Reform is easy (when you have a responsible opposition)

On Tuesday Paul Keating once again popped his head above the trenches to take a shot at another political player from the 1980s. The crime was the usual one: they had dared try and hog some of the limelight from “his” reforms.

In the past, Keating’s energies on this front have been largely directed at Bob Hawke. This time, it was John Howard. In his most recent dialogue, he argued support from the centre-right Coalition opposition was largely immaterial for the success of the reforms of the Hawke-Keating Labor governments. It would have happened regardless of Coalition support. Or so goes the story.

Keating remains an amazing communicator, and it’s easy to be convinced by what he says. But he’s wrong.

Keating underestimates the impact an opportunistic opposition can have on the ability of the government to enact difficult reforms that may not be entirely popular with the public. Even popular reforms can be made hard by an opposition willing to burn any bridge in an attempt to score a point.

All (significant) reform has losers. On average they will care more about what they’re going to lose then what the winners of reform might gain (it’s called loss-aversion).

An excellent example of this process at work is how Tony Abbott behaved as opposition leader. All of a sudden, the popular Rudd government and its relatively popular policies (a carbon price, the NBN) were in the firing line. While the Howard government scrambled to mimic these policies in its death throes — and the Nelson and Turnbull oppositions largely cooperated to implement them (or played dead) in 2008 and ’09 — all of a sudden they became ammunition for an opposition hell-bent on demonising an over-reaching leftist Labor government. This tactic was successfully repeated in the next term of parliament against the Gillard government.

This opportunistic behaviour — where the strategy was to not pass up a chance to score a point — made it difficult for the Rudd and Gillard governments to undertake important, but hard, policy reforms. It was not impossible to get anything done (the NBN still got underway), but it was harder. Errors were used as evidence of incompetence (for instance, the Pink Batts policy). For others, scare campaigns were run out of all proportion to the plausible impact of the policy (“Whyalla will be wiped off the map by Julia Gillard’s carbon tax”).

The fact remains that under the Coalition leaders of the 1980s and ’90s — Peacock, Howard, (then Peacock again) and Hewson — Bob Hawke and Paul Keating faced fairly reasonable, responsible opponents. These men would not burn down the house to drive out the Labor Party, as Abbott was willing to do from 2010 to ’13. While at times they would play hard, and aim to score political points, they always had an eye on the prize: that they might one day be Prime Minister, and anything they dished out they would get back in return.

Tony Abbott did not take this path. He is now reaping the whirlwind created by his combative behaviour, with the opposition and cross-benchers hostile to contentious legislation and the government facing an uphill battle to pass legislation through parliament.

This is because being an opportunistic opposition may be a shortcut to government. You will win, but everyone remembers how you did it.

If Hawke or Keating had been forced to face Tony Abbott during their time in office, their reforms would have been more difficult, and may have been less successful. Howard and his fellow Coalition leaders of the era should receive some credit. At certain points they held back when they could have been more opportunistic. Occasionally they chose to give up short-term point scoring because they saw value in the policies being pursued and let them through without too much pain for the government. However, this behaviour may have also better positioned Howard to lead a successful government once the Coalition finally returned to office.

This does not mean we should mythologise these past leaders (they were probably as flawed as the current generation).  But at times they showed themselves to have character, and they deserve some credit for the Hawke-Keating reforms, even if just a small amount.



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