25/07/2006 - 22:00

A nanny state of foreign affairs

25/07/2006 - 22:00


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A new phenomenon seems to have arisen across the nation. Australians now seem to think that the federal government’s welfare and protection extends beyond our borders to anywhere they may be.

A new phenomenon seems to have arisen across the nation.

Australians now seem to think that the federal government’s welfare and protection extends beyond our borders to anywhere they may be.

What’s more, they think they have the right to complain vehemently when the cavalry doesn’t arrive to rescue them, no matter where they are or what problems they encounter.

I first noticed this when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last year and several Australian tourists were trapped.

Communicating their plight by mobile phone to relatives back home soon became an increasing chorus of complaints when the Australian government couldn’t rescue them. Never mind that many thousands of Americans were in the same position; and it was their country.

The citizens of the nanny state increasingly seem to want that protection extended across the globe.

The latest incarnation of this phenomenon is in Lebanon, which has been besieged by Israel.

It appears that thousands of Australians, possibly tens of thousands, have been caught up in this war because they were visiting or, in the main, living in that part of the world.

When their government couldn’t rescue them from this sudden war zone half a world away, there were, again, very vocal complaints about the ineptitude of Australia’s diplomatic staff.

I find this all very odd.

I have a great deal of sympathy for people who find themselves in difficulty when travelling abroad.

I have travelled extensively, occasionally to places where normal access to modern facilities and human rights are lacking.

I have been to these places by choice and fortunately have never found myself trapped by war or natural disaster. And I understand the protection afforded by citizenship of a strong country – one that can afford to look after its citizens, have staff or representatives around the globe, and can intercede on their behalf if things get sticky.

But I have never regarded that as some right. I knew there was never a +61 000 number to call for ‘team Australia’ to send in an extraction squad if trouble loomed.

If you leave Australia, for all intents and purposes, you are on your own.

That is why travel agents strongly encourage people to take out travel insurance and why expatriates have those kind of issues dealt with by their employer as part of their contract.

Obviously when extreme circumstances occur there are few private ways to deal with the consequences, such as a rescue from a war zone or disaster area.

Of course, I have no problem with people requesting government help. In the case of mass evacuation that seems the only possibility, but even governments find these things quite difficult.

However, I don’t believe people have the right to gripe if the service is a bit slow.

I applaud the efforts of consular officials to help our people get out of Lebanon, but I think people ought to realise that the Australian government is not some sort of American Express.

For the most part, you do leave home without it.

Making the right investment decisions

Governments pick winners every day.

They make choices about where they think our society should head – from issuing speeding fines to reduce road deaths to investing in a public railway transport system.

In these ways, they are trying to both correct our behaviour and encourage us to head in certain directions – usually based on a belief that our society is heading in that direction anyway, or ought to be.

Many of these decisions are made through experience.

These days, for instance, whole cities are planned out decades in advance because experts believe they can anticipate the population’s needs beforehand.

On a grand scale these things makes sense. Indeed, that is what we expect of government.

But governments’ success record is poor when they try to pick winners at a more local level.

Providing a leg-up for individual companies is fraught with difficulty and, as history has shown, often results in failure.

No matter how well intended the arrangement, this is something I struggle to believe in. If the state wants to assist industry, it should promote a stable economy.

After that, if it really believes that assisting an industry in general will serve the people best, it can provide funding that is accessible to many and, in my view, is not so much that a single failure will be viewed as a waste.

That is why, for instance, tender processes for government can’t be overly biased towards local players.

The tragedy of Canning Vale Weaving Mills Ltd closing its manufacturing plant is only made worse by the fact that it appears to have been propped up for years by government contributions, which ultimately came from other companies in the form of taxes, duties and levies.

There is a very strong argument that those tax-paying companies may have made a better long-term contribution to the economy if they had been able to keep that money.

Governments should not be about picking winners, their role is to create the right environment to encourage success.


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