Now singing from the same song sheet

The two party system matters to this country and fracturing it won’t be a good thing.

P Keating Lateline

Two sturdy defenders of the two party system were on Lateline over the last few weeks and both were bashing the Greens as a way of doing it. This was probably just as well because they were getting into some tangles otherwise.

Let’s start at the basics. Keating was onto one of his favourite themes, productivity, and the benefits it had for working Australians:

I mean, the reason people had a 30 per cent real increase in wages in the last 20 years is because of productivity. In the ’90s, I had productivity running at three per cent. Two percentage points of the three went to labour – L.A.B.O.U.R. – and one went to profits.

Keating here is referring to his years as Prime Minister. What he ignores, of course, is his years as Treasurer. During the 1980s there was actually a sharp fall in real earnings that the gains during his government only barely made up. After thirteen years of Hawke/Keating Labor Australian employee living standards had gone nowhere. What all those who bang on about the evils of Workchoices under the fascist Howard regime conveniently ignore, is that the hit in employee living standards happened under Labor, not the Liberals, and it happened because of the active support of the unions under Hawke’s Accord, not in spite of them. The decline of the unions began before Howard and for a very simple reason, they failed their membership.

The role of the unions in the 1980s isn’t the totality of why the two party system has unwound, but it does get to the core of it, the contradiction between institutions set up to defend employee interests being used to undermine them, was bound to unravel. What we have seen is that the political project of the institutions of the labour movement has had its day – as has the political project of those against it.

If the decline of the left is difficult to acknowledge, then it must be especially confusing for the right because they seemed to have won but didn’t. Howard summed up the confusion, when describing why politics had become less ideological:

Well because we no longer have a Cold War. We no longer have a world-wide definition of the difference between right and left, and the whole centre of gravity of the economic debate shifted towards competitive market forces in the 1980s and 1990s.

When I entered federal politics in the ’70s people were still arguing that the state should have a bigger share of the gross domestic product – of the national wealth. I think there’s been a whole shift to the right. And the Labor Party in government espoused attitudes that it – were to the right of what some people in the Liberal Party espoused in the 1960s.

The irony of this is that under Howard, the state had a bigger share of the gross domestic product than in the 1970s and Howard never managed to reduce tax or spending over the life of his government. So who won the ideological war exactly?

In reality, no one. State spending has gone up but now, with the decline of the left, has no political justification, so everyone is embarrassed about it. How silly this can now get is best summed up by the NBN and the argy-bargy about its ‘business plan’.

Of course the NBN doesn’t have a ‘business plan’. If it did, business would do it. The whole point of infrastructure government projects is to do for business what business itself cannot. It’s why government has had to increasingly intervene in the world’s market economy over the last two hundred years whether it suits political needs or not. These days, though, it has to make sure business is included (even if it means giving incentives that raises the total cost overall) and all wrapped up in a bogus business plan. When this ‘business plan’ is published in December, what no doubt we will get is something that only makes sense assuming a cost of $36bn capital that doesn’t actually exist.

The inability to be able to politically justify the normal functions of the state, such as building a broadband network, is a sign of how the political class is becoming increasingly detached from it. This is really what is behind the current fretting about reform, when no one knows what exactly needs reforming. Howard, as usual proposed industrial relations reform, but the phoniness of that was shown by his protégé that had to even ask business to tell him if they need it. Without anyone seeming to need them the political class is now left to wonder what it’s for with both sides engaged in a “battle of ideas” of trying to think up reasons for its existence.

Thank goodness for the Greens. If the major parties can’t think what they’re for, they can at least think of what they’re against. Now with neither standing for much, they can’t really attack each other, so they unite against something that does pose as standing for something. Keating put the need to take on the Greens in terms of the current obsession with reform for its own sake:

Well, I think – you know, if the big parties do the big changes – the Labor Party should never concede space to the Greens. Minor parties always, through the proportional system, climb into the Senate and get into a bargaining position. But, if you look at the big economic change and the big environmental changes in this country, they were delivered fundamentally by the Labor Party. Now, the Labor Party’s got to be seen to be doing those things and getting back to those things.

But perhaps Howard summed it up better:

I think the most important thing is to practise what you preach. And if you preach that people against free enterprise, people who don’t believe in the American alliance, people who have some very odd anti-competitive capitalist views as the Greens have, you shouldn’t ever preference them ahead even of the Labor Party because in the end you’ve got to be governed by principle. People join a political party because they believe in certain things, and if that political party then behaves antagonistically to that set of beliefs, they disillusion their membership.

Preach? Beliefs? When did politics become a religion?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 4 December 2010.

Filed under State of the parties

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Comments

One response to “Leadership watch: Howard and Keating on Lateline

  1. Riccardo on 9th December 2010 2:45 pm

    Can’t leave a post unresponded-to.

    TPS, I know its cute but I like to refer to the multidecade, or century long overhang of politics.

    We are quietly wrapping up the 19th century at the moment. Getting rid of a labour dispute that lasted a century, from the lingering master-servant days that characterised the old social order.

    John Howard was just the echo of Ben Chifley, a man who watched the banks of the 1890s collapse and their directors flee with the loot – so desparate to get back at them (shades of Lang and Keating). Of course by 1948 getting back at the banks made no sense.

    And watched by a man who still remembers the ALP government of 1948 and the unions and wanted to get back at them, which by 2005 made no sense.

    I’m sure there are other such echos in the political system – the Lathams and Costellos and others who like to write self-serving bios are the ones to watch, usually some reference to an early event, long irrelevant, as the reason for their pursuit of some obscure goal.

    I must say as well I’ve never heard a convincing rationale from conservatives for why Howard spent up so big. Maybe he’s like the Repubs after the 1994 mid-terms saying “to the victor, the spoils”. it is enough for a conservative to win government, and spend the proceeds on his pet constituencies.

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