The Decadence of Entitlement

Speaking at the Prime Minister’s Economic Summit in Brisbane in June, Reserve Bank Governor, Glen Stevens, told 150 business leaders that Australia’s economy is one of the strongest in the world, and yet Australians are overwhelmingly unhappy with their lot in life.

He found it somewhat of a puzzle that this state of mind exists when most Greeks and Spaniards would gladly leave their homeland right now and come to live with us. Nevertheless, he accepted that the voters were angry and acknowledged that this was a problem for politicians to deal with.

I chatted with other delegates about this strange attitude, and there was a general consensus that Australia has reached a point in its history where most of our citizens feel that we are entitled to be more prosperous than anyone else in the world and, indeed, have a right to expect even greater affluence than we enjoy now.

This disturbing viewpoint carries a genuine threat to our future as a nation as it has the potential to lead us down the same pathway as that which caused the fall of the old Roman Empire of the Caesars (and many subsequent empires also). The Romans came to the belief that every one of them had earned the right to a good life, as this was the undisputed entitlement of those who dominated the world. They were asleep at the wheel when their poorer neighbours conquered them.

How do we cure this decadent national illness when too many of us spend our days worrying obsessively that the carbon and mining taxes may downgrade our lifestyle and that governments, banks and traders are ripping us off, not to mention the fact that we are also prone to avoiding responsibility for our actions and spending our time suing others for every mishap that comes our way because we could not possibly be at fault?

If we decide to change, it will be only with great reluctance, totally ignoring the obvious fact that entitlement is a curse that must be removed before it becomes a cancer. Perhaps the cure can be achieved quite happily by spending more of our time looking for opportunities that will sustain our lifestyle by our own personal efforts rather than looking for people to blame for the economic dangers that we see around us.

For instance, in one of the areas in which I have some experience — the ageing of the nation — there are significant opportunities for the private sector to provide services that no-one is taking up at present, such as clothing that is especially designed to suit older people and housing that is suitable for those seniors who do not want to go into a retirement village, but who need age-friendly design and helpful technology.

There are also profits to be made by designing and organising recreational programs for Seniors that are much more creative and mentally stimulating than bus trips and bingo games. And those are just the most obvious ones. There are dozens more opportunities to serve the ignored seniors lifestyle as well as the ever-changing requirements of other age groups. Making money out of those niche markets will do more for Australia than weeping about the carbon tax and the perils of minority governments.

Be this as it may, our nation-destroying culture of entitlement will take time to eliminate, particularly as we all enjoy the entitlements that we now have — and I am no exception to this. But, we must accept that the only rights to which we have a legitimate entitlement are a job, a home, a school, a hospital, a police station, and a democratically-elected government whose prime responsibility is to create a level playing field. On all other matters, we should look after ourselves and stop blaming governments when we get into trouble.

This brings me back to the Prime Minister’s Summit where we discussed, among other things, whether we have a level playing field here in Australia and, indeed, in the world.

First of all, let me say that I enjoyed participating in the Summit and feel that, contrary to media reports, the discussions were not dominated by the government, and I reckon that at least 60 delegates got to make a speech and every one of us was able to take part in discussions at our respective tables — there were eight to a table. I was fortunate. I was able to make three brief speeches.

Many of the scheduled speakers were excellent. Gail Kelly of Westpac was one. She outlined a devastating perspective of Europe which she described as a patient requiring urgent and drastic surgery, but which is receiving only band-aids. She predicted that Europe would have a decade of negative growth of GDP. She also said that the property market in Australia would not see another boom for quite a while, but would remain flat except for occasional softening, while avoiding a crash. Her most interesting comment was that Australians on the cocktail circuit no longer boast about how big a house they own, but how small their overdraft is. This attitude is a very sensible one in a troubled financial world, but it will not stimulate economic growth.

Another significant comment by Glen Stevens was that he expected the current percentage of our GDP that derives from mining to level out, while the dominant feature of the economy would be service industries — all of which can be exported. This caused me to comment to the Summit that Australia could export services to the Ageing as Japan, India and China are all experiencing a massive growth in their population of people over 60. This especially applies to China, where the one-child policy has caused a significant reduction in the number of its citizens under the age of 40. We could earn more money in China with aged care services than we currently do from mining.

The Summit had some interesting sidelights. Ted Bailleau of Victoria, was the only conservative State Premier to turn-up. The others made a dreadful mistake in staying away. Most delegates felt that they played petty politics. It meant that Bailleau was the only conservative politician from any parliament who was present and for this reason he was very popular with the delegates. Whenever I looked in his direction, he was surrounded by people wanting to chat with him. Quite often, he drew a bigger crowd than the Prime Minister, and his speech to the Summit was a sound and solid effort that won praise.

The delegates from Trade Unions were interesting. They appeared to go out of their way to be conciliatory to employers who were present and seemed to have heard the message that poor productivity is the big defect in the Australian economy. We are behind many G20 nations in our unsatisfactory scale of productivity.

I hope that their attitude at the Summit translates itself into action out in our mining industry where the level of industrial confrontation is appalling — not all of which is the fault of the Unions. At the end of the day, I noted that the Carbon Tax had not been mentioned very often in the debate, and then the comments were muted. Most of the attendees were of the opinion that there were bigger issues facing Australia and the world.

Very little was said about whether or not the minority government was working well. There was a general acceptance that the government would last the full distance and it was noted that, despite its problems, more than 200 bills have passed through both Houses since the 2010 Elections. The best option appeared to be for business and union leaders to work with Julia Gilliard in a partnership to achieve good results for Australia over the next 12 months, after which the voters will have their say.

The reality expressed by many delegates, a lot of whom were conservatives, is that the world has changed drastically since the turn of the century and will change even more rapidly as the digital era creates more globalisation and innovation.

We need to get with it instead of arguing about trivia and zealously guarding entitlements that can’t be justified.