Stagnation and revolution 2

When the Coalition was elected to government in 1975, Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. As I noted in the previous item on this topic, he attempted to get rid of the Medibank system and replace it with a system based on private health insurance. That was an unmitigated failure and left many people without access to affordable health care1.

Fraser also got rid of the Department of the Media, and although the Australian honours system was retained, he reintroduced the imperial hours in parallel to it. The Fraser government was not idle. It signed a treaty of friendship with Japan, which at the time was our biggest customer2; enacted Aboriginal Land Rights legislation for the Northern Territory2; set up the federal court2; ran the 1977 referendum which mandated the retirement of judges when they hit 703, allowed electors in Australian territories (NT, ACT etc.) to vote in referendums4, and mandated the filling of casual senate vacancies with a member of the same party and that the new senator’s term would continue to the end of the original occupant’s term5; was party to the Gleneagles agreement that affirmed opposition to racial discrimination in sport and insisted South Africa scrap apartheid; established the position of Commonwealth Ombudsman to investigate administrative decisions and recommend remedies; approved the mining and export of uranium; established the Special Broadcasting Service to provide multilingual television broadcasting2; recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor2 which it has invaded in December 19756; gave the Northern Territory limited self-government; proclaimed Kakadu national park and the Great Barrier Reef marine park; established theAustralian Refugee Advisory Council to advise the minister for immigration and ethnic affairs on the settlement of refugees; established the Australian Federal Police; returned control of coastal waters to the states; enacted the Whale Protection Act; established the Human Rights Commission; and enacted the first Freedom of Information legislation2

Conventional conservative ‘wisdom’ is that Fraser failed to use his authority when he had the chance. He cut public spending, but not as deeply as the emerging Liberal dries like Howard, his treasurer, would have liked. He promised tax indexation, but never fully delivered; and he only flirted with financial deregulation. By his third term in government, the economy had started to sour with large oil price rises, a faltering resources boom, and drought7. At the same time, his government was perceived as tired, and by the time Fraser lost power, the nation was in recession8.

The Hawke government came to power after the double dissolution election of early March, 1983. It did the following: floated the Australian dollar, which had previously been pegged to the US dollar; allowed the operation of foreign-owned banks in Australia; privatised the Commonwealth Bank; removed controls on foreign exchange and Australian interest rates; opened the telecommunications industry to competition; reduced all tariffs to 5% and phased out protections for the textile, clothing and motor vehicle industries; established Medicare; struck the Prices and Incomes Accord to restrict wage demands in return for pledges to minimise inflation and implement social services; introduced enterprise bargaining; passed the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act to give the Commonwealth power over world heritage sites; prevented the damming of the Franklin River and listed it as a world heritage site; banned uranium mining at Jabiluka on the western border of Arnhem Land and listed Kakadu National Park as a world heritage site; outlawed sex discrimination in the workplace; replaced God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem9; and began the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum10

Hawke was replaced by his former treasurer, Paul Keating, as Prime Minister in 1991 who continued theprogressive reform program, which included the following: established a National Training Authority, established a national superannuation scheme to redress low national savings11; reduced the wage fixing power of the federal industrial tribunal after it rejected calls for enterprise bargaining to become the predominant form of wage setting12; transformed colleges of advanced education into universities; transformed Technical and Further Education (TAFE) to become more industry oriented through the creation of national industry standards; established the National Board of Employment, Education and Training (NBEET) with a partner agency called the Employment Skills Formation Council (ESFC)13; passed the Native Title Bill in response to the High Court’s Mabo decision14; passed the Endangered Species Protection Act15; increased funding for the arts under the Creative Nation policy; with the state premiers, agreed on a program of opening state-owned monopolies in electricity, gas, water and transport to commercial competition to make the provision of utilities more efficient16; obtained agreement to regular meetings of the heads of government of APEC member countries, as a way of building APEC into a body guiding the overall development of free trade and economic cooperation in the region17.

The Hawke-Keating government dismantled “draconian” labour laws and opened the Australian economy to the world, to the enrichment of generations of Australians. Some of Australia’s most senior economists have pointed to the floating of the dollar, wage decentralisation, tariff cuts, bank deregulation and tax reform as among his government’s greatest achievements. Former secretary of the Australian Treasury, Ken Henry, has said Hawke led “clearly Australia’s best post-war government. … Under Hawke’s leadership, Australia was able to be transformed from a closed, inward-looking, inflexible economy into a really outward looking one, one of the most flexible economies in the world. How quickly that happened, it’s just staggering”18.

The Keating government lost the federal election of 1996 and the Coalition under John Howard formed government. Unlike the election of the Hawke government, the economic reforms of which had been articulated and implemented over the first five years of Hawke’s prime ministership and beyond, Howard’s accession to power consisted of sacking six departmental secretaries at the outset and was characterised by a lack of an economic vision. He mostly just sat back and enjoyed the economic growth engendered by the Hawke-Keating reforms19.

Much as Fraser attempted to destroy Medibank, so Howard corroded Medicare by misdirecting money into tax deductions for inefficient private health insurance. Howard set the stage for the present return to the 1960s health system – one in which many people could not afford to pay for the medical care they need20. This is true to form for conservative governments in Australia, and it is becoming worse.



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