Barnacles are sticky little crustaceans related to crabs, lobsters, and shrimps. Their stickiness means they attach themselves to surfaces like the hull of a ship and are hard to remove. Ships sometimes must be taken into dry dock so that they can be cleaned off.
Barnacles serve as an evocative political image for little irritants that must be cleaned off before a new political voyage. As such they are commonly referred to in politics by the new person in charge. Former prime minister Tony Abbott used the image early in his new government in 2014.
The Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, has compared the rorts and waste that he has found in the federal budget which he inherited to barnacles on a ship that he must remove to accommodate belt-tightening (another image) and fresh government priorities.
The value in this image is that it directs our attention as political observers to the inheritance that each government hands on to the next one. Described in this way barnacles can be found throughout government policies and programs not just in government spending.
The image of sticky barnacles that get in the way of good government is the opposite of the more optimistic saying "change the government, change the nation", that is attributed to former prime minister Paul Keating. This latter idea evokes the aspiration that everything changes quickly when a new government takes office. It is an image that stresses immediate discontinuity and change rather than lingering barnacles which must be attended to by a new government before the ship of state sails on.
Sometimes barnacles are commitments which cannot be scraped off easily if at all. Some are so deeply embedded in established legislation and policies that the new government must just grit its proverbial teeth and live with them in the short to intermediate term.
Such barnacles can be spending programs which are locked in for the near future; or they can be public sector personnel with iron-clad contracts that are hard to break. Many members of the current Administrative Appeals Tribunal, for instance, fit this description. They were appointed in an outrageous display of political partisanship by the previous government on multi-year contracts precisely to lock in the new government.
Some might say that the stage three tax cuts for higher-income earners are also barnacles. They are certainly firmly attached to the Albanese government because they were legislated in 2018, with the unenthusiastic support of the then Labor opposition, to come into effect in the 2024-25 financial year.
They were barnacles that Labor failed to clean off during the election campaign, meaning that they are probably stuck with them unless they want to break an election promise.
The big stage three tax cuts are an example which shows the image of the barnacles breaking down. Barnacles may be tenacious, but they are small in size, if large in numbers. The tax cuts are enormous and hugely problematic for the government. They are more like the large iceberg that sunk the Titanic than little crustaceans that can be cleaned off without too much effort.
The barnacle image is also problematic because it neglects the way in which the sticky continuities in our politics dominate our system of government and often serve a useful purpose.
New governments are more like zigs and zags than clean breaks with the past. Change is more often incremental rather than comprehensive. This reality may dismay many supporters of a new government, but it is the way the political system more often works.
The continuous and largely inherited aspects of our politics include the public service, which traditionally serves each incoming government in a professional and non-partisan way. Governments can attempt to reduce the public service to merely mechanical implementation of government policies, as the Morrison government tried to do.
But the community is generally more satisfied when the public service has a broader, experienced, and evidence-based place in the formulation of government policies. This role, which the Treasury plays in its relationship to the treasurer on budgetary matters, encourages a balance between reform and continuity.
There are other inheritances that the system provides for a government. One is the Senate, which provides an additional hoop through which the government must jump to pass legislation. Another is the High Court. The government has just appointed a new member of this court, but largely it is an institution which owes its composition to successive governments not just the present one.
The biggest inheritance is the constitution, the basic framework within which governments must operate. On some major matters of state, like implementing the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the constitutional referendum process lays down the challenging path which must be followed by all governments.
Any government is most unwise to treat the public service, the Senate, the High Court or even the constitution as barnacles slowing the pace of their progress towards fulfilling its ambitions. Some governments do, of course, and set about trying to brush them off; they should not be encouraged.
The value of Jim Chalmers' use of the barnacle image is that it paints a picture of the situation any new government can find itself in. Governments are lucky if they can put aside those dysfunctional parts of its inheritance which are holding them back.
Once they have done that, however, the harder work begins, dealing with those aspects of their inheritance, like the stage three tax cuts, which can't be so easily brushed off.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.