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May 16, 2014

Labor's legacy under Abbott's axe: what will survive?

The Abbott government wants to hack down much of Labor's legacy. We investigate which Labor reforms are likely to survive, and who history may come to judge as the better PM out of Rudd and Gillard.


Labor may end up with a slim legacy from its six years in power under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. And contrary to what some pundits claim, Rudd will likely leave a larger policy footprint than Gillard.

Crikey has looked at 27 key Labor reforms and initiatives from 2007 to 2013 — the measures of which the ALP is proudest — and examined whether they are likely to survive the Abbott government.

We’ve found that almost half the key reforms are under threat from the Coalition (13 out of 27), while the rest are likely to live on. The schoolkids of the 2020s will probably learn about Labor’s historic apology to the stolen generations, better support for the disabled via the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the country’s first paid parental leave scheme. These look set to go the distance.

While not technically “reforms”, Labor’s legacy will also include guiding the Australian economy through the GFC, and the country’s first female PM and first female governor-general.

But Labor’s carbon price, mining tax and Gonski school reforms might be gone and forgotten by the 2020s, and Labor’s big increases to health and education funding might be a distant memory.

Crikey also compared Rudd-initiated reforms with those driven by Gillard. We found Rudd’s are more likely to survive.

Key moves by Rudd that are set to stay include the apology to the stolen generations, the rise in the aged pension and the childcare rebate, paid parental leave (it may be supplanted by a more generous scheme), and removing discrimination against same-sex couples in legislation. In the Rudd era, WorkChoices was abolished, the Kyoto Protocol was signed, and cigarettes were put in ugly plain packages (all these will survive — for now at least).

In the Gillard era, key reforms that look likely to continue are the NDIS, raising the tax-free threshold to $18,000, and the royal commission into child sex abuse. Most of Gillard’s signature reforms are under threat: the carbon price, the mining tax, the Gonski school funding model.

It’s important to note that some reforms deemed “under threat” may survive because the Coalition has to convince the Senate (and in some cases the states) to scrap them. Labor’s large increases to health and education funding, which Treasurer Joe Hockey tried to drop in this week’s federal budget, could live on because the Senate or the states might thwart Hockey.

And this table does not necessarily indicate that Rudd was a better policy reformer than Gillard. Rudd came first, so he picked off the low-hanging policy fruit — the easy targets after 11 years of John Howard’s rule (e.g. signing the Kyoto Protocol and an overdue rise in the pension). Gillard had to contend with a minority Parliament to boot.

But the ex post facto characterisation of Gillard as a strong policy reformer who was dragged down by politics and sexism may not stand the test of time. And the depiction of Rudd as an eccentric, populist show pony who achieved little in the policy sphere may be unfair. He initiated quite a few reforms that are now locked in and non-controversial, hence have been largely forgotten about.

Another conclusion from this table is that it doesn’t matter how great a prime minister’s policy agenda is; if you don’t convince the public and you get thrown out of office, the policy will go. The politics trumps merit. Memo to Gillard.

This table shows Labor’s key reforms, which politician initiated and drove the reform, and whether the reform is safe from the Abbott government. “Safe for now” under “explanation” means the Coalition has not revealed plans to change that reform, but may well do so …

(Click on the table to see a larger version)


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