Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

The problem with being a transactional politician like Scott Morrison is that you end up personifying Oscar Wilde’s comment about knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Now politicians have always thrown money at problems – sometimes wisely, sometimes stupidly and sometimes with remarkable outcomes like sending men to the moon.

But it has also been a great source of corruption – the Johnson Government handing over billions to friends in non-competitive tenders for COVID services is one example. The Morrison Government’s lies and corruption – now officially recognised by the dramatic fall in Australia’s ranking in the Transparency International Corruption Index – is an even better one.

Indeed, Morrison is now playing whack a mole games with billions of dollars of our money whenever he sees a political problem. Aged care staff shortages: give them a few hundred dollars. The Reef – add up 10 years of ineffectual spending ideas to make it sound like billions in help.

In trouble in one of your electorates – fund a bowling club, promise to build a car park, build a swimming pool and while you are doing so make sure loyal MPs in safe seats get a significant share of the bungs as well.

Between now and the next election we will see almost daily announcements of similar cash handouts.

But what is most significant about such announcements is that they are never part of a policy framework or a sensible, evidence-based plan. The only plan or objective – will this buy us some votes?

If Morrison tries to cast them in terms of values it is never a set of recognisable principles which would inspire us but  is instead solely within the frame of glib slogans.

Current politicians frequently try to buy support by rewarding potential voters and shoring up support by rewarding supporters in contrast with who leaders spend money within a framework based on values and national priorities.

Whatever the media said about the Whitlam Government in its last days history will judge that it was the first Australian Government to systematically address major infrastructure failures – from sewerage to education – along with many other problems which had been unaddressed for a decade or more.

Defence spending has always been one of the major policy disaster and waste areas of Australian politics. But has any Government promised to spend so much on some many things we probably don’t need simply as part of making defence, foreign policy and the ‘China threat’ political issues?

And on defence we spend hundreds of millions on commemoration while sanitising our history and  vulnerable veterans are suiciding.

What is worse – or perhaps just ironic – is that there is little evidence any of this actually works very well, isn’t received with a sense of gratitude and probably only increases cynicism about politicians and politics generally.

To put it in context, while being conscious of the need to guard against arguments from authority, it is useful to look to the insights that the many who have thought about problems such as values versus price other than Wilde have to say.

José Ortega y Gasset said: “Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”

Gandhi said:”Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

The Mahatma’s words were meant as an inspiration and a guide to a better life. But equally you can see them as a process by which Morrison has become whatever it is he is.

We may never exactly know who Morrison really is: a plain old-fashioned phony, a marketing creation, a modern Shakespearean machiavel, a ‘horrible, horrible’ person (which Gladys Berejiklian doesn’t actually deny saying), a fundamentalist Christian who is convinced that his god approves of his actions, or just some old fashioned political apparatchik.

But we do know about how he started along the journey from beliefs to thoughts and onwards that the Mahatma outlined. That started with his initial preselection when he waged a vicious campaign against Michael Towke who had defeated him in a pre-selection ballot (with help from the Daily Telegraph) to get the result reversed and himself elected.

And he doesn’t seem to have changed much since. The only outstanding question is whether he fulfils his own sense of destiny or meets an appropriate fate.