Twenty years ago to the day Paul Keating declared to an exuberant crowd at the Bankstown Sports Club that Labor's then fifth straight federal election win was the "sweetest victory of all". For Keating it was to be his one and only victory as Labor leader, one that seemed very unlikely at the time he assumed the Prime Minister's mantle at the end of 1991 with the country mired in recession.
Two bitterly contested leadership ballots against Bob Hawke and the economic downturn saw Keating's first approval rating as Prime Minister come in at 25%, with a very low undecided vote. Sixteen months later, Labor's primary vote on election night climbed to nearly 45%, a figure it has never achieved since.
What is forgotten is that the Coalition's vote under the now maligned John Hewson, was also nearly 45%. Sure many people were scared off by Hewson's radical manifesto, "Fightback", but plenty of Australians also voted for his heavy mixture of tax reform, private health, education vouchers and individual work contracts. With a real ideological difference between Labor and the Coalition, election day 1993 was not one on which Australians dabbled with minor parties or independents.
I believe 1993 is remembered so clearly because it was a polarising election - one about much more than just a goods and services tax (GST). Keating's opportunistic exploitation of fears about the GST is probably what tipped it Labor's way, but it was also about two clear views of how Australian society should look. While Keating was not personally popular, he was a fundamental part of a decade old government that had a record it could defend. The recession meant there was plenty of lead in the saddle bags, but whether it was hubris, Keating's infamous statement that "it was a recession we had to have" reinforced a prevailing view of arrogance more than incompetence. The latter may have been more difficult to overcome.
Two decades on, in another election year, Labor is once again in a parlous state. It may have cause to reflect on that most unexpected victory twenty years ago and see a glimmer of hope. The problem for Labor is that their opponent, Tony Abbott, intimately remembers the 1993 election having been John Hewson's press secretary at the time. While Abbott's approval rating is not high, his role model is John Howard who in 1996 knew how to make an old and unpopular government the issue by staying united and under the radar in policy terms. It worked a treat for Howard in 1996 when the backlash against Labor was probably harsher as a result of the perception of a stay of execution in 1993.
Indeed Howard's small target path to victory in 1996 has become the modern template for both sides of politics. It works a treat when a government looks terminal, and probably will in 2013. Yet Labor's adherence to it in 1998 and 2001 and desire to distance itself from the landslide defeat of 1996 meant it had little to say in a positive sense in potentially winnable elections. Key Labor figures such as Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan had lost their seats in 1996 and this shattering experience, coupled with their instrumental roles in the Goss Government, with whom Keating had poor relations, meant that none of the Keating legacy was going to be embraced or defended.
When one loses as emphatically as Keating did in 1996, albeit with the same primary vote from which Julia Gillard eked out a narrow win in 2010, there is little chance of an objective assessment of his period of largely unfettered rule from 1993-96. Twenty years after the 1993 victory is as good a time as any to do a reassessment.
Having been a staffer during that period for Keating's Minister for Industrial Relations and Transport, close friend and confidant, Laurie Brereton, I can hardly claim to be objective. What I can claim is unique insight into some of the reforms made in that period, many of which I experience today working in Australia's highly competitive electricity markets, markets which only exist because of the Competition Policy Agreements enacted by state and federal governments during Keating's Prime Ministership. Those agreements established the National Electricity Market (NEM), ended a range of restrictive trade and professional practices, opened monopoly infrastructure to third party new entrants and strengthened the powers of our national competition regulator, the ACCC.
The 1993-96 period also saw the passage of the first piece of industrial relations legislation in Australian history that entrenched enterprise bargaining as the principal means for setting wages. Combined the Competition Agreements and move to enterprise bargaining was I believe a major contributor to the high productivity growth that was apparent in the 1990's and helped to break the wage-price spirals that had arisen during previous periods of high growth. It's perhaps no coincidence that since that time Australia has never had an inflation problem and has gone two decades without a recession.
A recent poll found that Keating ranked below Bob Hawke and John Howard in Australians' rankings of the pantheon of recent Australian Prime Ministers. Given Hawke and Howard's greater electoral success, that is perhaps not surprising. Yet when one packages Keating's reform record over thirteen years as a Treasurer who floated the dollar, opened up financial markets, cut tariffs and introduced national superannuation, with his time as Prime Minister, he deserves to be rated amongst our most significant and effective national leaders. The 1993 election night was his night and for those of us involved in the Labor Government of the time, it's a night we will never forget.
While Cameron O'Reilly is Chief Executive of the Electricity Retailers Association of Australia this article is written in a personal capacity and in no way reflects the views of the members of the ERAA.
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