Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Liberal Party’s Economic Confusion

In my last post I remarked on the Oppositions claim to support big budget cuts, but unwillingness to back a relatively easy example of it. It goes to a much larger problem for the Liberal Party: They don’t know where to stand on economics nor how to describe their position.

The essentials arn’t in doubt, they are for the free market, with a reasonable support for government welfare services chucked in to moderate the harsher aspects of capitalism. But over the last 3 years they have seen massive shifts within this range, and varying and contradictory explanations for these positions.

When the Howard Government left office in 2007, it was championed as a great Pro-Free Market government. It had restored economic liberalism after the savage blow of losing the 1993 Fightback election, and implemented a GST, deregulated many industries, privatised and outsourced significant elements (the famous yellow pages test), and spent 11 years advocating strongly and consistently for free markets. This was seen as one of the great strengths and records of the government. Where articulate critics pointed out they had substituted a lot of populism into this mix (such as Andrew Norton’s essay The Rise of Big Government Conservatism) it was generally ignored. If they hadn’t gone as far down the path as they had liked, this weakness was only a minor issue, one that had helped keep them in power and probably Labors fault in blocking reform in the senate or scaring the people. This wasn’t an extreme or libertarian government in any sense. But it was rhetorically and philosophically clear about the direction it wanted to go, and every step further down that path was seen as a good thing.

Then in the Spring of 2008 the Financial Crisis hit and suddenly economic liberalism was seen to take a body blow. This wasn’t entirely fair, as a particular form of US capitalism, bad oversight and regulations and some distorted government policy caused the crisis which then hit around the world. Now, the former members and defenders of the Howard Government couldn’t get away from the term Neo-Liberalism fast enough. Where they had mocked Rudds 2007 accusations of their free marketer ideals, wondering if he proposed poverty and socialism instead, they now sought to claim he was completely over-exaggerating their support for the ideals. They hadn’t been a free market government, just a pragmatic, cautious one that had only been continuing what Labor had started. What was a small weakness in the Governments economic policy in 2007 was now being held up as its greatest strength in 2009. But loyalty to the old ideas isn’t going away (which is a good thing), but it does mean some serious re-writing of history and rhetorical confusion is going on right now as they attempt to find a new place from which to detail their economic position.

I wrote a while back that the big flaw of Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines (which seems to have sunk without trace) was that this confusion was visible on every page and yet never directly addressed. But theres just as clear an example in Paul Kelly’s new book ‘The March of Patriots’ (2009). Kelly is a conservative if sympathetic writer for both sides, but also one clearly in support of economic liberalisation (As I am too). But this leaves his narrative into contrary directions because of the Liberals recent re-writing (which began to occur whilst interviewing for the book)

‘The 1993 election extinguished more than John Hewson’s dreams – it terminated the neo-liberal political experiment…Hewson’s Fightback! program was the only package resembling neo-liberalism ever presented to the Australian people. Its defeat was a turning point. No Future leader – not Keating, not Howard, not Treasurer Costello – would contemplate the model or its specifics as a package. This was the conclusions from the 1993 election despite occasional polemical claims that Howard as a Prime Minister was actually a neo-liberal – Page 75

Yet just 11 pages later as he details the fall of Hewson he recognises that whilst the man was gone, very little had changed in the party:

It was a view shared across much of the coalition frontbench and it took more shape as the 1993-1996 term evolved. It was the position of Howard, Costello and Dower. Their sentiment was to avoid any over reaction filled with recrimination, to recognise the policy integrity and energy within Fightback, to review policies applying a sharper test of what the people would accept, to return to the political centre but stand by the pro-market economic reform agenda and to avoid any early detailed policy release’ – Page 86-87

Where the Coalition seethed during office that they couldn’t implement all their reforms, out of office they have come to claim this was a deliberate design. Apparently they wanted some of their bills to fail, wanted to lose on workchoices, wanted to be rebuffed by the public on selling Aus Post and others, wanted to have the democrats force them to take food out of a GST, etc etc. In office they would nod and acknowledge yes it was bad economic policy to hand tens of billions over to families on comfortable wages, but that was the price to keep Labor out of office. Now they seem willing to make welfare for the wealthy a core principle of the party.

Labor has responded to the Economic crisis by indulging their desires for government spending. In many ways it seems this has worked very well (we have stayed out of recession, unemployments stayed in reasonable shape), but a reckoning will come and only some seem (Lindsay Tanner) seem interested in talking about it, and then more as an electoral weapon than a shift in policy.

The Liberals on the other hand have got themselves completely tied up in knots. Their baser instinct and education is to return to the proud support for free markets that they enjoyed under the Howard years. To promise to cut spending and demagogue debt. But like a dog beaten too often, when anyone gets close they flinch. When media questions get too hot they jump back. No specifics, no details, and NO NO NO to means tests for government handouts. The only time the Liberal Party has looked at all comfortable in opposition was a few weeks in July 2009 when they had the issue of debt to rally them, and remind them of the good old days. (In fact it reminded them too much of them, repeating old ideas such as a debt truck) , but soon Godwin Grench reared up, Rudd & Swan managed to hold us up out of recession and the Liberals lost their nerve again.

As for Kelly, his book is thus far enjoyable (I’ll do a review when finished early next week) but it feels rather over-written, and with a deliberate eye for the future. He’s trying to make this the essential history of the period (as his End of Certainty became for Hawkies govt). But if he’s willing to uncritically accept this clear re-writing of Liberal views, then it is unlikely to gain as much traction. Nor does it have a cleaver summing up in the way the previous book had with its formulation of an ‘Australian Settlement’

Update: Michelle Grattan is clearly a reader of this blog :p