In 2018, treasurer Josh Frydenberg established a permanent media brand in Australian politics with an unwisely self-produced short video.
It was unexceptional Tory scaremongering about the evils of taxation, but his words weren’t why the footage went viral. Audiences were stunned by the direction. In it, the treasurer shuffles down a hill and speaks like a man compelled into performing the script of a hostage video for a killer robot that’s cunningly disguised as his own suit.
Frydenberg’s Insiders interview with David Speers on Sunday was – conspicuously – relaxed by comparison.
When reminded by Speers that he recently “committed to taking inspiration from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan”, to resolve the economic impacts of coronavirus, Frydenberg chuckled, nodded and smiled, extolling the virtues of the modern west’s most transformative and vicious neoliberals for 90 enthusiastic seconds.
It is 30 years since the Republican US president and the Conservative British prime minister left office, yet many who survived those times have not forgotten their bleak impact. Indeed, Australians are very aware our American and British cousins are living in the dangerous inequality their policies engendered. The division and resentment provoked is currently tearing both nations apart.
I’m reluctant to tear into Reagan too harshly. A warmonger who bombed a hospital, armed death squads, demonised the poor, allowed HIV/AIDS to devastate communities and had to watch a TV movie to realise that nuclear war is unwinnable – he’s just such a clear step up from today’s presidential incumbent.
But what is supposed to “inspire” Australians about Thatcher? The poll-tax riots, her anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, the opportunistic, expensive war in the Falkland Islands, the smashing of local government and the torture of criminalised political prisoners no doubt rate among the reasons she was recently declared the worst UK prime minister of the last hundred years. She sent gifts to Pinochet.
But no, the treasurer’s chuckles on Insiders were about the economic policy she and Reagan came to define. In the wake of the dispiriting “stagflation” crises of the 1970s, they delivered a muscular neoliberalism modelled after the “free market” ideology of economist Milton Friedman. They busted unions, cut taxes, slashed services and privatised government assets from public housing to waterworks to railways, removing any structure that could compete with or otherwise restrict the capacity of business to make as much money as greed allows.
The public argument made was that greater business wealth would “trickle down” to the people.
Stop me if this sounds familiar – no, stop Josh Frydenberg, who’s just gone on TV to suggest the economic impacts of entire populations hiding indoors from a deadly disease should be remedied with the same “Reaganomics” that were applied to the “stagflation” crisis of the oil-shocked 1970s merely because he’d prefer it that way. We know this last fact because tax cuts, “labour market flexibility” (award stripping) and “IR reform” (union busting) are Liberal governments’ constant remedy for everything; Frydenberg himself has been giving explicit speeches advocating these for months. Massive tax cuts were legislated by the Liberals last year – remember? – when the virus was but a glint in a wet bat’s eye.
Did those tax cuts deliver the promised economic prosperity fix for working people? Not last year, not in the 1970s, not now. In his blunt essay, Reaganomics Killed America’s Middle Class , Thom Hartmann details how the “cutting taxes, cutting red tape” that Frydenberg praises led to the sad transformation of the American working class into America’s working poor. The neoliberal erosion of wages, services, government investment and job security further enriched the already rich at their expense.
Thatcher’s “inspirational” achievements document an equal failure: after brutal fights that ended industries, sacked masses and crushed communities, she left office with British unemployment higher than when she went in. The annualised growth rate of the British economy under her leadership was actually less than of the beleaguered Labour government that preceded her.
Inequality skyrocketed. So did crime. The likes of Frydenberg credit Thatcher and Reagan for the end of stagflation, but academics now suggest that the recovery resulted not from their neoliberal policies, but from price stability returning to international oil markets after the decade of supply embargoes and the Iranian Revolution had irregularly driven up its price by 400%. The enduring “success” of the neoliberal era is really measured in how effectively it transferred wealth to the rich.
Australians experienced both the onset and impacts of neoliberalism in the 1980s in a more moderated form, given its introduction was facilitated by a Labor government, not a conservative one. Even so, its deprivations of job-offshoring, casualisation, privatisation and the end of full employment policy introduced economic insecurities into working life here that have been painfully exposed by the disappearing wages, layoffs and stand-downs of coronavirus.
These economic times demand bold intervention from government to reconstruct our shattered economy and rebuild Australian workplaces. Frydenberg spruiking Reagan, Thatcher and their economics of misery as the answer is just another hapless stagger, downhill in the wrong direction.