Just under a year before she crawled over Kevin Rudd to claim the Prime Minister’s office, Julia Gillard visited the United States in her then capacity as Australia’s Education Minister. Her stay in Los Angeles took in the Technical and Trades College, where she brushed up on the teaching of “green skills”, a subject close to her heart. “Here in Los Angeles”, she told the media that day, “under the leadership of Governor Schwarzenegger, this is a state that is looking to the future; this is a state that is leading on climate change adaption; and this is a state that’s leading on green skills and I’ve seen that on display today at this college.”
The date was 5 October 2009. As far as dud forecasts go, these platitudes don’t match Lincoln Steffens on the Soviet Union – “I’ve seen the future and it works” – but they’re bad enough. Today Schwarzenegger has gone, his reputation in tatters, andCalifornia, reduced to issuing IOU’s to pay its bills, teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.
Australians have long seen California as a trend-setter, given the common Anglophone culture and semi-arid climate on the Pacific Rim. There’s also the shared love of motor car mobility and suburban independence, and a voracious appetite for tech and entertainment products pouring out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. But these days the Golden State is just as likely to fill Australians with unease. They find themselves infected with a strain of the green-welfare-utopianism that brought California to its knees.
Sure, this doesn’t show up in official statistics; at least not yet. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan never tire of reminding Australians they are “the envy of the world”: unemployment at 4.9 per cent, GDP growth of 3 per cent (or more) this financial year, government debt to GDP ratio of just 23 per cent and a projected budget surplus in 2013. In April, the IMF predicted that Australia would be the best performing advanced economy over the coming two years. The government and its allies in the elite media are hyper-vigilant about containing discussion of the nation’s affairs within this bounteous frame.
It’s hard to reconcile Australia’s position with the plight of California, which routinely attracts phrases like “basket case”. Unemployment is running at around 11 per cent, significantly above the national US average of 8.2 per cent, and Governor Jerry Brown is struggling with an intractable budget deficit of around $US20 billion. Thousands of teachers and other public servants are being laid off, and revenue imposts are driving businesses to other states. One commentator went so far as to say “California’s situation is in some ways more worrisome than Greece’s”, since it represents 14 per cent of the American economy, while Greece only accounts for 2 per cent of the E.U.
But if any of this is supposed to make Australians feel good about their lot, it doesn’t. However benign the headline figures look, they’re in a restive mood. The Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment continues to languish in negative territory, and the latest Roy Morgan Monthly Business Confidence Survey recorded a 57 per cent fall in businesses that believe “Australia will have good economic conditions in the next 12 months”. Astonishingly, the recent Boston Consulting Group consumer sentiment survey found that Australians feel less financially secure than the average European, even less secure than Spaniards, whose economy is in meltdown.
Nor is much love flowing to Gillard and Swan. Stuck in opinion-poll hell – support for the government has been around 30 per cent for over a year – they would be thrown out in a landslide if an election were held today.
Why are Australians so low when their economy is so high? The chattering classes are in a funk over this conundrum. People should be showering this fine progressive government with praise, they insist. In patronising tones so familiar around inner Sydney and Melbourne, one columnist scribbled “we are, as a nation, chucking a full-on, all-screaming, all-door slamming teenager temper tantrum…Maybe it’s time we grew up and realised how good we’ve got it”. Others suggest more sober explanations.
Topping the list is Gillard’s absurd $23 a tonne carbon tax, effective from 1 July this year. Most pundits are loath to concede that, in international terms, the measure is quite radical and Gillard only embraced it to appease the Greens. From the comfort of their armchairs, they dismiss fears about the tax as irrational. After all, Treasury modeling indicates that the effect on growth will be minuscule and, under the government’s package, households will be over-compensated for cost of living increases. If only the Opposition would drop its inflammatory attacks, they maintain, the pessimism would disappear.
Some blame the negative wealth-effect of sliding house prices and shrinking superannuation funds, battered by stock market volatility.
No doubt, such factors do contribute to the malaise, along with loss of faith in a parliament hit by financial and sexual scandals implicating the Speaker and a Labor MP. But opinion-makers who refuse to look beyond the headline figures are concealing the larger story.
Across a range of traditional industries, workers grasp that the economy is shifting in directions that could erode the foundations of their mobility and independence. Understanding more than they are given credit for, they fear that the current Labor Government, beholden to Greens and academic elites, and hiding behind stodgy rhetoric, is driving or exploiting those shifts. The most visible manifestations of this are the carbon tax and other green agendas.