Kevin Rudd may be reluctant to call Labor left-wing, but he’s happy to cloak himself in conservatism. It started last year when he invoked – albeit inaccurately – British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his criticism of market forces. After becoming leader, he endorsed – albeit inaccurately again – Australia’s most successful conservative leader, Robert Menzies, as preferable to Howard.
And more recently Rudd has been calling himself an ‘economic conservative’, which Josh Gordon wrote about in The Age on Saturday. As Gordon says, not so long ago this would have been a negative term, but such is the general agreement that has built up around the main component parts of ‘economic conservatism’ – Reserve Bank independence and a balanced if not surplus Budget – that ‘conservatism’ on these matters is uncontroversial.
Even Labor’ s once-true believers are getting in on the consensus. If Howard being cheered by CFMEU members was the most bizarre aspect of the 2004 campaign, for me the most bizarre aspect of the 2007 campaign was the enthusiastic applause from the party faithful at Labor’s launch when Rudd said:
‘Today I am saying loud and clear that this sort of reckless spending must stop. I am determined that any commitments I make are first and foremost economically responsible. That’s why the commitments I announce today will cost less than one quarter of those Mr Howard announced on Monday.’
The social policy shopaholics of the ALP think that spending less than the Coalition is a good thing? I doubt that this can last. People join the ALP because they believe that they know how to spend taxpayers’ money better than the taxpayers themselves. And with the Liberals likely to be out of power for three terms at least, what political obstacle is there to spending up big?
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Kevin Rudd really is an ‘economic conservative’. It would be less surprising than Hawke and Keating as great economic reformers would have seemed the week before the March 1983 election. But there is eleven years of leftist frustration waiting to blow, and I’m not sure that Rudd can contain it.
32 thoughts on “How long will ‘economic conservatism’ last?”
ALP Governments have had not trouble making politically difficult decisions for sound economic reasons – Whitlam and tariffs, Hawke and the dollar. Consider HECS – a sensible “user pays” policy that you often criticise (presumably because it fails some ideological test of market purity). The ALP introduced HECS despite the strong support for “free” tertiary education in the party. Furthermore, HECS benefits were all long term – it is now saving the taxpayer billions of dollars, but it brought in very little revenue in its early years. In contrast, Howard spiked Dr Kemp’s higher education reforms after one bad headline in the Telegraph (if reports at the time were to be believed).
As long as times are good, pretty much anyone can cast themselves as an economic conservative. The question is what happens when the crunch comes.
The ALP would, presumably, act in a more Keynsian manner and spend to try and counter a downturn more than the Libs. But really, it’s centre-Left technocrats taking over from centre-right technocrats.
Try explaining to an American that Australians are very excited because they are about to replace their ‘Liberal’ prime minister, who has introduced gun laws, raised taxes and runs a budget surplus with a new leader who proudly calls himself an economic conservative who is from our ‘left wing’ party. Really we’re getting a younger Howard with more hair. And that is a good thing.
I think the reason the Labor Party faithfull cheered those words was that they along with most politically aware people know that Howard’s pre-election spending has been politically targetted, rather than targetted at those the Labor grassroots considers worthy. Labor’s instincts are to means-test, so maybe they will manage to cut expenditure in some places to fund their social policy priorities. Probably the best case scenario is that Rudd operates like John Brumby – a competent if (so far) uninspiring leader/administrator. The risk is, as you indicate Andrew, that Federal politics is much juicier than State politics, and while the cash is flowing the Party won’t be able to help themselves. The thing that might hold them back is that Rudd understands, as did Hawke, that the reason Labor got chucked out the last time was that they were perceived to mismanage the economy.
Byron – I don’t know where you get the idea that I oppose HECS. Apart from Bruce Chapman, I have probably written more about HECS than anyone else, none of it opposing income-contingent loans. I oppose price control and some subsidies, but those two things are separate to the HECS-HELP loans scheme.
What a load of cobblers. You might as well say people only join the Liberal party because they are fearful of migrants.
In 1983 there were a number of people in the Labor Party who assumed that Hawke would take up where Whitlam left off. With the exception of Medicare and a few other issues, it’s fair to say that Hawke and Keating kept a lid on it.
David Lange’s move against nuclear ships and a few key environmental issues in NZ seemed to mollify his party’s left, and I’d expect that Rudd will do a few highly symbolic but low-cost initiatives to do the same to his party’s left here. Examples could include an absolute ban on mining exploration on the Great Barrier Reef.
Besides, the Labor left has done little to get Rudd into power. If future polling shows that left policies made little contribution to a Rudd Labor win, and if he is cheered to the echo every time he takes the stick to them, why would Rudd not continue to do so?
The pattern Rudd is following in getting into office is the same as that of the states: all the State Labor governments currently in power won office by the slimmest of margins. All were disciplined and conservative to the point of boredom. All were helped by a Coalition meltdown. All were rewarded with a second-term landslide, in which this discipline was loosened but not abandoned. Look at Carr’s first term in NSW, Bracks’ in Victoria, Beattie’s etc. – if Rudd follows that pattern, as I suspect he will, public policy will be more boring than crazy.
It’s time (to coin a phrase) to accept that Whitlam was a one-off.
I have to agree with the sentiment almost unanimously expressed above. That is, Andrew, that you have succumbed to the conservative Zeitgeist and started criticising a Labor government before one exists. And I can tell that most of us over here are far from confident that one will exist after the 24th. “We have nothing to fear except fear itself” and they’ll be a lot of it put about over the next week (your blog for instance).
“what political obstacle is there to spending up big? ” – wouldn’t rising inflation / interest rates be one?
Haven’t you pointed out often enough that Howard’s ‘economic conservatism’ equates to the biggest spending, biggest welfare creating government of all time? Where will we end up if those Howard policies continue? You’d better hope for an (uninspiring) Rudd victory.
Rajat, if “Labor got chucked out the last time [because] .. they were perceived to mismanage the economy” then they would have lost in ’93. I think it was Keating’s personality as much as the economy – plus they’d been there a long time.
On personality – I heard a radio ‘phone in the other week asking callers to name the most loved politicians in Australian history: Chifley polled strongly, there was a vote for Whitlam “because he made universities free” (Ha!), but if I remember, most votes, or at least the nicest comments, were for Don Dunstan. Keating and Gorton were mentioned – Howard of course, not.
Patrick: The conservative Zeitgeist should be celebrating. Having two largely conservative parties dominate politics should be a cause for jubilation. Paul Kelly’s recent article has a lot of merit.
My apologies Andrew – I must have confused some commenters’ views with yours. HECS-type arrangements could be extended to many Commonwealth programs that provide benefits to individuals, at little political cost, and with great long-term savings to the taxpayer. The Howard Government’s failure to act in this direction is in keeping with its approach to middle class welfare, a relentless focus on political benefits, rather than good policy. My original point still stands though – there is no evidence that an ALP Govt will be less inclined to make hard decisions than Howard. It is not a difficult standard to achieve.
“What a load of cobblers. You might as well say people only join the Liberal party because they are fearful of migrants.”
What a nonsensical comparison. The Howard government has increased immigration to a record high.
“We will decide” whyisitso. It wasn’t a dog whistle, it was a fog horn.
This has nothing at all to do with fearing immigrants, and you know it. It’s a determination to have an orderly immigration programme. What do you think should replace that?
Hi Andrew- I have to agree with Byron on may fronts.The Howard government have enforced many strange rules that even their own ministers don’t understand.A speciality is refugees,what entitles them to recieve double of that of an aged pensioner who’s worked here,paid taxes all their working life?Sustainability is another why continue the influx when we have a heath,water & housing shortage so drastic that many Australian’s can’t afford to purchase a home.The problems are many in this country,we need someone with a fresh outlook & that’s prepared to take action not just give a load of double talk.We see the rich getting richer & the poor getting desperate,we need someone to care about the people & country first.It should not be about how fat the governments coffers are.The only thing that sticks out regarding Howard & the economy is, more are working for less,the family unit has taken a back seat & the large foreign companies think liberal is wonderful for producing such cheap labour with very few laws of any consequence.Students need a good education & government should be covering the bulk of the costs,still paying off a HEC’S fee when you start work is wrong.Our taxes should go towards the next generation coming through.I can’t find anything positive that the Liberal have produced in 11 years.
Whyisitso, just for your benefit:
1) Andrew says people join the Labor party for the explicit reason they want to spend other peoples money.
2) I say this is ridiculous, and make an equally fallacious statement about people who join the Liberal party as a counterpoint
3) You misunderstand the whole thing.
Instead of talking in platitudes (“Orderly”) – perhaps you’d like to explain why the SIEV X and the Tampa were orderly and how much you like the orderly incarceration of Australian citizens?
What are you really saying? That it’s OK to be dreadfully, dreadfully wrong as long as it’s “orderly”?
Or maybe tell us why the biggest expansion of the welfare state in Australias’ history represents economic conservatism? I think Andrew missed the point altogether – we’re all economic conservatives now because Howard redefined the term to mean anything that pleases him. The language usage is now so devalued it is meaningless.
PedroS: The conservative Zeitgeist should be celebrating.
Yes Pedro and you can certainly sense their hysterical enthusiasm for a Rudd win (take this blog as an example).
“perhaps you’d like to explain why the SIEV X and the Tampa were orderly”
Perhaps you’d like to explain what either had to do about immigration.
SIEV X was nothing but an attempt by the left to tar Australian servicemen and women with their own fanciful guilt complexes. Tampa was a very successful measure to put an end to the ruthless people smuggling that was increasing because smugglers mistakenly thought we were an easy target. The end of these voyages arguably saved many lives from SIEV-X disasters.
SIEV X was nothing but an attempt by the left to tar Australian servicemen and women with their own fanciful guilt complexes. Tampa was a very successful measure to put an end to the ruthless people smuggling that was increasing because the smugglers mistakenly thought we were an easy target. The end of these voyages arguably saved many lives from SIEV-X disasters.
Yep whyisitso, definitely nothing to do with immigration. They were tourists, right?
You might as well say people only join the Liberal party because they are fearful of migrants.
Given immigration, and particularly NECB immigration, has never been higher or more diverse than during the Howard years, I wonder how you could draw this conclusion?
Instead of talking in platitudes (”Orderly”) – perhaps you’d like to explain why the SIEV X and the Tampa were orderly and how much you like the orderly incarceration of Australian citizens?
It is so frustrating that these excuses are still being trotted out by a narrow group of Leftists, who still to this day cannot understand why Labor was on the nose until Rudd. This ongoing obsession that Howard only won due to “Tampa” seriously excluded the left from public discourse for the past 6 years.
It is only now that Labor has let go of this ideological blinker – Culture War (in)security blanket – that it is back in the game. Rudd’s very canny tactic to sign on fully to the ‘neocon’ strike back in the Culture Wars was a masterstroke that will see him changing the wallpaper in The Lodge next weekend.
He will not be asking Robert Manne, Phillip Adams and the gang for design advice. 😉
So David Rubie,
You’re admitting that you consider people smuggling a legitimate form of immigration to this country. Well I guess that’s something you have in common with the other loonies of the left.
Andrew, economic conservatism in the Labor Party began when Bill Hayden became Treasurer in 1975 and became entrenched when Peter Walsh became finance minister in 1984. Labor has not embraced big spending as policy since Jim Cairns was Treasurer.
There is nothing un-left about opposing the kinds of spending that Howard has indulged in, or even the quantum. Howard has been wasteful and systematically shovelled truckloads of money to people who least need it and least deserve it.
Watch for Lindsay Tanner, of the Left faction, to become the Peter Walsh of his generation.
Spiros – Whitlam aside, parties in office always have to resist their supporters – the Coalition taxes more than its supporters would prefer, and Labor spends less than its supporters would prefer. But Labor has generaly increased spending by more on a year-to-year basis than the Coalition. The historical Budget figures are here.
Yes, I know that Howard has spent excessively and wastefully. I have written many thousands of words on the topic. But if Labor doesn’t broadly stand for more spending on social issues, we have to revisit our understanding of party politics in this country.
Shorter spiros (actually not so short):
Andrew, even Green left weekly is economically conservative these days. They love learnt to MULTINATIONALS. The former typing pool secretary for the Communist party- Julia Chavez is a Reagan conservative.
umm they learned to love….
It seems it’s the only multinational operation david likes. NIke is way down the list compared to people smugglers in David’s list.
“We will decide” whyisitso. It wasn’t a dog whistle, it was a fog horn.”
Totally agree with you David. Howard found a great argument that people actually agreed with him and the loonie left side of the ALP didn’t.
The left lost that one in the market of ideas.
Hallucinating JC? What list is this? You guys need to get your stories straight: is Howard an economic conservative or isn’t he? By whose definition? Can you use enough lawyerly language to make a definition of economic conservative that excludes people like (say) Lindsay Tanner, the only politician in the whole campaign who has talked about downsizing the government, to a deafening silence from classical liberals (no surprise that). I’ve got a good definition of economic conservative: someone who promises to spend $1 less than Howard.
And on the completely unrelated note that the flying monkeys are jumping up and down about – was Tampa a dog whistle or not? JC says yes, it’s quite OK to be a racist as long as you’ve got good economic reasons, Greenfield says no. Andrew is pulling his hair out that the thread got derailed. It’s very funny complaining about the left getting excited about immigration, get very, very excited indeed when the topic comes up.
Should read: It’s very funny you guys complaining about the left getting excited about immigration, when you’re very, very excited indeed when the topic comes up. Can’t type while laughing.
“Julia Chavez is a Reagan conservative.”
First of all, I can’t wait for Hugo to come for a visit. JC’s head will explode.
Next, Reagan was big government all over.
Finally, in just a few days, Julia will be Deputy PM. When Kev is overseas, she will be running the country. That means, JC, she will be running you.
How do you like them apples?
Andrew, the size of the federal governmnent, as a percentage of GDP, is bigger now than when Howard came to office. Look it up in the budget papers. Perhaps you do need to revisit your understanding of party politics in this country.
Comments are getting a bit like the rest of the blogosphere, so I will close this thread.
Comments are closed.