If fiscal restraint was the only measure of good government, Mao Tse Tung would be up there with the best of them. Mao, like Kevin Rudd, was proud to call himself a fiscal conservative:
Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure. It should be made clear to all government workers that corruption and waste are very great crimes.
Mao’s error was not fiscal but philosophical. He rejected the ‘dangerous tendency’ of liberalism in the mistaken belief that self-interest was hostile to the collective interest.
Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective… it robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organisation and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organisations from the masses which the Party leads.
David Kemp’s Alfred Deakin lecture last week was a timely reminder that the liberal governments do not discharge their responsibilities merely by exercising fiscal discipline. He challenges the current obsession with gotcha politics:
Our political rhetoric often seems to suggest that good government is simply doing after the election what the party promised before, of finding and carrying out a mandate, almost regardless of what it has a mandate to do. Promises should be kept, but it is the content and ultimately the effect of policies that matter.
Sound budgeting is a moral imperative, demonstrating respect for those who were called upon to pay for government. Ultimately, however, liberalism’s main purpose is the empowerment of self-interest.
For Menzies, liberal thought and good government were all about the elevation of the individual. The public interest, he believed, consisted in the shared interests of each of the individuals who made up society. While every individual was different, and each had, Menzies believed, a divine spark within them, each shared common interests which it was the obligation of government to attempt to advance…
Menzies brought back to the centre of Australian politics and government, through the Liberal Party, the understanding that the power of creativity, innovation and invention, of enterprise, and entrepreneurship that drove economic and social progress came from the individual and nowhere else, and that it was the shared interest of all, the public interest, for government policy to recognise that freedom was essential for those capacities to be expressed.
Economic liberalism was but one aspect of his wider philosophy of government and society. His emphasis on choice in health, education, housing, low debt, restraint in spending, his belief in private enterprise, reward for effort and opposition to centralised economic planning, all reflected his deep sense of the spirit of liberal thought – that people knew their own best interests, that education and reason would empower them to achieve these interests, and that Australia would thrive if government supported them in their endeavours by good laws and honest administration.
Kemp’s speech repays reading in full.