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2.1 What do Australians expect their governments to do?

Australians believe governments can and should play an important role in the functioning of society.

Australians expect their governments to set and maintain sensible laws and provide for law and order. Australians expect the government to take responsibility for the defence of the nation, for national security and for protecting our borders.

Australians see governments as having a central role in providing access to essential services such as basic health and education, especially for children. They look to governments to provide important infrastructure such as roads, railways and bridges.

Australians expect their governments to step in to deal with situations where the actions of some impact negatively on others. This includes interventions to prevent such things as drink driving or smoking in public amenities, to protect children and to regulate activities that might lead to environmental degradation.

As well as addressing market failures, Australians expect governments will provide a social safety net which helps protect the poor, the vulnerable, the elderly and the truly disadvantaged. This is the Australian way.

Fairness and equity also matter a great deal to Australians and we accept government has a role to play in redistributing income. A progressive tax system combined with a targeted welfare system is the best way of addressing income distribution and Australia has been a world leader in this since Federation.

Australians look to their government to pursue sound economic management to help keep the economy strong. They also look to their governments at times of major economic crisis. While there may be debate as to the volume and quality of government spending during the global financial crisis, there is no doubt the economy needed a boost. With so little debt at the time, the Government was able to act.

Australia has one of the world’s most open economies and we accept the significant benefits that come from being a competitive and open trading nation. Increasingly, however, our national priorities and identity can be at odds with the global nature of markets. Australians expect their governments to protect our own social arrangements when this might conflict with the requirements imposed on us by globalisation.

Australians look to their governments to reduce the overall risk in society. Many look further, wanting governments to either solve all of society’s risks or protect them from the inherent risks of everyday life.

Australia is a diverse country and Australians have different views on the optimal size and role of governments. These views more often than not come down to value judgements. But once judgements are made on what services and protections government should provide, decisions are required on who pays – whether by taxes, charges or other user-pay arrangements.

This must recognise, however, that taxes and charges can have a dampening effect on economic vibrancy and thus reduce a government’s capacity to fund needed services.