P.P. McGuinness, The National Times, week ending May 13, 1978, p. 52.
The debate on economic policy in Australia is often carried on in irrational terms, with accusations and wild statements more common than analysis. In this the politicians are far from being the worst offenders — far more nonsense is talked by businessmen and academics than by politicians.
But it did take a politician, the Prime Minister himself, to introduce what is probably the most absurd and offensive proposition yet put forward in the debate — that it is somehow un-Australian and unpatriotic to take a pessimistic view of the state of the Australian economy and the prospects for the success of government economic policy.
Even more ridiculous is Mr Fraser’s belief, or at least his assertion, that the Leader of the Opposition should not criticise government policy or comment on the unsatisfactory state of the economy and particular industries. And for a Government with a huge majority to pass censure motions against the Opposition Leader is an exercise which is so breathtaking in its nonsensical futility as almost to defy belief. But it has done it twice already.
But it is alarming that the Government should be so intolerant of and sensitive to criticism of its performance in economic management as to attempt to stifle criticism by the elected representatives of the people. One can only wonder how long it will be before this attempt is extended to its critics outside Parliament in the press and elsewhere.
Not only is it now discovered that it is unpatriotic to be concerned about the high level of unemployment, the state of the motor vehicle industry, the large deficit in the balance of payments, and the fact, that despite the decline in the rate of inflation, we are not yet out of the woods there, but also the Government seems to be involved in a disingenuous exercise designed to establish that its policies are being endorsed by independent bodies outside Australia.
Thus the Government has several times claimed last week that the latest survey of Australia by the Paris-based Secretariat of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development provides and an independent and objective endorsement of its economic policies.
This is incorrect on two counts. The OECD report is neither independent and and objective, nor does it endorse all of the Australian Government’s economic policies.
Although it may not yet have filtered through to the Government — but conversations with certain officials suggest that it has — some senior Treasury officials are not averse to misleading the Government about the role which they play at the sessions of the OECD which determine the wording of the survey of the Australian economy.
This role is one, essentially, of censorship. No proposition, no comment, is allowed which might be interpreted to say that the Australian Treasury has ever made a mistake, has ever implemented or at present is adopting policies which are less than the best and wisest possible.
The OECD’s reputation will not stand or fall by its analysis of the economic performance of Australia and the Australian Treasury. So bullying by certain senior Treasury officials ensures that they get their way.
The desire of the OECD secretariat for a quiet life means that the senior officials will deny what goes on and will forbid their juniors to make any comment.
The cover-up goes even further. The senior OECD officials who control the Country Studies division of the OECD which prepares the report on Australia (and with whom I am acquainted, having worked with them) have forbidden visiting OECD officials to speak to the Australian press, and specifically me. The Australian Treasury has issued a similar prohibition.
Information, however, travels through diverse channels. The Treasury stand-over continues, and did affect the latest report of the OECD on the Australian economy. If they deny this to the Government, then they are being less than frank.
That the practice of censorship and adapting the OECD reports to suit the Australian Treasury has gone on in the past has been confirmed by Sir William McMahon, the former Liberal Prime Minister and Treasurer.
It is also confirmed, my own direct sources apart, by a number of Australian academic economists who have had dealings with the OECD.
It is true that there is much of value in the recent OECD survey of Australia. But no matter what Mr Fraser might like to think, as an independent and objective assessment of Australian economic policy, it is almost worthless.
Of course it is the case that there are a number of issues on which the Australian Treasury is at odds with Australian Government policy. Thus some criticism of Australian policy are found in the OECD survey — namely, criticisms with which Treasury is in agreement.
Thus there is criticism of the present system of managing the exchange rate, of the protection process of the Government and of the Government’s interest rate policy.
These are all areas where the Government has acted contrary to Treasury advice. And the fact that these areas are included in the OECD survey invalidates Mr Fraser’s claim that the report constitutes an overall endorsement of the Government’s economic policies.
And if the OECD secretariat had been able to write its reports on the Australian economy without hitting its head against a stone wall whenever its views conflicted with those of the Treasury, there is no doubt that there would have been some criticisms of Australia’s macro-economic policies and of the failure to adopt more generous manpower schemes and unemployment benefits to alleviate the burden of anti-inflationary policy.
Such criticisms would not have been harshly expressed, since the OECD is not in the business of public controversy. Why such independent views could not be allowed to stand is something which must be explained in terms of the provincial inferiority complexes of Australian officials, and their desire to manipulate both the Government and public opinion.
Mr Fraser does a disservice to himself and Australia by attempting to deny this. Difficult as it may be for someone so convinced of his own rightness to understand, the critics of his economic policies are just as much interested and concerned in the welfare of Australians as he is.
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