Saturday, October 25, 2014

Economic chaos of Whitlam years not all his fault

Gough Whitlam was a giant among men who changed Australia forever - and did it in just three years. No argument. The question is whether the benefits of his many reforms exceeded their considerable economic costs.

The answers we've had this week have veered from one extreme to the other. To Whitlam's legion of adoring fans - many of whom, like many members of his ministry, have never managed to generate much understanding or interest in economics - any economic issues at the time aren't worth remembering.

To his bitter, unforgiving critics - led by former Treasury secretary John Stone - his changes were of dubious benefit, in no way making up for the economic chaos he brought down upon us.

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

To his many social reforms must be added a few of lasting economic benefit: diplomatic and trading relations with China, the Trade Practices Act with its first serious attack on anti-competitive business practices and - the one so many forget - the Industries Assistance Commission, whose efforts over many years led eventually to the end of protection against imports, removed by the next Labor government.

Not all of his many social reforms have survived. The Hawke-Keating government removed remaining vestiges of his non-means-tested age pension and ended the failed experiment with free university education, which did little to raise the proportion of poor kids going to university, but cost a fortune and delivered a windfall to the middle class at the expense of many workers.

The best modern assessment of the Big Man's economic performance comes in the chapter by John O'Mahony, of Deloitte Access Economics, in The Whitlam Legacy, edited by Troy Bramston.

O'Mahony's review of the economic statistics tells part of the story: "The years of the Whitlam government saw the economic growth rate halve, unemployment double and inflation triple".

But that conceals a wild ride. By mid-1975, inflation hit 17.6 per cent and wage rises hit 32.9 per cent. The economy boomed in 1973 and the first half of '74, but then suffered a severe recession.

From an economic perspective, Whitlam did two main things. He hugely increased government spending - and, hence, the size of government - by an amazing 6 percentage points of gross domestic product in just three years.

Some have assumed this led to huge budget deficits. It didn't. Most of the increased spending was covered by massive bracket creep as prices and wages exploded.

Many of Whitlam's new spending programs should have come under his predecessors and would have happened eventually. Some can be defended as adding to the economy's human capital and productive infrastructure, others were no more than a recognition that our private affluence needn't be accompanied by public squalor.

From this distance it's hard to believe that in 1972 large parts of our capital cities were unsewered. That's the kind of backwardness Whitlam inherited.

The Whitlam government's second key economic action was to pile on top of high inflation huge additional costs to employers through equal pay, a fourth week of annual leave, a 17.5 per cent annual leave loading and much else.

Clyde Cameron, Whitlam's minister for labour, simply refused to accept that the cost of labour could possibly influence employers' decisions about how much labour they used.

From today's perspective, there's nothing radical about equal pay or four weeks' leave. But to do it all so quickly and in such an inflationary environment was disastrous.

When the inevitable happened and Treasury and the Reserve Bank jammed on the brakes and precipitated a recession, Labor's rabble of a 27-person cabinet concluded the econocrats had stabbed them in the back, panicked and began reflating like mad.

What Labor's True Believers don't want to accept is that the inexperience, impatience and indiscipline with which the Whitlam government changed Australia forever, and for the better, cost a lot of ordinary workers their jobs. Many would have spent months, even a year or more without employment.

But what the Whitlam haters forget is that Labor had the misfortune to inherit government just as all the developed economies were about to cross a fault-line dividing the postwar Golden Age of automatic growth and full employment from today's world of always high unemployment and obsession with economic stabilisation.

Thirty years of simple Keynesian policies and unceasing intervention in markets were about to bring to the developed world the previously impossible problem of "stagflation" - simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment - that no economist knew how to fix, not even the omniscient and infallible John Stone.

It was 30 years in the making, but it was precipitated by the Americans' use of inflation to pay for the Vietnam war, the consequent breakdown of the postwar Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the worldwide rural commodities boom and the first OPEC oil shock, which worsened both inflation and unemployment.

The developed world was plunged into dysfunction. The economics profession took years to figure out what had gone wrong and what policies would restore stability. Money supply targeting was tried and abandoned.

The innocents in the Whitlam government had no idea what had hit them; that all the rules of the economic game had changed. The point is that any government would have emerged from the 1970s with a bad economic record.

Malcolm Fraser had no idea the rules had changed, either. His economic record over the following seven years was equally unimpressive.

It took the rest of the developed world about a decade to get back to low inflation and lower unemployment. It took us about two decades. I blame the Whitlam government's inexperience, impatience and indiscipline for a fair bit of that extra decade.

My strongest feeling is that when the electorate leaves one side of politics in the wilderness for 23 years it's asking for trouble. It's Time to give the others a turn after no more than a decade.