It wasn’t long ago that the Victorian economy was considered the strongest in Australia. Economists were pleased with Premier Daniel Andrews’s Labor government for having its ‘finances in order’ and giving ‘companies confidence to set up there for growth’. In the wake of the two consecutive economic shutdowns required to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the state’s finances have received a devastating blow, yet Prime Minister Scott Morrison is refusing to assist the state’s government in paying for the cost of these measures. This, despite previously admitting that the second lockdown had been necessary to ‘protect the rest of the country’ and pledging the government’s support.
This sudden change of heart may seem baffling and counter-intuitive decision for the Liberal party, whose ideological economic management already gave Australia a weak economy before the virus even reached our shores – a situation bound to become even worse if Victoria’s recovery takes longer than it should.
However, saying that their policy is bad because it has bad outcomes, or even that’s merely inconsistent, would assume the party had the best intentions of Australia at heart, an idea that is often stated but unsupported by the its actual policies. It isn’t just Victoria the government is treating this way. All states run by Labor have experienced similar attacks, despite repeated claims that unity is necessary to overcome the impact of the virus. In Queensland, the apparent ultimate strategic goal is to help the Liberal party to win power in the upcoming state election. In Western Australia the government performed an economically unnecessary campaign to open up the borders early – an idea which would have only led to further Western Australian Covid cases, as it did in every other state that followed this strategy.
By the common definition of a ‘good’ government – that is, a government that serves the best interests of its people – hampering the economic recovery of certain states while trying to undermine the health of others can only be described as ‘bad’ government. However, this judgement misses the point. Those policies are ‘good policies’ if Liberals are hoping to be re-elected in those states, whereas allowing states to perform well under the opposition’s watch would have the opposite effect.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s fifteenth-century political treatise The Prince offers a number of historical examples of apathetic or tyrannical regimes that were remembered or even celebrated for their focus on the maintenance of power over anything else. Machiavelli does make some concessions to the possibility of rulers doing this by being meeting the needs of their citizens in the chapter on civil principalities, but explains that this should only be done for strategic gain, claiming that:
… it would be well to be reputed liberal. Nevertheless, liberality exercised in a way that does not bring you the reputation for it, injures you; for if one exercises it honestly and as it should be exercised, it may not become known, and you will not avoid the reproach of its opposite.
If we take on board the definition of an effective, successful government as a one that focuses primarily on staying in control, this warning against being ‘too charitable’ starts to make more sense. We can see it in the way the Federal government responded to the Covid crisis nationally, providing necessary stimulus in a total reveral of its usual rhetoric only when it became clear that following an austerity approach would represent an existential threat to its authority. Further proof is in how quickly it reversed the approach once the first wave of the pandemic was over. We can see a similar pattern in their handling of Victoria specifically, where as soon as the second lockdown had persisted long enough to generate some discontent, the Liberals capitalised on it, calling it ‘too harsh’ and blaming Premier Andrews for the economic damage.
It’s impossible to understand these choices if you still believe the federal government is looking out for the long-term interests of the national economy, which was already in dire need of stimulus before the lockdowns even started. Victoria is responsible for 23 per cent of the Australian GDP and has suffered catastrophic economic damage during the pandemic, with the city of Melbourne alone expected to lose more than $110 billon over the next five years without stimulus and recovery plans the Liberals are refusing to commit to. This is a problem that will be repeated soon throughout Australia and exaggerated by the loss of income that a fiscally healthier Victoria would otherwise have been able to provide.
The Liberal government is predominantly focused on the maintenance and expansion of their power, rather than the best outcomes for the country. This fact explains the logic of what would otherwise appear to be ignorant or hypocritical decisions over policy, especially when it comes to Labor-controlled states – whose mere existence, let alone success, represents a threat to its power. The Liberals are ‘good at policy’ according to this framework. All of us should be aware of what that means.