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Mar 28, 2013

The strangely malleable legacy of the Hawke-Keating years

Labor figures who now invoke the Hawke-Keating legacy appear to have forgotten what actually happened back then. And if Labor really wants to embrace the H and K era, here's what they should do on superannuation ...

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The vanquishing of Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions — at least while Julia Gillard remains prime minister — has done nothing to quiet the debate over Labor’s direction; indeed, that debate is more intense than ever …

“People have got to believe we have conviction, that we believe in what we stand for, there is a coherence of message and we are determined to pursue it. What we have to do is to take people with us.”

That was Simon Crean’s statement last week, that Labor’s woes wouldn’t be solved by a mere change of leadership, as he invoked “the great things that I was part of in the Hawke-Keating government”. Then came the stream of ministerial resignations on Friday, with Martin Ferguson calling for an end to “class war” rhetoric. Bill Kelty has since chimed in to complain of a Labor Party that “cultivates division“.

That’s the Bill Kelty who as ACTU secretary warned that the election of the Howard government in 1996 would see the union movement take this approach to the government: “If they want a fight, if they want a war, they’ll have the full symphony.” Looks a little like division to me.

Crean’s attempt to wear the mantle of the Hawke-Keating years might also sit uneasily with those who remember how he was derided as an advocate of interventionist industry policy when Labor was trying to dismantle protectionism and open the industrial economy up to competition, when the term “Creanite” was one of the more printable Keatingesque term of abuse within the ministerial wing of Parliament House.

And given Labor turned its back on the Keating legacy after 1996 under Kim Beazley and Crean, the whole embrace of the Hawke-Keating years as a golden period of Labor success is rich indeed. The “Hawke-Keating era” now appears to mean whatever Labor figures want it to mean.

As for division and class warfare, anyone who remembers Keating enthusiastically dishing it out to his business critics might have difficulty with the idea that the 1980s were a nirvana of consensus politics, especially when Keating was happy to rise in Parliament and, in the course of a spray at Nobby Clark, suggest NAB was in financial trouble. Nor were those governments above stumbles, errors and policy disasters. When Keating lost in cabinet to Kim Beazley over telecommunications policy, Australia was handed a monolithic Telstra that held back communications infrastructure and strangled competition in Australia for a generation.

Still, the passage of time, as we know, lends a rather roseate hue to conflict and turmoil. Who knows — in the 2020s Labor figures might invoke the bravery of the Gillard government in implementing a carbon price.

What the Hawke and Keating governments were good at, undoubtedly, was standing up to special interests and rentseekers. Indeed, a key part of Keating’s communications strategy was to rip the mask off special interests opposing reform and expose them as the self-interested lobbyists they were. But when Wayne Swan does the same to mining magnates (in one of the few effective moments of communication this government has achieved), suddenly it’s “class warfare”, not just according to Christopher Pyne but to the miners’ friend at court, Martin Ferguson.

Under that logic, any effort to point out that business interests are not analogous to, and may even be in conflict with, the national interest is “class warfare”.

For some, that’s pretty rigorous logic. Remember Kerry Stokes last week at the media reform hearings declaring that there was no distinction between the interests of his shareholders and the public interest?

Labor is indeed engaged in a “class war” but it’s one declared by special interests, who use their entrenched position and wealth to protect themselves. Foreign mining companies unwilling to pay tax, media companies who won’t even self-regulate let alone accept government regulation or sections of the financial planning industry who don’t want the easy life of commissions and disengaged fee-paying clients. The ammunition in this war is advertising dollars, lobbyist payments and polling.

And Labor isn’t always on the side of the angels in this particular war. It runs an industry policy dedicated to propping up three multinational car companies. It only discovered rentseeking and gold-plating by electricity network owners when state governments went from being Labor to Coalition.

But if politicians want to misuse the term “class war”, then let’s be clear what it really means.

Which brings us to the current stoush between the smouldering ruins of the Rudd camp and the government over superannuation. One by one, they’ve lined up to criticise any plans to reduce tax breaks for the well-off on superannuation. First Crean. Then Joel Fitzgibbon — what happened to “you won’t be hearing much from Joel Fitzgibbon between now and May”, Joel?. Then Kim Carr. It’s almost as if we now have an official and an unofficial opposition, one in the Coalition, one on the Labor backbench.

As Treasury revealed in January, this is the year in which superannuation tax concessions are forecast to overtake housing (essentially, the CGT exemption on the family home) as the single biggest area of tax expenditure, at around $30 billion a year, and forecast to rise to $40 billion a year well before the end of the decade. In terms of sheer size, there’s a case for urgently reining in the cost of superannuation tax concessions to preserve Australia’s damaged tax base. Moreover, those concessions are disproportionately skewed in favour of higher income earners.

The Coalition has its own superannuation tax plans, intending to remove the Low Income Superannuation Contribution for low-income earners, further skewing the benefits toward high income earners.

Addressing the unsustainable growth in tax expenditures and doing so in a way that does not increase, and ideally reduces, the inequities of the current system, would traditionally be considered sound Labor policy. The Hawke-Keating government, which assiduously pursued tax rorts like fringe benefits exploited by high-income earners, may well have adopted exactly such an approach.

But for those who only last week were calling for a return to the spirit of the Hawke-Keating years, apparently it’s divisive and unfair.

Strange how things change.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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56 thoughts on “The strangely malleable legacy of the Hawke-Keating years

  1. GeeWizz

    Labor have actually been attacking low income earners superannuation, do a search on Super Co-Contributions Scheme.

    Under Howard if you contributed $1000 into your own superannuation(from your post-taxed income) and made less than $30,000 annually the government would give put in an additional $1500 into your super account. People earning above $30,000 could also get a co-contribution but the amount decreased at a tampering rate with wages up to $60,000 where you got nothing. The bottom and top income rates were indexed every year so that as Australians incomes rose the same amount of lower income group could get it each financial year.

    Then Labor got in.

    First thing they did in July 2009 was drop the government co-contribution from $1500 a year to $1000 a year. This made low income earners involved in the scheme $500 worse off per year.

    But Labor hadn’t finished tinkering just yet. They also stopped indexing incomes every year and instead fixed it at a set income. Permanently. Now as incomes of Australians rise every year, less and less people were eligible.

    But wait Labor wasn’t finished just yet.

    In the 2012-13 budget the top “Phase Out” income of $61,290 was stripped all the way back down to $46,290. This means if you make $46,290 and co-contribute $1000 now the government won’t give you a red cent. Not a dime.

    But Labor still wasn’t finished. They stripped the co-contribution again, this time halving the total amount to a measily $500 now, 1/3rd of what Howard gave low income earners… yet still the low income earner must contribute the full $1000 of their own money to get it.

    Labor have absolutely r4ped and ravaged the co-contributions scheme… they have milked everything they could out of low-income earners and yet they dare pretend to care about superannuation for Australians?

    Labor reminds me of the book/movie 1984… they didn’t actually strip $1000 from your co-contribution low-income earners, they actually gave you $500 more. It’s the history revisionism.

    Bernard should know better than to believe it.

  2. Hamis Hill

    We should beat that strangely malleable ploughshare of the Hawke-Keating era into a set of scalpels in order to dissect what animates the un-dead corpses of the zombie opposition.
    Here is a preliminary report from the political coroners office.
    “Rugger-Buggers and Misogyny: Abbott Dog Whistles To His Mates”.
    Fear and hatred of women, which Abbott hopes to gain him control of Australia, must also be accompanied by guilt.
    The male-bonding rituals of the pubescent rugger buggers usually involves the team “shareing” a willing professional or amateur prostitute.
    This not restricted to Australia, former grid-iron star John Wayne reports gang rapes on night-time sportsfield practice nights.
    Janice Joplin apparently confessed to offerring herself up to such a ritual in her youth.
    Even our demure and gentlemanly cricketers report enthusiastic young women breaking into dressing rooms to plead for sexual attention from any or all of the team.
    Tales from North Queensland inform this ingrained gang-rape mentality.
    Young, drunken women, unfortunate enough to fall for the charms of a young boozer soon found out that he would inform his mates who would then line up for their “turn”, exiting the pub for the assignation mimicking the sound of a railway train, toot toot, as lined up like carriages they set off to “train”, very punny, the unfortunate young woman.
    Sydney, in the swinging sixties saw, drugged or drunk young teenage girls fornicating in a public park at night joined by a line of willing males, drawn by the whispers of GangBang and dutifully forming a very prominent queue to the quizzical stares of the passing public.
    Some drug induced “Free-love” peace, love and understanding rugger-bugger team style, just as they were taught at training or overnight away games in strangetowns.
    So the result of the examination is that misogyny is indeed entrenched in the team spirit sporting culture of Australia and that fear and hatred, and indeed, guilt has to be factored into Abbott’s (youthfully induced?) capcity to dogwhistle on the subject, to gain votes from suburban, “sporting life” aspirationals.
    Why do they hate Julia?
    Did their youthful experiences teach then to do so?
    Yes,overseas observers, they’re a “weird mob” down under.
    Ready to throw out a successful, economically competent and responsible government and replace it with the Howard era’s walking dead because their upbringing gave a very big “problem” with women.
    For the religious connection to all this there is a book called “Damned Whores and God’s Police”.
    Apparently some women don’t like Julia either.
    That’ll be God’s police vainly attempting to protect their men folk then?

  3. Mike Flanagan

    Sorry for my tardy respnse to your assertions and ‘long bows’ but agrarian “intellectuals’ have their time determined by weather and other influences beyond our control.
    The right’s demeaning of the unions influence on the basis of a few bad apples has to be comapared to the historic manipulation and gaming of the political discourse and policy by the supporters and financiers of the conservative parties, on offer.
    A cursory reading of recent history will show up leaders, presidents and members of the LNP being marched before courts, royal commisions and public enquiries for their actions to further their political and financial ambitions.
    Spin and distortions are their supporting associations, such as the HR Nicholls, IPA, and Menzies House, stock in trade.
    The public have to spend days reading HIH Royal Commission
    transcipts to get an honest appreciation of the character of one of the recent LNP’s leader. All studiously ignored by MSM.
    While I deplore the mischreant behaviour of individuals in the some unions, the movement has served the pulic well over their history, and they gain their power to be recognised in the public debate and discourse from their weight of numbers of membership.
    The corporate associations (Mining, Retail, Manufacturing and the like)find the size of their cheques is the predeterminant of their influence over the LNP led by Abbott and his neocon supporters.
    If we are to build and depend on an economic structure that is fundamentally an amalgam of capital and labour, then labour has both a right and a duty to be part of the development and application policies in a democracy. It has been, and still is, the union’s mission to further that side of the argument.
    Currently, with the arraigment of the MSM and capitals rent seeking corporate associations and propaganda tanks, the public have little access to the truth.
    I rebutt your last par David on the grounds that after a concerted six months campaign by an indolent cabal of Canberra Press Gallery journalists Ms Gillards stands tall, with her blemishes, untouched by Royal or Judicial Commission, Parliamentary Enquiries or any court.
    Her malevant and self serving adjudicators are the MSM and their rent seeker associates.
    Not the established mechanisms of enquiry that many of Abbotts neocon supporters have and are about to front. May I suggest you read the transcipts and judgements of the Ashby case, and we all look forward to Krogers coming test in the courts.
    “acolite” be damned

  4. David Hand

    Hey Mike,
    Thanks for your lengthy reply.
    I concede that my posts contain generalisations. But is is a mistake to take those generalisations and downplay the issues they represent.

    For example, you refer to a “few bad apples” from the union movement in court at the moment as though such behaviour is not widespread. I accept that the Obeid saga is almost certainly isolated. I can’t remember any other politician leaving parliament and moving into an $8m mansion on Sydney harbour. Even that doesn’t come close to the corruption in the National government in Queensland in the 70’s and 80’s.

    But the Craig Thompson drama and Julia’s less than stellar performance setting up an AWU slush fund are undoubtedly more typical.

    The issue affecting Labor today is the way that a small elite of union officials use their positions to control pre-selections of Labor MPs. If those MPs form a government which governs for the benefit of the country, as it did in the Hawke / Keating years, the system works. But if the union appointed government operates as a servant to its union masters, it is electorally doomed.

    The single best example of such toxic union influence was on 24 June 2010 when MPs went home from parliament the night before unaware that a spill was on. The muppets got a call from their union masters telling them to vote for Gillard and Paul Howes, a union boss not in parliament at all, went on Lateline and claimed credit for the knifing of Rudd.

    “Acolyte” is not a bad description.

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