12/04/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Howard’s a true 1940s Labor man

12/04/2005 - 22:00


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While the Gallop Government was tabling its One Vote One Value Bill, a Melbourne University institute and The Australian newspaper were jointly hosting a national conference on Australia’s economy.

While the Gallop Government was tabling its One Vote One Value Bill, a Melbourne University institute and The Australian newspaper were jointly hosting a national conference on Australia’s economy.

As with most such get-togethers, the quality of papers varied.

Most politicians used the opportunity to promote themselves and knock opponents, while some economists re-badged and re-presented their pet hobbyhorse issues.

Be that as it may, one journalist at the conference said there was at least one “arresting conference address” among the delivered papers.

It was by Anne Harding, director of the National Centre for Economic and Social Modelling, a flash title for an institute that operates several powerful computers into which Australian Bureau of Statistics figures are fed and some insightful conclusions invariably extracted.

State Scene reproduces some key quotes from Harding’s paper and comments by the impressed journalist, Paul Kelly, who is easily Australia’s most insightful and historically learned political commentator.

Harding: “[Australia’s] welfare state has been very successful at redistributing income from the rich to the poor.

“The transfers involved are substantial and when I presented those findings in the US, there was a lot of surprise.

“[The Howard Government] has actually been a high-taxing government and a large share of the revenue had gone to cash transfers and social services with the net impact being highly positive in terms of redistribution.”

Kelly: “This means that the Howard Government, judged by results, has operated as a traditional Labor government by imposing hefty taxes, raising revenue efficiently and ensuring that the benefits are redistributed via the tax-transfer mechanism and the welfare state.

“This is how Labor is supposed to govern.

“It puts in a new light Howard’s penetration of the Labor base vote and the support of the Howard ‘battlers’.”

John Howard gained power in 1996 and his winning formula – if Harding and Kelly are correct – has been to abide by two Labor innovations of the 1940s.

The first is the nation-saving American alliance as pioneered and implemented by Labor PM John Curtin between 1942 and 1945.

The second is adherence to Labor PM Ben Chifley’s promotion, between 1945 and 1949, of a fully employed, high taxing, welfarist-oriented order, like that contemporaneously implemented by British socialist PM and former social worker, Clement Attlee.

Today’s welfare burden for most of Australia’s 21 million people includes: at least 5 per cent unemployed; 3.5 per cent receiving disability pensions, or 700,000 recipients (up from 1 per cent in 1965); and 2.3 per cent on single parent pensions, or 450,000 recipients, which has doubled since 1985.

That’s about 11 per cent, or 2.3 million people, and growing. Not included are aged pensioners and other major welfare recipients such as Aborigines.

Because the conference focused on economic, not institutional, issues it understandably ignored the crucially important emerging Howard centralism, something Messrs Curtin and Chifley sought to see realised by the abolition of Australia’s six states and their replacement by centrally (that is, Canberra) controlled regions.

But worry not, Mr Howard hasn’t ignored that either since he’s essentially a Curtin/Chifley-style centralist. During a recent radio interview he dropped his guard by saying: “I have no doubt that if we were starting this country all over again, we wouldn’t have quite the same structure of government that we now have.

“We’d have a national government, obviously, and we’d probably have a larger number of regional governments and not have the existing state boundaries …

“I don’t think the system we have in Australia works very efficiently.”

That’s exactly what Mr Curtin and Mr Chifley believed and sought to create and it’s what Gough Whitlam, the next man to be Labor prime minister (1972-75), not only believed in but immediately began implementing by boosting Canberra’s powers over the states.

Those moves included launching several High Court actions to ensure Canberra could displace the states.

Crucial to this was the creation of the big-spending Department of Urban and Regional Development.

And the regions this department mapped out began receiving funding directly from Canberra so as to slowly wind-down the states as legislative and sovereign entities.

Now, while Mr Howard has been careful not to copy the Curtin/Chifley inspired 1970s Whitlam centralist regionalist blueprint too precisely, which many voters still recall, he’s nevertheless moving for greater centralisation.

The areas he’s targeted are health, industrial relations and tertiary education. And Canberra is about to launch its plan to create 24 technical colleges despite the states having TAFE sectors, so this area is also in the crosshairs.

Marry the Howard centralisation urge with Anne Harding’s revelations and Paul Kelly’s contentions on the current blooming welfarist and taxing policies, and the essentially Howard Laborite jigsaw is fully assembled.

Mr Howard is generally portrayed by journalists and some politicians as an ideological re-incarnation of Robert Menzies, who was PM between 1949 and 1966.

But the only thing he has in common with the Menzies of the 1950s and 1960s is that he joined the party Sir Robert founded in the 1940s to block Labor’s (Curtin’s and Chifley’s) centralism and big taxing and big spending welfare programs.

Sir Robert Menzies was a stolid federalist. Howard is not.

Menzies after 1949 promptly scrapped the Chifley government’s centralist regionalist program whereas Mr Howard expresses sympathy for it and is further centralising Australia.

No, Howard isn’t a 1950s-style Liberal. He has more in common with 1940s Labor, and the sooner voters realise this the sooner they’ll be able to correctly evaluate what’s happening around them.

State Scene’s guess is that Menzies is probably turning in his grave while Curtin and Chifley are quietly chuckling because Howard, under the Liberal banner, has evolved into being a Labor-style PM.

Thanks Anne Harding, and thank you Paul Kelly.

What you’ve done is lift the veil on what so many spin doctors continue to incorrectly portray the Howard years as – that is, a reincarnation of the Menzies 1950s and 1960s era – whereas it is not that but rather an emulation of Labor’s 1940s decade.

Clearly, the joke is on the Liberal Party, most of whose members are under the misapprehension that they’re combating ‘Laborism’, whereas they’re in fact backing the introduction of that party’s policies and commitments of the 1940s.


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