The electorate is proving ungovernable, throwing out governments that dare to take tough decisions and encouraging political parties to dump leaders with the strength to pursue reform. Australia will become like Greece. Voters need to take a look at themselves. Maybe we need to ditch democracy for a while so that we can make the hard economic adjustments needed.

The “reform is dead” theme from Australian business and many in the commentariat has proven a popular one in recent weeks as first-term Coalition governments have been kicked out in Victoria and Queensland and the federal Liberal Party has mulled dumping the astonishingly unpopular Tony Abbott and his even less-liked Treasurer, Joe Hockey.

But how true is it? Yes, we know privatisation is deeply unpopular with voters of all stripes — Crikey has been pointing that out for years. This week’s Essential Report showed why — voters think the benefits of privatisation flow to corporations while they face higher prices and poorer service. And many of the post mortems on both the recent and the 2012 Queensland election have focused on the deep unpopularity of privatisation among voters of that state.

Does that mean privatisation is dead? Well, no. The Baird government in NSW is going to the polls with a partial privatisation plan for electricity infrastructure, and currently leads 55-45 over the appalling NSW Labor Party, which stolidly opposes privatisation.

And one of the few high points in domestic politics in 2014 for the Abbott government was Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s wildly successful sale of Medibank Private, which ran smoothly and produced a far greater return to taxpayers than expected. Has anyone suggested that the sale of Medibank Private has contributed to that government’s woes?

So, the evidence is that voters dislike privatisation, but that it isn’t always a vote-changer in every constituency, and can actually be done successfully if someone competent, like Cormann, is running it. It’s also worth noting that the federal Liberals have been promising to sell Medibank Private since 2007.

What about other kinds of reform? There’s polling for that, as well, albeit a little older. In 2012, we asked Essential research to ask a series of questions about economic reforms more broadly. What’s interesting is the unanimity of voters — it’s almost impossible to tell Labor, Liberal or Greens voters apart in their views. Looking back over 30 years of economic reform, more than half of voters believed that corporations had benefited most, with just 5% saying ordinary Australians had.

But if you examine attitudes toward specific reforms, they tend to vary. Compulsory superannuation and Medicare, which purists wouldn’t class as true economically rationalist reform — are the most popular reforms: both score nearly 80% support from voters. But they also strongly support the floating of the dollar, 46% to 11%, and free trade agreements (another reform that doesn’t really count) 41%-21%, even though voters would actually like more trade protection. Even introducing the GST — which dominated the 1990s politically — is now accepted, with 39% support and 30% disapproval. It’s only privatisation — the big ones of the Keating and Howard eras, Telstra, the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas — that voters still dislike and would like to reverse.

Then there’s industrial relations reform. The electorate made its views clear on that in 2007. But in case anyone was wondering, consider this recent result from Essential: 61% of voters, including 43% of Liberal voters, believe the current minimum wage is too low. Just 6% think it is too high. In April last year, Essential found 77% of voters opposed abolishing the minimum wage.

There is, however, some voter support for reforms that appear to have an element of reciprocity in them. Voter reaction to the National Commission of Audit showed voters happy with the idea of graduates starting to repay HECS once they earned above the minimum wage, that young single people have to move to areas with more jobs if they wanted to keep earning Newstart, or forcing the young unemployed onto Youth Allowance. But making graduates pay higher interest on their student debt, or deregulating university fees, weren’t popular.

What can we glean from all this, beyond the hostility to privatisation? Voters are more supportive of reforms on which they had a vote first, like the GST (or the sale of Medibank), reforms that they see a clear benefit from, like compulsory super or free trade agreements (the benefits of which are illusory, but sold by governments as though they actually exist), but suspicious of reforms that they suspect will benefit corporations at their expense, or which appear unfair. Moreover, even in reform areas where voters consistently tell pollsters they’re unhappy — like trade liberalisation, where voters consistently exhibit protectionist tendencies — they don’t vote to reflect that. Parties as diverse as One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and the Greens have all pitched to the electorate significant increases in protectionism, and none have been able to mobilise a consistently high vote.

Most of that is pretty obvious, but it’s a lesson that appears to have been lost on successive governments and on the commentariat currently whining about the death of reform. Governments can still do it, but like always, the electorate needs to be convinced.

Next week: what reforms can be delivered from here?

Peter Fray

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