Hewson's View: Poor policy has caught up with government

Waiting list: Aged care is one of a number of policy areas where governments have failed, with tens of thousands of people waiting on home care packages.
Waiting list: Aged care is one of a number of policy areas where governments have failed, with tens of thousands of people waiting on home care packages.

The Morrison government is struggling on many policy fronts, having to now address the consequences of policy neglect and drift, in some cases problems and challenges that were decades in the making.

The immediate challenges that, for various reasons, have more recently come to a head are housing affordability, drought, banking, power, aged care, and several other elements of the cost of living. The most significant issues that have drifted for much longer, and been consistently ignored by many governments, are indigenous recognition/disadvantage and climate.

I was reminded recently that I used to speak on the "coming housing crisis" back in the 1980s. Well, after a couple of further decades of poor policy, by both state and federal governments, the crisis has certainly arrived when a whole generation of younger Australians, mostly Millennials, can no longer afford to buy a house in Sydney and Melbourne, and the shortage of affordable housing for low income earners and other disadvantaged is now acute.

A significant dimension of this issue is that we now have one of the highest levels of household debt in the world - at about 120 per cent of GDP, and nearly 200 per cent of household disposable income - heavily driven by mortgage debt.

Unfortunately, it will now take probably decades to effectively address this issue, even with our governments working collaboratively, on both the supply and demand side of the issue. There is no evidence that they have even recognised the magnitude and urgency of this task, the only "solutions" offered to date being little better than "band-aids", in some cases (such as first homebuyer schemes) actually compounding the problem.

Meantime, It has taken the embarrassment of royal commissions to drag governments to the recognition of the significance of excesses and abuse by our banks and aged care providers. The banks have been allowed to publicly "luxuriate" in their ever increasing profits over nearly a decade, but it took the Hayne Royal Commission to reveal the "dirty side" of the banks' "culture of greed", and to indicate how their profits were achieved by ripping off customers, even dead ones, and ignoring the broader community responsibilities of their "social licence". As yet, there has been no effective response from the Morrison government.

There have been some 20 reviews of aged care over the last couple of decades, the recommendations of which have been mostly ignored by successive governments of both persuasions.

Although only in its infancy, the current Royal Commission has already challenged the government to spend upwards of $3 billion just to address the needs of the 120,000 people on the waiting list for home care packages (many of whom get exploited by so-called aged care package "providers") and to control the administration of drugs used to "restrain" patients, rather than employ more staff to care for them properly.

But, these two issues are only an obvious, but tentative, beginning in addressing the excesses and abuse in this sector, including rip-offs in the financing of self-care units, excessive accommodation bonds to gain a residential aged care bed, the cost and adequacy of food, nursing, and other services, concessional care for the poor and disadvantaged, and many more.

The indefensible blow-out in electricity and gas prices has simply been the outcome of a couple of decades of point scoring and blame shifting by political parties, in lieu of a genuine energy policy, in the context of the global challenge to make a transition to a low carbon society by mid-century.

Similarly the response to the drought has been more about hand-outs to distressed farmers and regional communities, rather than serious, widespread attempts to make our soils more drought resistant, and work to reduce the severity of these inevitable droughts.

The government's "head in the sand" position on climate is irresponsible, but unsustainable. Voters want action. This week 11,000 scientists from 153 countries called a "climate emergency". How much more evidence/pressure do they need before they act? Future generations will never forgive them for their negligence.

The government's 'head in the sand' position on climate is irresponsible, but unsustainable.

Genuine "solutions" to all these issues demand leadership. The challenge for Morrison is to rise above day-to-day politics and to begin to show some.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.