Were the 1980s the ‘last great period of reform’?

It’s common enough in right-of-centre circles to laud the economic reforms of the 1980s. A new publication from the Institute of Public Affairs, Australia Since the 1980s, is in this tradition. Its opening paragraph tells us that it is

worthwhile revisiting the last great period of reform – the 1980s.

Certainly, there were some worthwhile reforms in the 1980s: the floating of the dollar, the opening up of the financial system, and the start of phased tariff cuts among them. Yet as with some other recent IPA excursions into history (here and here), this claim doesn’t quite stack up.

The 1990s, and especially their first half, have a better claim on being the last great period of reform: the end of the two airline policy, the end of the one phone company policy, improved competition policy (admittedly, a point of dispute among liberals), more phased tariff cuts, all the major privatisations, the most significant industrial relations changes, and many other less high-profile reforms. This Industry Commission publication gives a useful timeline from the 1970s to 1997.

So why do people keep talking about the 1980s as the period of reform? There are several possible explanations. It was certainly the start of a major period of reform, the unravelling of the ‘Australian Settlement’ that had governed economic policy since the first decade of the 20th century. And arguably it is a little artificial to distinguish between the two decades; the ‘1980s’ can be used figuratively to refer to later, related periods too (just as some of the important trends of the ‘1960s’ peaked in the first half of the 1970s).

But I think there could be other reasons relating to the culture of the right. The 1980s was the time when the right was on the intellectual offensive, and the left shell-shocked. In Australia, they simply weren’t used to the right having a specific programme of reform. In 1987, an edited collection from various Labor and left figures, The New Right’s Australian Fantasy, said on the back cover that its contributors ‘feel strongly about the need to safeguard what is best about this place.’ The left being reduced to a conservative argument like this was something few people would have predicted 15 years earlier, when the left’s time seem to have come. This first phase of economic reform, superbly recorded in Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty, was as exciting for the right as it was depressing for the left.

Though the reform programme continued even more quickly in the 1990s, the political dynamic changed. The dreadful early 1990s recession gave the opponents of economic reform a plausible (if wrong) argument that the economic reform programme was a failure, and vocal opposition arose from conservatives as well as leftists. The Paul Keating Prime Ministership also divided the right. Many pro-economic reform cultural conservatives hated his non-economic agenda so much that they could barely give him credit for the good things he was doing. And then he defeated Liberal leader John Hewson and his radical reform agenda Fightback! in the 1993 election. The reform movement didn’t die with Fightback!, but it marked the end of manifesto politics. So while the 1990s were important years for economic reform, they didn’t feel as good as the 1980s had.

Surveys suggest that people tend to look back fondly on their years of early adulthood, and I think the same might be true of political movements as well. The future remains an exciting possibility, free of the messy realities of trying to make things work. This is why the free-market right views the ‘1980s’ with nostalgia. But we should not pretend that these memories are accurate history.