The decision not to hand over $25 million of taxpayers’ money to SPC Ardmona as part of a rescue package for the fruit cannery in Shepparton may prove to be a defining moment for the Abbott government.
That’s certainly what some senior ministers seem to believe. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the decision was a defining point for his government’s industry policy. The workers at SPC Ardmona, he said, were wholly the responsibility of SPC Ardmona’s parent company, Coca-Cola Amatil.
Tony Abbott said it was not the role of the government to hand over taxpayers’ money for a restructure of an ailing business owned by a profitable multi-national. The restructure - which would fundamentally involve cuts in pay and conditions for workers - was a job for the company. Full stop.
At the same time, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews announced an inquiry into the welfare system because, he said, the system was basically unsustainable. In other words, too many Australians were receiving welfare payments.
Given that Andrews ruled out the aged pension for examination and said nothing about so-called middle class welfare, including Tony Abbott’s multi-billion dollar paid parental leave scheme, it can be presumed that he was talking in the main about disability pensions and unemployment benefits.
Then there’s Treasurer Joe Hockey’s repeated warning - echoed this week by Tony Abbott - that the age of entitlement was over. Big changes are coming and we better get ready for them.
Taken together with the government’s clear intention to weaken the already weakened trade union movement, perhaps we are at a game changing moment in Australian politics and more importantly, perhaps we are witnessing a fundamental change in the role of government at a time of great economic and social change.
One commentator has argued that what Joe Hockey is on about - and what Tony Abbott, for now at least, supports - is a fundamental shift towards ‘the Protestant ethic of work, thrift and self-reliance’.
That’s what knocking back the $25 million for SPC Ardmona, letting Holden exit car manufacturing in Australia, taking on the trade unions and supporting a review of the welfare system is all about. So is the signal from Hockey that he does not support any taxpayer-funded scheme to help drought-affected farmers.
Hockey, according to Peter Hartcher in The Sydney Morning Herald, apparently is a spokesman for private − as opposed to public - virtue. Hartcher is not alone in this view. More than a few journalists close to the coalition have said more or less the same thing, which means it reflects what Hockey thinks and is planning to implement.
This is revolutionary stuff. The Liberal Party has never really been a party of small government - of ‘private virtue’ − not during the Menzies era, not when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister and not even during the Howard era.
Indeed, government support for industry, for the expansion of the welfare system, for tax breaks and other concessions for business, can be sheeted home to coalition governments and Labor governments almost equally.
Then of course there’s the coalition partner, the Nationals of the party of agrarian socialists whose ideology Barnaby Joyce spelt out so eloquently and emotionally this week when he argued for billions of dollars of support for farmers in drought-affected areas of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Who would have thought that a Tony Abbott led government - even if Joe Hockey and a small group of senior Liberal minister are the drivers of the revolution rather than Abbott - would have the ideological zeal and the vision to re-define the role of government in such a radical way.
Is this the same Tony Abbott who opposed WorkChoices in the Howard cabinet and who, on all the available evidence, was an enthusiastic supporter of the expansion of welfare to the middle class and whose signature policy proposal in opposition was his expensive and generous paid parental scheme?
We will see. Of course there will be inconsistencies with this private virtue stuff and the commitment to no more government hand-outs - and tax breaks? - to business, like the $16 million to Cadbury in Tasmania and the $3.5 million to the Tasmanian fish farmer, Huon Aquaculture, to be used for a machinery upgrade, but that’s to be expected at the start of a revolution.
The timing of this revolution is challenging to say the least. There is mounting evidence that the long period of post-war economic growth in the developed economies is over. There is mounting evidence to suggest that full employment will become - if it hasn’t already - an unattainable goal.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that wealth and income inequality will increase and that the benefits of economic growth will continue to accrue more and more to a smaller and smaller group of the most wealthy people.
In a sense, what Joe Hockey is saying is that all of this is not a matter for government to be concerned about. There is no place for government in dealing with the major changes in our economy and the economies of every developed country.
The role of government is to get out of the way of change. That’s what the elevation of private virtue, thrift and self-reliance to an ideology means.
That’s what Ian Macfarlane meant, we must presume, when he said that the future for the workers at SPC Ardmona is a matter for Coca-Cola Amatil and not something that can concern the government.
This will not be a sustainable position if the cannery closes and 1000 workers with skills that are not easily transferable to other industries lose their jobs. And end up on unemployment benefits. They will, inevitably become a government/tax payer responsibility. So will all the workers who lose their jobs in the manufacturing sector - and the services sector - as these jobs move overseas or technology makes human labor increasingly redundant.
The trouble with this end of entitlement ideology and the elevation of self-reliance, thrift and private virtue to self-evident truths is that at least since the Great Depression of the 1930s, there has been no government of the sort that Hockey envisages, not in Australia, not in the US, not in Britain or Europe.
Perhaps 50 years of economic growth which gave rise to an increasingly wealthy - and growing - middle class, accounts for that; there was indeed an age of entitlement and there was a sort of consensus between conservatives and social democrats about the role of government that is now ending.
Perhaps the Abbott government’s refusal to hand over a relatively paltry $25 million to SPC Ardmona really is a line in the sand that marks the beginning of a revolution that will have large - but mostly unforeseeable - consequences.