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Vanity of vanities all is vanity

By Brendan Long - posted Monday, 12 May 2014

Tony Shepherd and his National Committee of Audit may be happy to appear like John the Baptist figures, preaching fiscal repentance from a dry wilderness.   They would have been wiser to heed the call of an older biblical figure who said: “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity.”  This guy has a weird name (Qoheleth) but his 2,400 year old words were popularised by The Seekers in their lyrical tune with the line “To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn), There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn), And a time to every purpose, under Heaven”.

Everything may perhaps have its proper time and place, especially in the ever turning world of politics, but the authors of this extraordinary epistle from the desert of economic purism have chosen the wrong time to speak dire prophesies of doom.

Oh yes the guy in the Seekers’ song did say that there is “a time to tear down and time to build” which is Shepherd’s message.  But I just don’t think the scaremongering in his report is even close to being justified. 


If Australia was one of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece or Spain) then perhaps he might have found his “time under heaven” – yes the Seekers again.  But this country is indeed still the lucky country - the envy of the developed world - with low unemployment, very low debt levels, sound long term growth prospects, and, if we are to believe the Prime Minister and Trade Minister recently back from their Asian trade jaunt, expanding opportunities in export markets.   It’s certainly true that the Budget is deep in the red and revenues are down.  However, as the Treasury estimated in December (in its ‘Mid-year’ economic outlook), the tax to GDP ratio is expected to steadily increase to 24.4% of GDP in 2016-17 – the highest tax take as proportion of GDP for many years.  The Budget numbers are likely to confirm these forecasts and show that the revenue drought will progressively start to break over the forward estimates.  There is no fiscal emergency!

But fresh from his austere banquet of locusts and honey, Tony ‘John the Baptist’ Shepherd, insists on extreme fiscal repentance.  He wants the Government to rip thousands from the pockets of average Australian families by cutting Family Tax Benefit, force people with disabilities to wait longer for promised relief under the NDIS, force recipients on the Disability Support Pension to continually prove they are suffering, reduce the level of the pension rate over time and force many ageing Australians to sell the family home to be entitled to receive the pension.  This creates great uncertainty for people who are doing things tough and for little reason. 

As a Christian economist I think that the long term fiscal challenges facing the nation, which are real, don’t require this arrogant scaremongering which seems to make the needs of the ‘Budget bottom line’ more important than the welfare of average Australians.   In fact, I think that Shepherd deliberately exaggerates the fiscal challenge in order to foist on us his view of how society should be structured.   This is that government should be small and should only reluctantly be allowed to do what individuals can’t achieve for themselves.  There seems little role for a shared vision, a community embarking together on a journey and the pursuit of the common good.  Its sounds like warmed up Thatchernomics.  Essentially, the report is a rather vain attempt to push an individualist philosophy rather than the egalitarian perspective most Australians are broadly comfortable with.

If Hockey is fiscally honest, he would serve up the Audit Report with the same dispatch and distain that Herod Tetarch served up John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter.  But most of us need simply sigh like the guy with the weird name saying to ourselves “vanity of vanities”, and get on with our lives as we stack the dishwasher.

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About the Author

Dr Brendan Long is Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute for Christianity and Culture at Charles Sturt University.

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All articles by Brendan Long

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