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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

They did it their way « Previous | |Next »
March 5, 2003

The Australian Financial Review is running a series of articles on the economic reforms undertaken by the consensus Accord politics of the Hawke-Keating Labor Government. These reforms of the 1980s-1000s aimed to internationalise the economy and they included: floating the dollar, deregulating the banking system, removal of tariffs, a shift from centralised wage fixing to decentralised wage fixing, reforms to welfare higher education, superannuation, public health telecommunications and competition policy.

The first article by Laura Tingle, 'Hawke & Keating: architects of a revolution', (AFR, 28 Feb.2003, pp. 1, 80-81, subscription required) sets the tone. It adopts the perspective of the political revolutionaries. They see themselves as blowing open the business establishment, challenging the ideas that had dominated Australia since Federation, and fundamentally changing the economic and political landscape. They see themselves as political heroes. They had understood that reform was long overdue due to the decline in the terms of trade that had started in the mid 1960s;knew that the changes had to be profound; they had the courage to act, and they delivered the required reforms.

What was the point of the reforms? To create a competitive economy, increase economic growth, ensure profitablity and provide jobs. They delivered. They will be judged favourably by history. That is the judgement of the Financial Review. Inequality caused by a competitive market economy is dismissed; the environment is not mentioned; and unemployment is gestured only in terms of 'creating new jobs'. Big reforms required that a few eggs had to be broken but the strongest survived the big adjustment in the economic environment.

What do we interpret all this to mean as a way of writing history? What sort of history is this if the big failure is seen to the 1990-1991 recession, not long-term unemployment caused by structural adjustment?

This is is neo-Darwinian history written by the winners. According to the third article by Alan Mitchell (March 3, 2003, pp. 1 & 60), this period of dazzling economic reform to transform Australia from a sheltered industrial backwater into an open dynamic economy was a barrel of thrills and spills.

These reforms, which changed the Australian economy forever, are helping to derive economic growth through rapid productivity growth and businesses expoerting to Asia. What counts in this history is the judgment of global financial and foreign exchange markets who are hostile to wage justice, equality and all round protection, and couldn't care less about environmental sustainability or social justice. The end of public policy is creating a competitive economy and ensuring economic growth.

And if the spills are seen as human casualities? Not just the smooth-talking entrepreneurs who were there one minite and gone the next. I mean the ordinary people who lost their jobs. Well, they they have no real voice in this history about The ALP being ' the party of superior economic management 'and saving the economy from becoming a banana republic before time ran out.

This is a neo-liberal history that is strong on the thrills for economists and weak on the spills for ordinary citizens. The love of reform of the Hawke-Keating has been lost. The current Labor Party has lost its stomach for reform. So the achievements of Hawke and Keating should be celebrated. Mistakes are acknowledged in this neo-liberal history: the 1990-91 recession; aboriginal affairs; not delivering on a consumption tax; failure to continue with privastation and labour market reform and lack of corporate regulation. But the big picture is that these reforms have set Australia up to ride the rollar coaster of globalization and to hook into the gfuture rowth of the Chinese economy.

This is the sort of historical narrative the Financial Review would run goven its concern about the economy. But other stories can be told. Paul Kelly notes that the shift to a competitive market economy is also a shift to a more individualist society; a shift away from the state to individual rights; a shift away from a traditional high culture to a market consumer culture.

But there was not a shift to a more ecologically sustainable society or economy. That was the big failure. But it goes unmentioned. That part of the 1980s has been quietly forgotten.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:42 PM | | Comments (6) | TrackBacks (1)
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Comments

Comments

Look Gary, it's all A ok. John Howard says we are a classless society, so we must be. No need to worry about ecological matters either, because all we have to do is go down to the local library and read a copy of Julian Simon's the Ultimate Resource to find out that anyone who is questions the limits to growth is an anti-humanist.

That reassurance makes me so relaxed and comfortable.

But possibly not as comfortable and relaxed as Mr. Howard in his Wallabies tracksuit emblazoned with suitably huge amounts of corporate logo?

I guess I will have to wear a Wallabies tracksuit when I walk the dogs.

Not sure about the corporate logo though.

So you opposed the reforms?

You think we were doing the right things in the 1970s? We all know you don't like the way things are now, so come on, what would you do to put things right?

Do you have a vision of what Australia SHOULD be like, or do you just not like what we have now?

Hi Scott,
No I didn't oppose the reforms. I accepted that things had to change because the old governance strategy was no longer working.

Hawke & Keating did the economic bit well; screwed up the social fallout; forget all about the sustainability stuff after a promising start; and weren't that crash hot on the culture stuff.

Where do we go now? Concentrate on the bits that have been done badly.