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Old Mother Howard went to the cupboard and ... found it bare

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Friday, 30 November 2007


Here we are in the midst of our longest boom in history and yet there’s just been an emphatic vote against the government to use the word of its leader John Howard. It’s hard to find a precedent.

What went wrong?

There is always a large element of Rorschach test in how we read poll and election results. Some demographic information comes our way from comparing swings in different electorates. But as for those changes in national mood that are the subject of so much punditry - our evidence is scanty.

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Mired in our own ignorance, it’s hard not to let our wishes influence our analysis.

Those lamented by the right as reflex “Howard Haters” will tell us that duplicity and divisiveness, the embrace of plausible deniability have finally caught up with Howard. Perhaps. But why didn’t it happen last time around?

Then there’s that haven for the complacent - the “it’s time” explanation. If politicians come equipped with some pre-set “it’s time” date there’s nothing much to be learned from their demise.

I think my own explanation fits the facts, but, it’s also built around a bit of preaching I want to do. For the art of politics and political punditry is for nothing if it isn’t about trying to bring politicians’ self interest into some constructive relation with the welfare of those they govern.

Though Howard was a conviction politician in the culture wars, he’s actually been relatively uninterested in policy.

He had two major achievements in economic policy.

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It’s hard not to admire Howard’s political courage in launching the great tax adventure. Still it’s worth reflecting on the circumstances that brought Howard to that point - an increasingly strident concern from the business community at Howard’s lack of policy vision. The GST provided Howard with a (very nearly politically suicidal) bit of off the shelf policy vision.

The other great economic reform was WorkChoices. It’s an ad hoc, 700-odd page mess full of arbitrary regulations and penalties for unions rather than a coherent economic and legislative labour market liberalisation strategy. Again there was a huge political price to pay. A more straightforward approach - as proposed by the Business Council in 1999 and rejected by Howard - of a wage tax trade-off would arguably have been better policy and certainly better politics.

But with the GST and WorkChoices in place we watched on in 2007 as Old Mother Howard went to the cupboard and, finding it bare, improvised one attempt after another to sledge or wedge its opposition.

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Adapted from a column published in The Age on November 23, 2007. Nicholas Gruen also discussed these issues on ABC Radio Nationalís Counterpoint program on November 26, 2007.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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