Thursday, 4 November 2010
This blogger could be mistaken, but haven’t we been watching the delicate, intricate ballet of a Liberal leadership tussle? Everyone’s been feeling sorry for Hockey being undermined by unknowns in the Shadow Cabinet, but Hockey seemed to be doing some pretty unilateral positioning against his leader. Certainly Howard felt it necessary to back Abbott and say he should stay on as leader until the next election, while gently slapping down Hockey at the same time, saying he was not as good as Costello (ouch!).
Abbott acted accordingly to the challenge, originally refusing to back Hockey’s call for action against the banks. Peter van Onselen thinks Abbott made a mistake (three times!) in not supporting Hockey, before realising his error when he went back to his office and so had to ring 2GB to make amends. On that reckoning, he must have forgotten his error again because by the afternoon of the same day he was again refusing to endorse Hockey’s plan at the unveiling of Howard’s portrait.
Van Onselen clearly didn’t recognise the classic Abbott three-step, do the damage, retract it and then muddy the waters again. Within a few days, Abbott was countering with his own economic reform, a flat tax, which appears to have died a death. Now the Treasurer has had to get in on the act after the CBA’s rate rise and start bashing the banks. So in a few days, driven almost entirely by internal needs, we have the closest we have come to an economic reform debate for a while.
Welcome to reform 2010-style. It’s not that there is any special problem with the banks at the moment, mortgage rates are not especially onerous by Australian standards. Rather this is a political class looking for something to bash to give themselves the appearance of vitality, and banks are an easy target.
Ironically bank bashing is also a big sport in Europe and the US, but at least there they can argue that the banks have deserved it, being responsible for all the economic woes of the west, rather than, say, their lack of competitiveness against Asian industry. No, it can’t be that. As usual in Australia, things are a bit more obvious and we can see the bank bashing for the obvious self-interested political stunt it is.
Reform is back on the agenda, helped by the brief return of the Old Huckster talking about the lack of reforms of the Rudd/Gillard government compared to all the reforms he did. Presumably he’s talking about that sales tax he brought in some time in the last century.
Yet there was a time when reform didn’t used to be such a fashionable word. When that last Great Reforming government, the Hawke/Keating one, began, reform meant Whitlam and Hawke very much didn’t want a repeat of that. Hawke’s entire case when he began was to present a steady pair of hands that was not going to frighten everyone like Whitlam nor annoy everyone like Fraser.
To read about the Hawke government now, you would think that floating the currency and lowering tariffs was a result of a deliberate program of reform. But if you looked around the world economies at that time everyone was doing it, in fact, having to do it. Hawke and Keating’s real ‘reform’ was to restrain wages and living standards to allow that opening up to occur as painlessly for Australian business as possible.
Restraining the living standards of your own supporter base is a messy business, and reform became an ad hoc description to justify what was a politically tricky act. On the Liberal side, reform became the mantra for the ‘drys’ to use against the ‘wets’ and the Fraser government. This was a pathetic debate since the Liberals were polarising in a parody of the wets and drys of the UK Conservatives. But whereas the Brits were arguing about how to do something, the Liberals were arguing about how to react to Labor doing essentially the same thing.
The phoney need to create a reform momentum became more urgent when Howard took over and found himself governing in a vacuum. With nothing that especially needing reform, Howard tried filling the gap, but ended up with an IR reform that even business didn’t need. So a word that was originally used to obscure something politically sensitive eventually took on a life of its own to be used by a government trying to justify its existence.
When Labor returned to Canberra, the real basis for any Labor reform, its relationship with the unions, was worthless. Rudd’s agenda was always more political than economic and, despite some half hearted attempts to pretend that he could do something about productivity, basically tried to lower expectations about what government could now achieve and to shift the debate about the economy to other directions.
Gillard was central to that political project. Her ‘super portfolio’ of industrial relations, productivity, education and social inclusion was designed to shift the economic debate away from the old ones defined by industrial relations; wages, inflation etc to one of the individual and responsibility.
But it was a project that was never completed. Despite claiming there were no silver bullets for anything, Rudd remained defensive on the issue of reform. He looked internationally, to the big reform project of changing the whole basis of the economy around climate change, and even trying a moral basis for an economic program from the GFC, but the lack of any coherent international response always let him down.
The nature of Gillard’s take-over and the dredging up of the Howard world-view, including on the importance of ‘reform’, has brought that project to an end. So we have the political class slanging each other off over their inability to reform when they can’t even work out what it is that they want to reform. The irony is that the more they go on about it, the less capable they have become of doing anything. So this pantomime could go on until Christmas.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 4 November 2010.Filed under State of the parties