Howard’s children
Too many Liberal ministers have an uncritical nostalgia for the Howard years

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Among the commentariat there has been a tendency to regard Australian federal politics as having never escaped the events of mid 2010. According to this narrative, our elected representatives are playing out a Canberra-based adaptation of Groundhog Day. The plotline is punctuated by never-ending conflict: leadership instability and internecine warfare within governing parties, an obsession with polling and personality politics, a gridlocked parliament and the rise of anti-establishment, populist minor parties.

While superficially attractive, it’s an account that is increasingly mistaken. The Coalition, first under Tony Abbott and then Malcom Turnbull, has indeed aped some of the more regrettable features of the Rudd–Gillard era. Yet federal Labor has moved on, both in terms of personnel and their policymaking style and substance. Bill Shorten’s consensus leadership and the unity of the parliamentary party have been important, if underappreciated, factors. Also critical to this sea change has been the intellectual effort within party circles to move Labor away from a nostalgic rehashing of the economic liberalisation agenda and policy outcomes of the Hawke–Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and ’90s.

To be sure, Labor’s Generation X and Y are beginning to build a new agenda fit for purpose in the 21st century, one built around solving inequality, fixing inefficient and unfair distortions in our tax system, and addressing bread and butter concerns such as wages and penalty rates, job creation, insecure work and energy/climate policy. Even Paul Keating in recent comments has admitted that the neoliberal economic philosophy he championed as treasurer has “run into a dead end”.

For the Coalition, however, little has changed. Under Turnbull’s leadership the Coalition has seemingly learnt nothing and forgotten nothing of the Abbott era. And judging by the lead-up to next month’s federal budget, an uncritical nostalgia for the Howard years hallmarks the efforts of too many ministers – notably the treasurer, Scott Morrison, who was not a member of the Howard ministries but a then Liberal Party operative.   

A case in point is the debate around housing affordability. The Coalition appears unwilling to entertain – despite reports of Turnbull’s true preferences and past statements – adopting Labor’s positions on reforming excessive taxation concessions around negative gearing and capital gains discount tax. Instead, the government seems intent on rehashing policies from the pre-GFC Howard days. The most egregious example is the work of the government’s Expenditure Review Committee. According to reports, the committee is investigating a proposal that will allow first homeowners to access their superannuation to buy property. It is essentially a repeat of Howard’s ill-advised first homeowner’s grant scheme, one ostensibly legislated to offset the effect of the post-1998 GST on home ownership.

This was an exercise in pork-barrelling and only served to push up house prices, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, while giving the misleading impression that the government was addressing a structural deficiency in the housing market. The Morrison-backed superannuation agenda will produce much the same outcome and only exacerbate the so-called housing bubble amid stagnating wages growth. It will do nothing to cool investor demand and will ultimately make property even less affordable to aspirant buyers. First (and typically younger) buyers would effectively be handing over their retirement savings to established owners and property investors – a form of intergenerational state-sanctioned theft. For a party that styles itself as fiscally conservative, this thinly veiled assault on the superannuation system is fiscal folly on an epic scale, leaving future governments to potentially cover the bill caused by the reduced superannuation of retirees.

Fortunately, there appears to be a few adults left in the Coalition ministry. Senior MP Christopher Pyne has today publicly slapped down the superannuation proposal, arguing that it risked destroying a retirement savings system that was the “envy of the world”. Turnbull has also sought to kill it off, pointing to his suggestion in 2015 that accessing super to purchase property was a “thoroughly bad idea”. I doubt the super proposal will last beyond today, but that it is even being mentioned is a telltale sign of the policy inertia and leadership vacuum that lie at the heart of Turnbull’s government. A belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics as a means of spurring “jobs and growth”, especially by lowering corporate tax, is out of touch with the post-GFC electorate. Outside of economic policy, too many Coalition MPs are seeking to replicate the claimed success of Howard’s culture wars against Labor and its so-called Left “elites” by pushing for changes to section 18C as well as a host of other tangential issues to the political centre of 2017.

Abbott once described himself as the political love child of Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard. And we now know how that little family fell apart. It is, however, an apt metaphor for the trajectory of the modern Liberals. We are watching Howard’s political children at play, unable to step out of their father’s shadow, aping Bishop’s self-indulgent behaviour, and unwilling to leave the family nest. It’s an unedifying spectacle voters are unlikely to reward at the ballot box.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

@dyrenfurth

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