Public opinion on economic history wars

Pollytics blog reports on an Essential Research survey question on the economic history wars triggered by Kevin Rudd.

The question was:

Do you think that Labor or Coalition Governments have been responsible for the most important economic reforms in Australia over the last 25 years?

I’d give it to Labor on microeconomic reform but the Coalition on macroeconomic reform, while agreeing with John Howard’s argument that favourable judgment on Labor should be qualified by noting that the Liberals co-operated with reform while in opposition while Labor largely obstructed. Labor gets high marks 1983-95, but low marks since.

However it’s not a question most voters could easily answer, and so they will rely on party stereotypes. Along with a very large (and honest) ‘don’t know’ response the small advantage for the Liberals suggests that the strong economy under the previous government still gets some public opinion credit.


10 thoughts on “Public opinion on economic history wars

  1. I would give it to Labor on both (at least up to 1992), but there are many special factors. First, the role of the Coalition in Opposition was crucial. Labor in opposition were pure reactionaries. Second, Labor mainly reformed when they had to whereas the Coalition reformed on principle. But what gets me is the audacity of Rudd. One minute he’s an economic conservative; next minute economic reform is all a failed neoliberal experiment; and then again economic reform is a good thing championed by his party. How is he allowed to get away with this nonsense? My question is whether he takes himself seriously. I would prefer it if he didn’t because if he does, he’s certifiable.


  2. I think the polling results would be skewed because the Coalition was in power more recently. They should also only ask it to people above 35 as only they would remember the Labor years – Somebody who is younger probably won’t remember much of the Labor years (unless they are into politics or economics). But I suppose it’s about general perceptions, not whether they’re accurate or not.

    “Labor mainly reformed when they had to whereas the Coalition reformed on principle” – Perhaps it started out that way, but reforms such as NCP weren’t introduced because they absolutely had to be, but beause Keating believed in them. Anyway, Thatcher only started reforming when she had to aswell. There is this myth that she came into government with this vast package of economic reforms ready and waiting (like Kennett did) but in reality the Conservatives only started major privatisation when they needed money (selling BT in 1984) – Privatisation was barely mentioned in the Conservatives’ 1979 election manifesto and they largely rejected it when it was debated in opposition. It started out as purely pragmatic, only became systematic or based on principle down the track.


  3. Here is a tip for you Rajat. Rudd knows is being inconsistent in describing himself as a fiscal conservative one minute, leading the charge against neo-liberalism the next, and then championing liberalising reforms. He does not care. He probably gets a laugh at people indignantly pointing out his philosophical inconsistencies and asking incredulously how he gets away with it.


  4. Krystian, I think your point on NCP is probably a fair one. Of course, much of the actual work (ie the tough decisions) were made by State Liberal Governments. Labor also did well on tariff cuts, which is why I think they deserve the mantle on macro reform. As for the UK Conservatives, I think their 1979 manifesto is quite clear on their philosophical and policy direction. A lot is said about controlling inflation, reducing taxes, reducing union power, opposing further nationalisation (and privatising a number of industries) and reforming welfare.
    SR, as indicated, I would prefer for the country’s sake for Rudd to be manipulative rather than mad. If that gets him off, it’s a matter between him and his therapist.


  5. When I think of reform it usually involves short term pain for long term gain. So there is two aspects: Was the long term gain large? How badly was the short term transition implemented?

    Labor’s reforms in the late 80s/early 90s I think were mostly good long term, but they definitely suffered damage due to the short term damage that transition causes in particular industries.

    Liberal’s is harder to judge because there are relatively few reforms that have shifted into the long term basket. Liberals changes to superannuation will take another 10 years to play out.


  6. I think one of the upsides for Liberal leaning voters from 2013 onwards is that voters as a whole on economic issues will view Labor according to the current crops track record rather than Keating’s legacy. Add to that Rudd’s open social conservatism and this shift for Labor in appealing more to the grey vote should be complemented by them losing a lot more of the youth vote. Seems like Turnbull really is the right Liberal leader for the times.


  7. “As for the UK Conservatives, I think their 1979 manifesto is quite clear on their philosophical and policy direction” – Granted, it has philosophical and policy direction, but the only industries that the government committed to privatise were the “recently nationalised aerospace and shipbuilding concerns” which is pretty insignificant and reflects a suprising early lack of faith in the private sector to run big industries. The major program of privatisation that started with BT only came in response to budgetary pressures, it only became systematic later in the 1980s. My point being is that just because reform happens because it has to, it doesn’t mean that the reform has any less value than if it happened because of principle.


  8. In democracies, major reforms rarely occur without actual or perceived crises. The Kennett government did come to office exceptionally well prepared, but the reforms happened because there was already a crisis.


  9. M,

    I think most of the industries that endured difficult transitions during the Labor reform period would have struggled anyway – as they were, they just couldn’t cut it anymore and would have had to change under any circumstances.

    I think the benefits of many of the Liberals’ changes can be seen around us now. Giving the Reserve Bank a free hand on monetary policy, introducing a Charter of Budget Honesty, bringing net debt down to zero, pursuing a strong trading relationship with China, establishing the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority to keep a close eye on the banks – all of these have helped us survive near unscathed during a time when the financial systems of most developed countries were literally in melt down. This is a massive achievement.

    It wasn’t all good – their telecommunications and media policies, for example, as well as WorkChoices, were bloody awful – but overall the reform balance sheet is looking quite favourable for them, I think.


  10. Good discussion in the comments thread. I agree with Rajat on marks – Hawke/Keating deserve the highest.
    Regarding Howard/Costello, while they get a few ticks at the macro level, the merits of some of their micro ‘reforms’ are questionable – the GST, the USFTA and WorkChoices, for instance. And they sent us backwards in many areas – handouts for unproductive farmers and overproductive parents being two that come to mind.


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