (or re-nationalising parts of) Telstra, and the merits of maintaining a public borrowing program. The guillotine for submitting public comments on the Treasurer's paper falls on 6 December.

To help fill in the policy gaps, last month the Evatt Journal featured articles on privatisation, including an article from Dissent by David Hayward that revealed a large majority of Australian citizens remain staunchly opposed to privatisation. In this issue we turn to public debt itself: the other side of this popularly and commercially, nationally and internationally related issue, featuring it in the journal and in a breakfast seminar in Sydney on Tuesday 19 November.

It is a sorry indictment of the current state of public policy making and politics in Australia that neither the privatising Howard government, nor the state governments that have developed PPP-style privatisation policies, have felt either a need or duty to explain why eliminating our internationally modest public borrowing program is in the nation's interest.

The reprehensible character of this silence is staggering, not only because eliminating debt is the main public justification for privatisation, and not only because public borrowing is cheaper than private, but also because the infrastructure of this nation is owed to the foresight and fairness of earlier generations of Australians in maintaining borrowings to fund significant ongoing public investment.

To abolish the nation's public borrowing and investment program is likely to betray Australia's future generations. To abolish the program without a thorough public explanation and public debate certainly betrays today's generation. To imagine that such a historical structural change can be made to Australian public policy without demur, indicts the nation's political and policymaking process.

Finally, on behalf of the Foundation, I congratulate the former President, Tom Uren, on being awarded a Doctorate of Science in Architecture (Honoris Causa) by the University of Sydney on Friday 8 November, about which there will be more in th next Evatt Journal.

Bruce Childs
President
Evatt Foundation