Before her recent departure overseas, “reform” was Julia Gillard’s major theme both in her efforts to carve out a purpose for her government, and in her attacks on the Opposition.

Since the 1980s, economic reform has, along with budget surpluses, become not just a key benchmark by which Australian governments are assessed, but a raison d’être for parties in government. Reform is no longer a finite process but a permanent revolution demanded by business, the media and many politicians themselves, with the agenda shifting over the last decade from major economic restructuring to further tax reform, a “human capital” agenda and a seamless national economy – not to mention endless demands from business for “reform” in the form of corporate tax cuts. If governments aren’t reforming, they’re considered useless.

This is most assuredly a good thing, as a quick glance at other developed countries, where political cultures do not support tight fiscal policy or put such a strong emphasis on economic reform, demonstrates at the moment.

As the standard-bearer of reform in the 1980s, Labor has been happy to be judged by this framework, even though it turned its back on major reform like the GST and privatisation in the Howard years. And despite its recent track record of failure on the CPRS and the RSPT, Julia Gillard is eager to be seen as following in the footsteps of the politicians from what should now be dubbed the Golden Age of Reform — Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello.

This is not a case, as I discussed yesterday, of Labor allowing its opponents to frame the political narrative. Reform is – in part – Labor’s own narrative. Moreover, Labor has had some success in keeping ownership of it as the reform focus has shifted from “hard” micro-economic reform to the perceived “soft” agenda of human capital, centred on territory that is more naturally Labor’s: health, education and skills. This agenda emerged in the Howard years, partly driven by the Bracks Government, but it succumbed to politicking between a Liberal Commonwealth and Labor states. Labor has adopted the agenda and made a great deal of progress with it, particularly in education, courtesy of Julia Gillard’s activism. She achieved in three years much more than the Howard Government certainly managed.

Where Labor has lost control of the reform narrative is in relation to the purpose of “reform”. Reform is not — contrary to the impression given by some commentators – a goal in its own right, but must serve the interests of the community. The Hawke and Keating Governments excelled at selling reform as being in the interests of the voters most likely to oppose it – their own constituency — by emphasising reform as forming part of a broader purpose of governing in the interests of workers and their families. This job was altogether easier for Hawke-era Labor because it could do so via the Accord, which bought union cooperation with a difficult reform agenda in exchange for “social wage” outcomes such as Medicare and superannuation. The Accord is now regarded as a relic of a bygone era when unions were much larger and altogether more truculent, but it should be seen as a key tool in securing a more consensual community-wide approach to the job of overhauling the Australian economy that Hawke and his Cabinet embarked on after 1983.

It also sent a clear message from Labor to working families that it had their interests at heart.

Courtesy of the (Labor-initiated) arrival of enterprise bargaining, and the steady diminution of the union movement, an Accord-based approach is obviously no longer available to Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. But there is nothing in its place to convey the purpose of reform. Labor now speaks endlessly of the need to undertake reform, without explaining to voters what’s in it for them. While Labor has struggled to ever lead the Coalition in polling on which party is seen as better economic manager, it still has a very strong brand on the issue of managing the economy in the interests of working families. Even during Labor’s nadir during the election campaign, it still performed strongly on this indicator. On 9 August, when Labor looked headed for defeat, Essential Research found that Labor, despite trailing the Coalition in “best party at managing the economy”, 38% to 44%, had a strong lead over the Coalition on “best party at handling the economy in a way that helps working people in Australia”, 44-35%.

It was a message that Labor campaign strategists only faintly understood, to their great cost.

It’s there that Labor needs to take the “reform” narrative, better connecting up its ostensible reason for governing with the direct interests of voters, rather than continually prosecuting the case for reform without ever explaining just what reform is for, or more particularly who it benefits. Without that sort of frame, Labor’s efforts at reform don’t look grounded in any core principles. And that’s not just about communicating effectively with voters: if the CPRS or the RSPT were developed and sold as being fundamental parts of Labor’s agenda of managing the economy in the interests of working people, it’s hard to believe they would have been so readily abandoned on the advice of focus group-driven party apparatchiks.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey