Monday, December 9, 2013

Keating gives Abbott a masterclass

With our neophyte Prime Minister and his Treasurer struggling to find their feet - and a direction to travel in - let's hope they've been watching the ABC's interviews with Paul Keating. If not, they're out on DVD this week.

For those of us who lived through the Hawke-Keating government's extraordinary 13 years - and those who didn't - Kerry O'Brien's four interviews are a reminder of Keating's indisputable claim to be our greatest, most reforming, treasurer.

If you're tempted to doubt that, consider Business Council president Tony Shepherd's description of our economy in the early 1980s. Keating had described it as a "moribund, inward-looking industrial graveyard" and he'd been right, Shepherd said.

"We had a fixed exchange rate, tariffs [on imports] were still high, we were frightened of Japanese investment ... our financial system was tightly regulated, our industrial relations system was centralised, complex and unproductive, and just about every service was provided by the public sector. State ownership extended to banks, insurance, telecommunications, airlines, ports, shipping, dockyards, electricity, gas etc," Shepherd said.

Keating was the instigator of virtually all those reforms. And though many of them weren't opposed by the Coalition opposition, they were radical reforms - brave steps into the unknown - controversial in the community, including among many Labor voters.

O'Brien's interviews reveal Keating in all his strengths and weaknesses. His self-congratulation ("there's nothing there to be humble about"), bravado ("what I love about the Road Runner is he runs that fast he burns up the road behind him; there's no road left for the others"), colourful language ("a pimple on the backside of progress"), disposal of people who got in his way (Bob Hawke, for instance) and revenge against supposed enemies ("don't get mad, get even" - including with Fairfax).

But no leader of this country since John Curtin has more cause for self-congratulation than Keating. No leader is without character failings and Keating's were outweighed by his contribution.

If Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey want their chapter in Australia's economic history to be half as glorious as Keating's there's much they could learn from him, starting with his clear sense of purpose. "I had to make sure this slothful, locked-up place finally became an open, competitive economy."

His vision was of "an efficient, competitive, open, cosmopolitan republic, integrating itself with the Asian region".

"To do what's right and good gives you the surge. Without the surge, what are you? You're just mucking around with tricky press statements, appearances and 'doorstops'." - "You make the political strategy around good policy rather than around trickery."

Keating was a man of courage. "I always believed in burning up the government's political capital, not being Mr Safe Guy." - "You're nobody until you attract a good set of enemies." - "If you run hard enough and fast enough for a great change you'll get it." - "Statecraft and nation building are about taking the risks and moving the country on."

And a man of toughness. "Nations get made the hard way; nation building is a hard caper." - "You've got to elbow your way through." - "In the end, if you want to get the changes through you've got to hold your nerve and squeeze the system."

Does that sound like any present politician? Last week Hockey said he had an "economic plan" focused on building economic growth. Great. At last. What is it?

"It is focused on getting rid of inhibitive taxes and inhibitive regulation that undermines our capacity to be at our best. We need to speed up the Australian economy and ... if we repeal the carbon tax, it will add to economic growth ... when we get rid of the mining tax it sends a clear message to the world that we need mining investment."

Really? That's the best you've got - to undo the reforms of the previous government? To move to a less economically efficient instrument against climate change and undercharge mainly foreign-owned mining companies for their appropriation of our non-renewable resources? That will balance the budget? That's what will lift productivity? Seriously?

According to Abbott last week, "the challenge is always the same: to build the strongest possible economy with lower taxes and less red tape leading to higher productivity and stronger economic growth ... my business - the business of government - should be making it easier for you to do your business".

Really? Easy as that, eh? No need for courage or toughness. No need to do anything that won't win a vote of thanks from the Business Council.