What happened to good policy in the ALP?

Sharing some fugitive thoughts before starting the seriously nerdish business of the day and the Roundup Oct 21.

Update, something I couldn’t find this morning, the press cuttings attacking the New Right in the 1980s.

Remember the time when Hawke and Keating and the Cabinet of the time were doing some of the things that the Backbench Dries in the Coalition wanted to see on the policy table? The point of this meditation is to work out how come sensible ideas about economic management never penetrated into the Labor woodwork. My suggestion is that apart from some efforts to explain what had to be done, political rhetoric was directed powerfully against anyone outside the party who looked like an economic rationalist and so the party faithful would have gained the impression that free enterprise and classical liberals were still mortal enemies of the people. Something like that has probably happened in China where the leadership has done some of the things required for economic strength without any audible or visible recognition of the power of freedom and markets.

The rank and file of Labor voters signalled their hatred of economic rationalism when some Labor strongholds fell to the Coalition in Griener’s 1988 landslide. The NSW Liberals may have thought they were suddenly very popular but it was really a big finger from Labor voters for the economic rationalism of their party in Canberra.

For a short time (I wonder how short?) there was a bipartisan stand at the Federal level on some important issues although of someone wrote in CIS Policy that the Labor party only wanted better economic performance to fund their Big Government agenda.

After some heroic policy development in opposition, led by the likes of John Hyde (not in the House at the time of course) the Coalition went to the polls in 1993 with the best policy platform that we will ever see (and possibly most inept leader as well, going a bridge too far with the GST which Keating had once wanted to implement).

That was the election when I first realised the incredible depth and passion of anti-Coalition sentiment in the media at large, and so the Coalition lost the unlosable election. In the aftermath the party walked away from the policies that they worked so hard to develop, as though they had got it wrong and not the electorate. Obviously they had to regroup, but not at the expense of trashing the work they did to develop good policy. (The same thing happened with WorkChoices, which was buried the day after the election, instead of pointing out the way it worked and the dishonest way that it was trashed by the rusted-on Labor supporters in the commentariat.)

At that point in 1993 it looked as though there would never be another conservative government in our lifetime but Keating turned his back on the Labor base and that was just enough to get Howard over the line more than once.

Going back to the ’80s and ’90s which was the starting point for this meditation, looking through my press cuttings from the time, it is amazing to see the passionate resistance mobilized on both sides of politics against the dreaded New Right of the free enterprise movement. A battle had to be fought in the IPA to convert the old guard of protectionists.

I wrote at the time that four groups of people confuse the issues. These are the ‘do nothing free marketeers’, the conservatives, the ‘dries’ in the Labor Party and the socialist intellectuals. Malcom Fraser and Joh Bjelke Petersen are examples of ‘do nothings’ who mouth the slogans of free enterprise but in fact do not open up markets or dismantle controls and regulations. Hence rationalism is discredited before it is even tried. The conservatives do not even pretend to support free markets though they claim to oppose socialism, often while they support de facto socialist policies (i.e. the old rural socialists of the Country Party). The Labor dries share many aims of their Liberal counterparts but they are obliged to be especially severe on the ‘New Right’ to deflect criticism from the Left of their own party. And the intellectuals of the Left are so blinkered by their ideological assumptions that they have not started to grasp what Hayek and the market liberals are talking about. I could tongue in cheek throw in an extra group, the Randoids who I sometimes describe as speedbumps on the road to serfdom because they might put their bodies on the line to defend freedom they will not explain the benefits of free trade and markets in language that the median or even the average voter can understand.

The point is that the people in the street were not getting a straight feed on economic rationalism from any party or influential group even while the Hawake/Keating government was doing some of it. I was particularly interested to see the attacks on economic rationalists from members of the Hawke Cabinet who would have known better. And the NSW swing against Labor in 1988 was a big pointer although I don’t think it was picked up that way at the time.

The bottom line is that we don’t need to be surprised that the Labor party stopped doing economic rationalism, we just need to be amazed that they ever did it. Much the same can be said for the other lot.

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18 Responses to What happened to good policy in the ALP?

  1. Empire GTHO Phase III

    The bottom line is that we don’t need to be surprised that the Labor party stopped doing economic rationalism, we just need to be amazed that they ever did it. Much the same can be said for the other lot.

    The state is not sufficiently restrained under law and institutional oversight has atrophied. The Commissioner of Taxation holds despotic power and we generously reward professional politicians with a patronage machine cloaked in representative democracy.

    Such conditions are not conducive to executive or parliamentary support for rational freedom of exchange.

  2. Entropy

    There were elements of the Hawke Cabinet, and I am thinking of Peter Walsh in particular, that had a career before politics that helped them be sensible, aware of the implications of what they tried to do. They also had the scaring lesson of what happens when you let a pack of Marxist idiots run the show in the Whitlam Cabinet.
    The modern denizens of the ALP tend to be raised to be politicians first and foremost, an industrialised process so to speak. The closest a small number may have to a career pre politics might be as a public service nurse or teacher, or a couple of years in an always planned to be temporary parking orbit in an ALP faction aligned law firm.
    The Libs of course, have tried to follow the same path, but are just not as organised about it.

    The result is a political class that has more in common with each other than the great unwashed they pretend to represent, and for whom they have little regard.

  3. zyconoclast

    If they can get this many votes with crap policies, what motivation is there to change.

    The real fault is with the Lieberals and their actions since 2013.

    Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.
    George Orwell

  4. ACTOldFart

    The importance of particular people being in the right places at the right time has to be recognised in the Hawke – Keating reforms. Entropy has mentioned Peter Walsh as one. John Button as Industry Minister was another, fighting not only industry and elements of the union movement, but also large parts of his own Department, to wind back protectionism.

    On the Liberal side, David Kemp argued hard and long and often for the then Opposition to support large parts of the proposed reforms and see them through the Senate. Some of the bitterest enemies of rationalist reform were not the then Opposition, but the left of the Labour Party, and Keating often showed his utter contempt for them. Of course under the ALP’s anti-democratic rules, they had to vote in Parliament for the changes, or be expelled from the Party.

    In the union movement, just for a while, some of the top people actually supported what Hawke – Keating were trying to achieve. I’m thinking of Bill Kelty and also Simon Crean.

    The sad thing nowadays is that none of the above names would get anywhere near a nomination from their respective parties to run for Parliament. The likes of Walsh and Button would be anathematised by the ALP Left; someone like Kemp would probably, and rightly, consider it beneath himself to associate with the intellectual sludge of the current Liberals; and the union movement is in the hands of chthonian thugs like the CFMEU/MUA. There is little chance of seeing another round of that sort of reform for the foreseeable future.

  5. herodotus

    It’s a mystery how the Labor mob score so many votes after all the disasters they have sponsored, and the loopy policies they espouse. I suppose it has to be a combination of rustadons and plenty of media boosting. Greens voters numbers are less mysterious: the deranged will always be with us.

  6. Waz

    IMO there is never a compelling reason for change until some cathartic event occurs. Thus we need things to get a lot worse before they can get better (in our Libertarian way of thinking). Whilst there is much very wrong in Australia with our drift to a socialist republic, the other reality is that the economy is humming along quite nicely and employment is strong (though wages are flat). Until the national debt gets truly out of hand (already circa half of which is accumulated interest) and which drives an absolute requirement for both sides of politics to raise taxes materially for the middle class, we will not see the necessary downsizing of welfare and government.

  7. Pedro the Ignorant

    Australia needs to rid itself of the stupid belief that Labor is the “worker’s friend”.

    “My dad voted Labor, and so did his dad. . . . ”

    A yuuuge swathe of Australian voters have no idea of any of the political parties’ policies or agenda, and many either don’t care, look for a handout or vote in line with their “feelings”.

    Dump compulsory voting.

  8. Joe

    A yuuuge swathe of Australian voters have no idea of any of the political parties’ policies or agenda,…

    That’s because politicians and political parties LIE. They do what they said they would not do and they also lie by omission, doing things they have no mandate to do. Democracy IS NO RESPECTER of rights.

  9. former PP finance person

    What’s needed is another “banana republic” episode. Back in the middle of 1986 we were headed for oblivion. The dollar was sliding through the 60c mark and there were some who were forecasting it would end up at 40 cents. In fact, in July it hit 49 cents before rebounding. My feeling is that we may end up there again and it’s likely that, faced with impending doom, Labor politicians will come to the rescue again. It was actually the “accord” that started the recovery we saw in the 90’s by freeing up the labour market. A Liberal government could never have achieved a turnaround because the unions would never have co-operated as they did with the Hawke/Keating government.

  10. Zulu Kilo Two Alpha

    Dump compulsory voting.

    It was once explained to me, in all seriousness, that “we have to have compulsory voting, otherwise we’d never get rid of the Tories, and the Labor Party would never get elected.”

  11. manalive

    In his book Reflections on a Ravaged Century Robert Conquest foresaw a danger for capitalism developing into corporatism, the growth of a new class or “clericy” of huge bureaucracies in both the state and large corporations sharing the same aims and mindset.

  12. Rafe Champion

    Grace Collier and some others have noted the collusion between big business, big unions and regulators at the expense of contractors and small operators, and the general public. More needs to be said but who would be listening?

  13. Rafe Champion

    Updating with a link that went missing this morning, press cuttings from the 1980s to show the hysterical response to the economic rationalists from all sides of politics.

    John Hyde on the hysteria of the critics.

    Alan Ashbolt, far left pioneer in the ABC, reviews a collection of papers rubbishing the New Right, notably citing dozens of their own publications but next to nothing from the actual people or think tanks of the movement.

    A piece from The Bulletin documenting the “over the top” rhetoric of Bob Hawke and others attempting to discredit the reformers.

    The national president of the ALP, calling the troops to rally and defeat the New Right.

    Neville Wran, in the John Curtin Memorial Lecture, calls the NR “anti-Australian”.

    A piece by (then) young Glenn Milne on “the politics of hate”.

    A silly piece by Phillip Adams.

    Barry Unsworth, then Premier of NSW, preparing to “beat the issue of the NR to death” before the Greiner landslide. Sadly, much of the Greiner landslide was a reaction against Federal ALP reforms and they struggled to win a second term.

    Employer representative labels the NR “fascists”! Over the top attacks were bipartisan.

    SMH commentary on the radicalism of the NR. Not too bad for the SMH! It has clearly gone backwards.

    Strong language from the Labor left – nazis!

    Gary Punch (ALP) on the IR landscape after an epic win for the good guys at the Mudginberri meatworks. The Mudginberri story from the HR Nicholls site.

    Senator Walsh warns that the bad guys are taking over the Libs. If only!

    John Hyde on the capture of the intellectual high ground. On the high and dry ground!

  14. Arky

    a danger for capitalism developing into corporatism, the growth of a new class or “clericy” of huge bureaucracies in both the state and large corporations sharing the same aims and mindset

    ..
    That is basically fascism.
    We are already there.

  15. egg_

    a danger for capitalism developing into corporatism, the growth of a new class or “clericy” of huge bureaucracies in both the state and large corporations sharing the same aims and mindset

    Welcome to the Energy sector, Enron MkII.
    Our pollies are slow learners.

  16. Rococo Liberal

    A Liberal government could never have achieved a turnaround because the unions would never have co-operated as they did with the Hawke/Keating government.

    Only Nixon could go to China

  17. Fisky

    The Labor dries share many aims of their Liberal counterparts but they are obliged to be especially severe on the ‘New Right’ to deflect criticism from the Left of their own party.

    Some of that is true, but in Walsh’s case he was genuinely against the New Right on flat taxes and death duties, while being more skeptical of financial deregulation that other dries. The rest of the hostility was hangover from the anti-Vietnam War days.

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