Another meme that has seeped through from the US to Australia is one of ‘the Left wants big government, the Right wants small government.’ This is a particularly easy one to fall prey to, because when you see Australia’s left wanting to mount big social projects, it looks accurate. There was a lot of focus on the competing National Broadband Network plans for precisely this reason, because they accorded to this narrative: Labor wanted to spend $43 million and get a government-built-and-owned network, the Coalition wanted to spend $6 billion to encourage private investment. Labor big government, Coalition small government.
That’s the small picture, though. It’s also confusing cause and effect. If all the left wanted to do was to expand government, it wouldn’t need the NBN as an excuse. No, the left wants to expand the ability of government to combat social problems. The latter is the cause – the former is the way of dealing with it. Sometimes this leads to an expansion in the bureaucracy. At other times, it means simply becoming more agile, more capable of dealing with problems that exist today instead of those that existed twenty years ago (or, in the middle of a financial crisis, even more rapidly).
This fundamentally comes down to a scare tactic. ‘Big Government’ is scary – it conjures up images of 1984’s police state. When we’re asked if we think more government bureaucracy is a bad thing, we can all remember times (usually in the recent past) where we’ve run afoul of bureaucratic red tape, providing a clear confirmation bias in such a question. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Centrelink knows how this works. It also relies on the confused meanings of ‘bureaucracy’ – a term that can apply to a smooth, well-functioning body but carries connotations of waste, mismanagement and of existing only to serve its own ends.
This of course need not be the case. Nor is it in fact a clear distinction between Labor and Liberal. The NBN aside, comparing proposals side by side, it’s really hard to tell whether either would actually ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ government.
In short, this is not a meme based in Australian political reality; it’s an imported tactic, one which has found a lot of purchase in the US, where the Left is repeatedly hammered with charges of expanding government power, even though the Republicans were the ones who were pushing a true expansion of Presidential power, giving Bush’s Presidency a near-Royal scope.
Yet another thing I’d like to see squashed before it gains much more purchase on the political landscape here.