Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Great Expectations


Post-budget polls reveal that the public haven't flocked to Labour as its leaders hoped. I'm reminded of Janet Fraser's lament. The Labour Prime Minister's wife sobbed to a friend: "These people! The more we do for them, the more they demand". Ungratefulness has been the problem faced by all social democratic governments since social engineering began. The last big social spending ministry, the Kirk-Rowling government of 1972-5, was unceremoniously rejected. The Clark government looks to be heading the same way. Reason? Lolly scrambles always produce loud lamentations from those who miss out, and scowls from others who want larger lollies. After 1975 the money to buy them dried up. Now, thanks to the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, and flush with surpluses, the current government threw caution to the winds and reverted to old-style Labour handouts and more bureaucracy. It seems they'll have to learn the basic lesson all over again. Pity, because careful polling would have told them there was always a 6-4 margin for tax cuts rather than extra spending and more welfare dependency.

Why didn't the government give the surplus back to taxpayers to whom it belonged? Michael Cullen suggested in the run up to the budget that cutting taxes only helped the rich. But it depends on how you target them. Robert Muldoon and others produced several tax cuts that were aimed at low to middle income workers. Cullen could have done the same. Besides, at the rate "fiscal drag" is pulling people into the top marginal tax rate of 39 cents, some easing is required across the board. However, faced with the choice of letting people make decisions with their own money, or playing Santa Claus with it, Cullen couldn't get his whiskers and red coat out of the closet quickly enough. Why? Because this is an old-style socialist Labour government that gets a warm glow of rectitude from going amongst the poor delivering money like ancient sovereigns on Maundy Thursday.

Much of the inner warmth from "doing good" comes from religious impulses, both Catholic and non-conformist. They were the woof and warp of old Labour. Agnostics most of today's ministers might be, but they haven't forgotten how to do a bit of hell-fire and damnation preaching against the unregenerate. There are many prescriptive aspects to this government. Margaret, Michael and Helen know what's best for us. Zoning puts walls around that great evil called "snob schools", incidentally shutting out the children of the poor who are prepared to cross cities for quality educations. The budget helps pre-schooling, but only through community-run centres, not those run for profit. The "P" word, profit, brings our modern-day Calvinists out in a rash. This administration has been the least tolerant of private health care since Norman Kirk. Ancient Labour ideology favours edicts from on high; heaven forbid that ordinary mortals should make decisions for themselves, especially with their own money! Giving people "choices" will have them in the pubs, playing the pokies or behind the bike-sheds. The Lord - aka the Cabinet - knows best.

Fortunately, a few of the old preachers' messages have a timeless quality. Early Labour saints respected the work ethic. Michael Cullen deserves praise for his decision to reward those in jobs ahead of those on welfare. Susan St. John's Child Poverty Action Group from another planet where they worship idleness, and the poverty that always accompanies it, got slight recognition in this budget. While he has extended, rather than diminished the segment of society now dependent on the state, Cullen's acknowledgement that those extra costs attached to working needed reward is most commendable. If only he was equally concerned about the productive sector funding his experiments. Nothing, but nothing, will ever do as much for the people Labour represents as economic growth. More jobs, higher incomes, and greater choice (that dratted word again) always flow from it. And growth is a whole lot more likely to result from tax cuts than handouts. Public opinion has always preferred higher incomes and lower taxes to the extra bureaucrats, especially social workers, who accompany muddled social engineering.

The worst aspect of Budget 2004 is that it has resurrected the mood of great expectations. It is now feeding into nurses' and teachers' wage claims. What a pity Margaret, Michael and Helen prefer singing "Give me that old time religion". Why not let us all join in "I'm free to do what I want"? We could do so much better.