Suggesting politicians are untrustworthy is always fashionable but such cynicism is invariably justified when it comes to history, a subject that no politician is able to approach with a modicum of goodwill or balance.
Indeed, the greater the politician, the greater the whoppers they’ll try to weave into the historical narrative. And when they’re using the house organ of the political party, a newspaper with a blatant agenda to distort history, every syllable must be analysed for distortion, omission and bias.
Nevertheless, John Howard’s account of Australia’s economic reforms since 1980 are a lot closer to the mark than that offered by Kevin Rudd earlier this week. It’s also a damn sight more gracious to his political opponents than Rudd was. But Howard’s account has some crucial and self-serving gaps.
In Howard’s view, he is the true hero of the great reforms of the last 30 years: he started them under Fraser, he supported them under Hawke and Keating, he finished them, and took the steps Labor could never bring itself to take.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Howard has long made much of his role as the stymied reformer of the Fraser years, blocked only by Fraser’s lack of vision (and, implicitly, his progressive social outlook) from getting the great task of reform underway. As Christian Kerr pointed out in Crikey a couple of years ago, Fraser has entirely denied Howard’s claims to have been prevented from pursuing reform, saying Howard never brought reform submissions to cabinet.
In any event, in politics you get judged on your results, and Howard’s results were diabolical as Treasurer, except in one crucial way. So dire was his stewardship of the economy — having managed double digit inflation, double digit unemployment and double digit interest rates and a Budget deficit of over 3% of GDP — that the incoming Hawke Government was forced on to a radically reformist path.
Howard has yet to claim that he deliberately trashed the economy to make his successors rebuild it from the ground up, but if he did, it worked a treat.
But Howard is correct in suggesting he undertook some reforms Labor couldn’t bring itself to implement, primarily introducing a GST and industrial relations deregulation, where Keating made a good start but Howard achieved a great deal in Peter Reith’s first round of IR reforms. Workchoices was a political disaster not merely because it cost Howard office but because it was, as the evidence shows, a wholly unnecessary step further toward an anti-union regulatory framework — the system established by Reith was operating effectively.
Howard’s support for much of Hawke/Keating Labor’s reform program was also important. It was missing on superannuation, and the Liberals have never been enthusiastic about national competition policy, but they’re exceptions: given Labor never had control of the Senate, and might have been forced to negotiate with the Democrats to secure passage of a weakened version of their reforms (as Labor made Howard do on the GST), Howard’s support was important, and rarely reciprocated in the Howard years.
The Prime Minister was also incorrect to suggest that the Liberals never understood Labor’s commitment to coupling economic reform with social welfare reform — the concept, embodied in the Accords of the Hawke-Keating era, of trading off support for reform with social income and welfare initiatives like Medicare, superannuation and lower taxes. Howard came late to the idea of lower taxes, but he had a similar albeit cruder idea to Labor: bribe people with their own money via transfer payments for everyone but the super-rich. It lacked the imagination of Labor’s social reforms, but it held Howard up electorally for two elections.
But here’s what Howard really misses, and I don’t blame him for omitting it.
The key to the economic reforms of the last 30 years was the Hawke-Keating partnership. It was an unprecedented pairing of two political giants who threw themselves into the reform task — not without missteps and errors and retreats, to be sure — with a determination to apply all of their considerable skill. Keating made reform fashionable, of course. I was studying Commerce at high school in the first terms of the Hawke Government and it was a genuinely exciting time, with what seemed like a major new reform to be digested every week — suitably scrutinized each night by Nationwide. But Hawke was critical, too, and lent his vast popularity and credibility to the cause of reform.
Hawke leaves debates such as this one to Keating and Howard, and therefore gets less recognition for his role — and it hasn’t helped that the Press Gallery eventually only saw him as an impediment to the inevitable Keating Prime Ministership. The Keating Government, despite its fiscal indiscipline, also had a much better reform record than we appreciated at the time. But perhaps it’s time to give Hawke a bit more of the credit than he gets when Keating, Howard and now Rudd go at it.
In contrast, the pairing of Howard and Costello, while superficially similar, had none of the vibrancy that Hawke-Keating had, and Howard never let Costello have his head in the same way that Hawke, who must surely have understood it would be his downfall, did for Keating.
In any event, by 1996, it was an altogether different Australia. It was one Hawke and Keating had created, but one which had turned its back on both of them. Reform fatigue had set in nationally – and perhaps understandably given the way the entire governing class botched the early nineties recession. Rudd called Howard’s Prime Ministership the — indolent years — but, given the national mood back then, in some ways it’s remarkable that Howard undertook any reform at all.
And here’s the real lesson from all this: Kevin Rudd saved us from recession, yes, but he’s got a bloody long way to go before he can be spoken of in the same breath as Hawke and Keating. Or Howard.