Australians love government. Many will try to claim otherwise, but evidence suggests that they are happiest when receiving a gentle drip-feed of government money and services.
As a nation, Australia's cultural identity is built upon the myth that its citizens are rebellious pioneers, stockade-erecting individualists who would prefer the Government to grant us our basic rights and leave us alone, thank you very much.
Unfortunately, like so many cultural traditions, this supposed deep-seated suspicion of Government proves false upon closer inspection.
The term 'middle-class welfare' has achieved a sort of sickening ubiquity in public discourse, yet that is precisely what the electorate has come to expect: handouts and subsidies simply for showing up and going about the business of ordinary life. 'Need' is confused with 'feels entitled to,' and Australia's standard of policy deliberation is becoming poorer for it.
The truth of this observation is given by this week's MYEFO-spurred outrage over cuts to the baby bonus. Wayne Swan's announcement that the bonus would be cut by $437 to $5,000 has provoked howls of outrage. The Daily Telegraph declared the cuts to be 'Wayne pain for families'; Mia Freedman asked on Twitter, 'Of all the things the govt had to slash in the budget, the Baby Bonus? Really??'; and Tony Abbott has labelled the cuts as 'a rip-off of the forgotten families of Australia'.
Forgotten families? Hardly. Under the Howard government, of which Abbott was an integral member, so-called middle-class welfare payments became enshrined as a vital pillar of government policy, more so than traditional Liberal concerns such as commitment to small government or the primacy of the rights of individuals. Far from being forgotten, middle-income, two-parent traditional families with children became prime targets of government assistance.
And the culture of entitlement perpetuated by Howard and his government has shown no sign of abating under recent Labor governments. Both Rudd and Gillard have been content to continue using government handouts to the relatively well-off as a carrot to encourage voter acceptance of politically difficult public policy.
The Gillard Government has been at pains to justify the carbon tax through the accompanying subsidies to 'nine out of ten households'. Upon its passage through the Senate, the prime minister insisted that as a result of the tax 'families will see increases in family payments'. It appears to have become impossible to advocate policy on its supposed merits - to sweeten the deal, handouts to the majority of Australians must be attached.
This sort of quid pro quo in legislation leads to populism in government and the death of courageous policy decisions. Tax reform is especially difficult to implement in Australia: after all, it took 25 years from the Asprey Report to the GST taking effect to institute a broad-based consumption tax. Policymakers are too content to take easier routes to reform, delivering compensation by way of subsidy instead of undertaking the much more difficult task of explaining to the electorate why reform is necessary and of long-run benefit.
But the increasing use of subsidies to smooth the passage of difficult legislation has even more problematic ramifications. By allowing government to subsidise our procreation choices, our electricity bills, or anything else, we implicitly admit to legislators that we are not capable of making our own consumption and investment decisions. It is a tacit acknowledgement between voter and government that government knows best, and that we the voters cannot survive without its warm benevolence.
Once we concede to the Government that we can't buy a house or have a child without government assistance, we open the door to further concessions, such as the need for government to manage our diets or alcohol intake. Government ceases to engage in 'big-picture' policies that promote economic productivity and growth, and it instead devotes its resources to telling us how to live.
The culture of entitlement that exists in Australian society is, in the long term, highly detrimental. It is impossible to engage in debates about future prosperity and the best means of achieving it when voters have become accustomed to allowing government to make their decisions for them.
In order to have intelligent conversations about future policy directions and outcomes in Australia, it is necessary for politicians to cease relying on a handout to sweeten reform. A society that is suffocating on its own sense of entitlement is unlikely to remain productive.