In October 1980, the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser’s leadership won its third election in a row. A bit like 2019, except the current administration has had three prime ministers — Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison — not one.
There was a view the Fraser government, which had lost seats to the Labor Party, was running out of steam. Soon after the election, Fraser called a party meeting aimed at determining the government’s agenda for the next three years. Discussion was going nowhere in particular when, according to party lore, Perth backbencher Ross McLean is said to have called out: “Hey, PM. Why not try good government for a change?”
McLean had a point. The essential task of government is to govern well. Sure, sound policy is an important part of good administration. But dogmatic policy agendas can be counter-productive and, as true political conservatives understand, it’s important governments do not make situations worse than they otherwise would be. Do no harm is a maxim that has application outside of the health system.
It is a matter of record the Labor Party went into last month’s election with a fixed policy agenda with respect to tax, spending and more besides, developed over the previous five years. It was rejected by a majority of Australians. By comparison, the Coalition’s election platform, which was focused on tax cuts, was modest. Yet it won both votes and seats.
It was a subdued panel on the ABC’s Insiders set on May 19, the morning after the election count. This was understandable since most commentators and journalists had anticipated a Labor Party victory, or at least a Bill Shorten-led minority government, and took some time to take in the re-election of Morrison’s Coalition government. Barrie Cassidy was in the presenter’s chair and the panel consisted of Nine newspapers’ David Crowe, The Australian’s Niki Savva and ABC Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas. Savva has conceded she did not believe the Liberal Party could prevail once Turnbull had been displaced as prime minister the previous August.
Neither of the other panellists predicted a Coalition victory. And Cassidy had gone along with the polls that indicated a change of government.
While conceding Morrison would have absolute authority within the Liberal Party, Savva added: “We don’t know exactly what he’s going to do because he never spelled it out.” She claimed Morrison had no mandate to do anything beyond his promise to legislate tax and put the budget into surplus.
Karvelas then weighed in, maintaining there was not one interview she did with a Coalition frontbencher before the election in which she “didn’t push and push on what was this agenda” if the Morrison government was re-elected. Karvelas said there was no response to her questions as to what would be done when the government had finished with its tax cuts and argued that “we need to keep asking” the question.
Crowe joined in, stating he had asked the Prime Minister in an interview, “What is your third term agenda?”
Perhaps the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues intend to take up McLean’s proposal of three decades ago, and just govern well. That, plus returning the budget to surplus (if possible) and tax cuts, should be enough. Assuming the Coalition continues its pre-election stand on the need to preside over energy reliability along with a reduction in power prices.
Australia’s most successful leaders in recent decades have been Labor’s Bob Hawke and the Coalition’s John Howard. Hawke defeated Fraser in 1983 with an essential promise to bring Australians together. In a speech delivered on February 16, 1983, the Labor leader declared Australia could have both “sensible policies and a willingness to resolve problems through negotiation and consensus”. During the campaign he urged voters to “throw away your calculators”.
In March 1996, Howard led the Coalition to victory after prevailing over Paul Keating, Hawke’s successor. The Liberal leader’s most memorable commitment during the campaign was to bring about a situation where Australians were “comfortable and relaxed” about their past, present and likely future.
As it turned out, the Hawke, Keating and Howard administrations gradually introduced wide- scale economic reforms that attained the support of most of the population. As Peter Costello, Howard’s treasurer, once remarked, no one marched in the streets in favour of a goods and services tax. But, as with the Hawke-Keating government, Australians accepted the need for pragmatic economic reform.
In time, Kevin Rudd led Labor to office in 2007 with a promise that he was an “economic conservative” — just like Howard, the man he replaced as prime minister. No brand-new agenda there.
Bertie Wooster, a fictional character in PG Wodehouse’s comedic novels, was wont to rant against what he termed “five-year planners”. The reference was to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan implemented a decade after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Wooster’s target in this regard was the British Labour Party, which was of democratic (not communist) socialist disposition. But socialist all the same — with an emphasis on agendas and plans. Of course, Wodehouse — who made his own political mistakes — was a novelist. But his work is a reminder of a time when planning was all the rage among democratic socialists and even some social democrats in the West. Britain’s postwar economic recovery occurred in the 1980s when the Conservative Party was led by economic reformer Margaret Thatcher. Her leadership focused on reducing regulation and freeing up markets. Thatcher was a pragmatist who implemented change in response to problems, rather than impose a doctrinaire agenda.
It is not clear what will be the economic outlook when the next election, scheduled for 2022, takes place. It will be best approached by efficient government rather than by an obsessive intent to implement a rigid agenda — even if this upsets some commentators.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.