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Wednesday 29 September = 1999=20

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Time=20 to take stock - now the farm's gone


JEFF Kennett still = doesn't=20 understand. When you're elected to public office and you work with = public=20 money, your working life is no longer private. Your private life = is no=20 business of the public - unless your private life benefits in some = improper way from your public life. It's simple really - if you = bring your=20 public life into your private life, then the public gaze has a = right to=20 follow. Your public work, however, must remain forever public.

The rottenness at the moral core of the Kennett era has been = the loss=20 of respect for the meaning of ``the public'' in every sense that = we use=20 the concept in civic life. Things that are publicly owned have = been=20 redefined as inferior in quality, service and prestige. And = processes that=20 are publicly accountable are also by definition regarded as = inefficient,=20 wasteful and old-fashioned.

Everything ``public'' is deemed second-rate. Can we thank our = divisive=20 private school sector for training an elite that has such innate = contempt=20 for the public and the democratic?

The ``public'' has been ``talked down'' so effectively that = we've lost=20 sight of its true meaning in our lives. We, ``the public'', and = our=20 elected representatives, ``the government'', do not have to crawl = to the=20 private sector begging for consideration as a client. It is, in = fact, the=20 other way around.

Businesses that secure government contracts are very fortunate. = Government business is very good for private business and = successful=20 tenders are privileged to be chosen.

Governments are desirable business partners. They pay their = bills, they=20 have vast infrastructure resources, they have (or used to have)=20 intellectual capital in their employees, they have superb = contacts, they=20 can smooth the way through other parts of the administration. = Governments=20 also used to have moral prestige, because they were the elected = executive=20 of the people, the community, the public.

That means that to do business with government should be a = privilege.=20 And since the government is the representative of the public, and = the=20 money it spends is their money, the people are part of the = business=20 contract. Therefore, for the privilege of doing business with the = public's=20 money, the government and its private business partners must = relinquish=20 commercial confidentiality.

Business people who are proud of their ``realism'' may scoff at = this=20 concept, but they should think again. Governments are not like = private=20 business partners; they are entirely different moral entities. The = individuals who are elected to office, contrary to appearances, do = not own=20 the government. They can lose office if they offend the = electorate. Their=20 stability as business partners depends on the quality of their = performance=20 and on the community's continuing trust. If that trust is = undermined, the=20 government will lose its mandate.

The electorate finds it very difficult to trust actions that = are hidden=20 from its scrutiny. Private businesses that take on public = contracts have,=20 by definition, relinquished part of their privacy. And if a = particular=20 business doesn't like that, then there are plenty of other fish in = the sea=20 with which the government can do business.

Take it or leave it, public business must remain public.

In seven years the Kennett Government has stripped Victoria of = its=20 public assets and sold them - in a number of cases for a song - = and claims=20 that we have never been stronger.

Think of Victoria as a family farm, where drought and imprudent = borrowing at the urging of reckless bankers had resulted in high = debts. No=20 matter that they had been as high before and Victoria had traded = out of=20 trouble. No, this time, we were told, it was different. Victoria = was a=20 rust-bucket and the only way out was to sell assets and reduce the = debt=20 burden.

And so foreign buyers bought the best paddocks and the farm = machinery,=20 promising to lease them back to the farmers so they could continue = farming. Except that the family found it couldn't make ends meet, = the=20 profits were going elsewhere and the machinery was getting old.

``Diversify,'' they were told. ``Make the most of your = remaining=20 assets.'' While the bank wouldn't lend to develop a farm the = family no=20 longer actually owned, it was eager to finance the renovation of = the=20 family farmhouse in heritage colors and reproduction Victoriana.

``Heritage Country bed-and-breakfasts'', except that there was = too much=20 competition and it meant working 14 hours a day, waiting on = unpleasant=20 people coming up for a naughty weekend. Tariffs were reduced, = breakfasts=20 became self-serve and poker machines have been installed on the = return=20 veranda.

The farm, Mr Kennett, was not yours to sell, it was ours and = was meant=20 to be there for our children and grandchildren.

And you shut us out of the sales meeting.=20

Dr Janet McCalman teaches history at Melbourne University's = Centre=20 for the Study of Health and Society. E-mail:=20 opinion@theage.fairfax.com.au=20

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