We
remain locked out of the lock-up, but Crikey will still be in
Parliament House this week. The Crikey Tent Embassy is ready – sleeping
bags, groundsheet, primus stove, woolly long-johns (it gets pretty
chilly in Canberra at night at this time of year). We’re very
interested in this part of the prime minister’s Athens Declaration –
and surprised and concerned that it’s attracted less comment:

“Prime ministers get interested in Budgets, too, you know. I found that
out, both as treasurer and prime minister. So this in a way is my 16th
Budget, if you put it that way.”

Sixteenth? Doesn’t the Official History According to John Howard say
that six of these were wasted opportunities – the products of the
Liberals’ locust years? Wasn’t the problem back then that the then
prime minister got too interested in budgets and that our hero, the
would-be reformist, was boxed in by a conservative cabinet? Hasn’t John
Howard – or his acolytes, anyway – always been very, very careful to
distance himself from policies that produced a wages breakout, 10%
unemployment and recession? The Athens admissions are amazing. So John
Howard was there, after all.

We
should have known. The prime minister, after all, is a manager, not a
reformer. Australia’s current prosperity stems from a series of Labor
reforms, laid down in roughly ten-year intervals – Gough Whitlam’s 25%
across the board tariff cuts, Bob Hawke’s floating of the dollar and
deregulating of the financial system, and the measures Paul Keating put
in place to convert the correction we had to have into the foundations
for our current record run of economic growth.

No wonder The Economist
spoke last week about how “a second wave of reform is now urgently
needed” in Australia. No wonder it concluded on the eve of his control
of the Senate that “Mr Howard has proved a good manager and a skilled
political tactician but not yet a great reformer. The interesting
question now is this: has Mr Howard got the ticker?”

And no wonder Paul Kelly
wrote on the weekend that “The PM needs some goals.” He let Hugh Morgan
say the actual words – but expressed what’s on everyone’s mind:

It
should be a golden term for a confident government. Yet this is not the
mood in Canberra. The problem is not the Howard-Costello leadership
brawl that has rightly dominated this week’s headlines. It predates the
leadership eruption and arises from Howard’s success – the problem is
the complacency, caution and confusion that infects the Howard
Government.

The dreaded word ‘Fraserism’ is now being uttered.
President of the Business Council of Australia and supporter of the
Government Hugh Morgan says: ‘I believe the Government is conscious of
the disappointment that would follow if it failed to implement the
reforms to keep Australia competitive. That would risk a repeat of the
Fraser years.’

It is a polite warning but in private the talk is
more apprehensive among business, the economic community and the
Canberra advisory apparatus…

Indeed. Are we going to see
leadership tomorrow night – from either John Howard or Peter Costello?
Neither of them will have any excuses for inaction come 1 July.

Peter Fray

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