Bien pensant commentators berate the Howard government for failing to champion Australia’s culture of tolerance, its sense of compassion, its commitment to multiculturalism and a host of other values. But there is one critical value that rarely makes the list: self-reliance. And there is not a government or opposition in the country, federal or state, that is not engaged in comprehensively trashing it.
After Labor’s 1996 election loss, outgoing minister Gordon Bilney said the ALP lost the votes of everyone ‘whose sex lives didn’t improve’. He had a point. Increasingly, Australians are becoming the sort of people who, confronted with overgrown grass on the verge, would sooner call the council than get out the mower. If their teenage son falls from the roof of a moving train, it’s the fault of the government or train company for not preventing him from climbing there. The concept that citizens have the right and the responsibility to make their own decisions and solve their own problems is rapidly being lost.
The remorseless march of state intervention seems unstoppable. As Ronald Reagan lamented: ‘No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size.’ Since federation, our books of statutes and regulations have grown at a frightening pace. To an extent, technological progress and the increasing complexity of society have necessitated such growth. But to a much greater extent, the growth is the result of the political impetus in a democracy for politicians to be seen to be doing something.
The overwhelming nature of this trend is concealed by the fact that it favours neither left nor right – the statists are not a discrete political group.
For instance, the proliferation of anti-discrimination laws has culminated in draconian legislation such as the Victorian government’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, under which a Pakistani-born Christian scholar of Islam was recently hauled before a tribunal for offending Muslims with observations on how passages of the Koran are used to incite terrorism. Ironically, the scholar fled Pakistan in 1987 while facing accusations under Pakistani blasphemy laws.
Meanwhile, Australia’s anti-terrorism legislation has made membership of proscribed groups an offence in itself, raising serious questions about our commitment to freedom of association. It is unquestionable that the threat of terrorism necessitates some infringement of liberty. But in the rush to confiscate my nail file, the authorities forget that the only September 11 plane not to reach its target was stopped by brave passengers, not government regulations. When a lunatic smuggled wooden stakes onto a local flight and launched himself at the cockpit, it was staff and passengers, not government ‘sky marshals’, who saved the day.
There are plenty of other examples from the left (GM crop bans; draconian driving laws) and right (gay marriage prohibition; censorship of sexually graphic films) of regulations which are unnecessary, excessive or misguided. There are also many examples of regulation which are not so much left or right as just plain stupid, like prohibiting NSW restaurant-goers from standing with their drinks
The saddest thing is not that we are losing our freedoms; rather it is that we are clamouring for them to be taken away. There seems to be a presumption that the mere identification of a problem or injustice is proof that a new regulation or government program is needed to counter it, with no regard for whether the detriments of intervention outweigh the benefits. In an imperfect world, this is a recipe for a limitless state.
What we, the people, have made, we can unmake. It’s time to pare back the state and restore power and responsibility to the citizenry.
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