We’re a discontented lot, it seems.

For months now, Australians have been copping it from commentators, business leaders, economists and even, in one case, a politician, for their poor attitude. We’ve had retailers complaining about overly cautious consumers. We’ve had Joe Hockey criticising the “age of entitlement”. We’ve had members of the press gallery discussing why the government gets no credit when its economic management is, judging by statistics and the plaudits of ratings agencies, the greatest ever. And many of us have been having a go at voters for their persistent conviction that they’re doing it tough after two decades of real income growth, despite the plain evidence that they’re not.

What is going on here? Well, this is by no means a new issue. You know who else got no credit for a strong economy? John Howard. He got turfed out of government, even lost his own seat, despite strong economic growth, a big budget surplus and remarkably low unemployment of the kind we hadn’t seen since the early ’70s. One of the reasons was that voters had stopped listening to him. But another, important reason was that Howard faced an opportunistic, populist opposition leader who cleverly exploited voters’ discontent about the cost of living, vaguely promising to address it without any real detail. Sound familiar?

It’ll be even more familiar if Tony Abbott becomes prime minister and discovers that he, too, faces an increasingly cranky electorate wondering why he isn’t fulfilling the vague commitment they thought he made to do something about the cost of living. And he’s unlikely to have Rudd’s initial stratospheric personal popularity to shield him. Voters might be prepared to elect Abbott, but they can’t stand him; the profound antipathy voters have towards the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader is another symbol of the malaise affecting the electorate currently.

In retrospect, Howard’s fate is ironic — Morissetian or otherwise — given his prime ministership is now considered a golden age. Howard is easily the leader most frequently identified as Australia’s best postwar PM. And recall that, while unable to prevent Kevin Rudd from exploiting cost-of-living issues, his government actually bent over backwards to channel handouts, funded by the first stage of the mining boom, to voters via tax cuts and middle-class welfare. The age of entitlement, as more honest Liberal MPs would admit, began under the Coalition. And it’s an age that Abbott shows every sign of wanting to return to, given his penchant for increasing middle-class welfare (via corporate tax rises no less!) and economic policies that pretend the financial crisis never happened.

Howard’s reliance on middle-class welfare was partly his own personal fetish about aspiration: he wanted to enable Australians to access the signifiers of middle-class status — private schooling, ostentatious property holding, private health care, shareholding, small business — in the hope that it would rub off on them and turn them into permanent conservatives, a shareholder democracy endlessly circling between church, work and McMansion. That this was fundamentally self-contradictory, in establishing an entire taxpayer-funded framework to promote a notional ethos of self-reliance, was always obvious and always irrelevant.

But it was also based on electoral calculation. Howard came within a few votes of losing in 1998 when he campaigned on more economic reform and in early 2001 faced a wipe-out. He saw what Pauline Hanson represented and understood that her message of bigotry masked economic concerns and the resentment of an entire demographic of voters who hadn’t benefited from a decade and more of economic reform. He saw what Hanson did to the conservatives in Queensland. The result was that henceforth Howard never let a key voting demographic go unbribed, until the colossal mistake of WorkChoices, an “economic reform” that delivered nothing for voters bar the belief that vulnerable employees would be ripped off.

A common thread through all this is that Australians remain deeply sceptical about the economic reform program of the past 30 years. In October last year, Essential found that voters particularly dislike privatisation (even Liberal voters) and would support buying back Telstra, Qantas and the Commonwealth bank. Even Coalition voters support buying back Telstra. Voters are more supportive of the once-despised GST and only a third support dumping it, around the same level as support re-regulating the dollar (which would probably have more support now). But they’d also support reversing tariff reform and restoring industry protection. Perceptions of fairness also play a part in this, focused most pointedly on the issue of executive remuneration, where there is strong support for much greater levels of regulation.

There are some contradictions here. Privatisation is particularly disliked because of the perception that voters haven’t benefited from it. Most voters — regardless of how they vote — think privatisation has only benefited companies, and the public barely at all. Voters seem to have the impression the main result of privatisation is gouging or poor service, whether it’s the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas, Telstra or their privatised state electricity generator. But on tariffs, Australians show no interest in engaging in voluntary protection. They’re happy to buy foreign products when they’re cheaper. And most voters aren’t the ones who’ve paid the price of tariff reform. Forgotten now is the huge cost to a generation of men and women who lost years of their productive lives when the manufacturing sector dramatically downsized in the early 1990s. Some never returned to the workforce.

But while this alienation over economics might appear fertile political soil, attempts to cultivate it have failed. One Nation, which Abbott on Howard’s behalf set out to destroy by any means available, and Bob Katter’s party both struggled to transcend their socially reactionary origins. The Greens, which under Bob Brown were an intriguing mixture of economic rationalism and heavy interventionism, under Christine Milne are now making a concerted effort to attract voters by trying to expand the economic debate to address household and fairness issues.

The only prolonged success was Howard’s approach of bribing voters, and even that eventually failed, partly because in doing so Howard constantly ratcheted up electoral expectations; the more successful his policy was, the more it laid the groundwork for his eventual defeat. Now Labor has adopted his approach, albeit in miniature, redirecting the corporate tax cut to benefits for low and middle-income earners.

There’s a strand of thinking that the government would have more luck if it stopped pussyfooting around with voters and giving out handouts and explained that reforms such as the carbon price are critical to Australia’s long-term future. In this tough-love approach, compensation is either not relevant or a downright hindrance — the point of reform is long-term benefits for all Australians, not short-term handouts. But this is a different Australia now to when Bob Hawke convinced Australians of the need for reform, and not just in the quality of its politicians.

It may be that Australians deep down understand that they have benefited from economic reform, but it doesn’t mean they like it, or the less comfortable, less fair, more market-oriented country that resulted from it. Meaning the causes of their discontent are not going to vanish any time soon. Major party politicians beware.