Monday, August 24, 2015
But last week Keating came out fighting when John Howard argued that the Coalition opposition of the time also deserved praise "because it gave bipartisan support to so many of [Keating's] reforms".
Keating objected to "a creeping part of the orthodoxy of late that the reformation of Australia's financial, product and labour markets . . . was not executed by the Hawke and Keating governments but was some kind of project undertaken with the active co-operation of the then Liberal-National opposition".
"Nothing could be further from the truth."
Sorry, but Howard has a point.
It's true there was no overt co-operation between Labor and the Coalition, nor any atmosphere of sweetness and light. The Liberals never said anything good about Labor and always found plenty to criticise and oppose. To the casual observer, it was adversarial politics as usual.
In particular, the Libs vigorously opposed almost all of Labor's tax reforms, particularly the taxes on fringe benefits and capital gains, the compulsory superannuation levy and even the restoration of the assets test for the age pension.
They also vigorously opposed Medicare and Labor's Accord with the union movement.
Howard may be happy to praise the Hawke and Keating reforms at this late stage, but he didn't at the time, nor during the almost 12 years he was prime minister. This is an old trick: praising long departed opponents as a way of criticising the present incumbents.
I don't doubt that, had a Howard-led government been elected in 1983, it wouldn't have instigated all the reforms Keating made in the following 13 years. It would have lacked the vision, drive, courage and sense of urgency Keating had – not to mention the support of its Labor opposition.
Keating is no doubt right in saying his biggest problem in pushing reform was getting the Labor caucus and the unions lined up behind him. In this the Accord was a great help, meaning ACTU secretary Bill Kelty deserves his share of the reform credit.
The Labor faithful may regard Keating as a saint up there with Whitlam today, but at the time they thought of him as a turncoat.
But the fact is Howard is right in listing all the reforms the Coalition, under the influence particularly of him and his former adviser, Professor John Hewson, did not oppose: privatisation of Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, deregulation of bank lending rates, floating the dollar, admitting foreign banks, ending import quotas and virtual phasing out of tariffs, and introducing the HECS scheme for university fees.
Urged on by Hewson, Howard instigated the whole financial deregulation project by commissioning the Campbell report. He implemented as many of its recommendations as Malcolm Fraser would let him, before the Fraser government was swept from office.
It's noteworthy that nothing Keating went on to do was mentioned in the 1983 election campaign. In opposition, Keating joined the rest of Labor in vigorously attacking financial deregulation.
In office, he changed his tune, used a quickie report by the banker Vic Martin to sanctify the Campbell proposals, and proceeded to implement them all.
Howard is right in saying the most politically courageous reform was ending the protection of manufacturing. Until then, protectionism had been a bipartisan policy for decades, strongly supported by business and the unions. It remains supported by the public to this day.
It was usual for protection to be stepped up during recessions. But in the depths of the recession of the early '90s – our worst since the Depression – Keating actually instigated the second stage of its removal.
Never was there a better opportunity for the Libs to rally the nation against this monstrous act of folly. By then they were being led by Hewson and his criticism remains burnt on my brain: Labor should have gone further.
Keating says he never worried about the Libs, never even spoke to them about things. I believe him. What I don't believe is his implication that, had they opposed his reforms, nothing would have been any different.
In the key areas Howard listed, Keating knew his opponents would not attempt to score points against him, that the interest groups and voters adversely affected would have no political flag to rally under. This hugely strengthened his hand.
It was a unique period in our economic history, for which the Libs deserve their share of credit.