Like the ant, thrift is the story

Accusing governments of not having a narrative is probably the most common criticism made of them.

There is an evergreen truth that governments must be able to reduce a broad variety of complicated policies into a simple story or narrative. To be effective, the story must follow the standard literary conventions established by the earliest three-act plays. The familiar linear narrative structure should have: a beginning or setting (Act 1); a problem (Act 2); and a resolution (Act 3). But whereas novels have hundreds of pages to develop the narrative, a government must explain its setting, problem and resolution in a few sentences.

So the task is to explain everything you are doing across every part of government with a setting, conflict and resolution story, encompassing a theme everyone is familiar with and understands — in a few sentences. This task was hard enough for government when everyone read the same few newspapers, watched the same handful of television news channels and had no internet, or YouTube, or Twitter.

Messaging from government is much more difficult now because any single person is able to reach wide audiences effortlessly and instantly via social media. It is small wonder that governments get criticised for failing to deliver a narrative in the age of the 24-hour news cycle with its multiple platforms, obsession with personality and conflict, and the preference for the news of the day over more detailed analysis of policy issues.

That political narratives are now harder to communicate does not mean that this government does not have one. Tony Abbott’s is a thematically familiar, very old and resonant story, full of wisdom about the human condition. It is that of the Ant and the Grasshopper and was first told by Aesop in ancient Greece. The setting (Act 1) is the end of Australia’s age of easy privilege. Just as Aesop’s grasshopper spent its long summer of uninterrupted privilege failing to prepare for difficult times ahead, so did Labor mishandle the good times.

Australia was driven quickly out of the global financial crisis, more by China’s stimulus package than by our own. Chinese domestic construction drove superheated resource prices and supported our mining construction and production. The terms of trade under Labor were as good as they have been in our modern history and our privileged position continued to drive good revenue growth and employment.

But the good times were never going to last forever and, even in their midst, the warning signs of future difficulties were detectable. Instead of fixing the roof while the sun was shining, Labor failed to engage in substantive economic reforms aimed at reversing a decline in productivity; instead it committed to big spending increases that depended on a mining tax that earned no money. It also structured into the budget huge spending increases, which might win votes but presumed against all common sense that resources prices and the revenue they generated would stay freakishly high forever.

The problem (Act 2) for us on coming to government was simple to comprehend but tough to fix. There exists a dynamic global economy where a whole range of Australian goods and services that previously had been relatively sheltered are being swiftly exposed to intense global competition. This new economy developed at a time when Labor created a diabolical budgetary mess, believing that the nation could continually spend more than it earned without consequence. The crux of the dilemma was that just doing nothing to arrest the Labor path to $667 billion worth of debt and $123bn worth of deficits meant we would end up spending $2.8bn worth of interest every month to service the debt. This in turn would make the debt worse and before long would seriously limit the nation’s ability to invest in infrastructure (a key to productivity growth).

The solution (Act 3) is tough, and has two parts. First, the Coalition set to work to address productivity issues. We removed the drags on the economy caused by the mining and carbon taxes, producing the biggest drop in electricity prices on record. We have stopped the long years of wasteful spending on corporate welfare and finalised free trade agreements that Labor let drift; Australian companies have a fighting chance in key new markets. These FTAs cover 73 per cent of our exports and so allow services, agriculture and manufacturing to get at the markets they need to grow. The Coalition also has removed $2bn worth of red tape and 57,000 pages of legislation that was contributing to slowing productivity. It is taking the tough decisions to sell assets such as Medibank, raising $5.7bn and reinvesting the funds in infrastructure. Our infrastructure package involves committing $50bn and leveraging $125bn. The government also has moved through $1 trillion worth of environmental approvals, abolished 76 wasteful authorities and boards and reinstated employee share schemes.

Second, Joe Hockey is doing his best to fix the budget and stop paying the mortgage with the credit card. This is a difficult and far from popular process, with Labor opposed to $28bn worth of savings including, bizarrely, $5bn of savings it proposed. The Prime Minister’s story is real, consistent and well known. He is the ultimate Ant, prepared to face the fact the Grasshopper’s long easy summer is over.

Published in The Australian on 23 December 2014