The Howard And Rudd Years: Looking Back To Find A Way Forward


History is being written by the victors – the Federal Coalition and News Ltd.

At least for now.

Future historians might write different histories, however. They might conclude the Howard-Costello $22 billion surplus has been the most destructive statistic any Australian government has ever boasted about.

They might conclude had Kevin Rudd called a double-dissolution election in early 2010, he would have created a different Australia.

Certainly, Tony Abbott is changing Australian society. Whether ‘create’ and ‘Abbott’ can be used in the same sentence is moot.

‘Rudd’ and ‘moral courage’ can’t coexist either, however.

And what can’t be disputed is that after all the books have been written about the dysfunctional Rudd-Gillard years, all the revelations about who did what to whom, all the alleged backstabbings and renegings, one fact remains: There was a time when Rudd was the most popular prime minister in Australian history, with a level of popularity surely never to be repeated.

He had the clout and the trigger to call a double-dissolution election in 2010, fought on the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’ – climate change; an election all the polls said he would have won with a reduced majority.

Abbott would have been confined to history’s political dustbin.

Instead, Rudd was spooked by Abbott, the former boxer who has never played by Marquis of Queensberry rules.

It was a failure of moral courage, ironically by the man who cited Deitrich Bonhoeffer as his hero.

Rudd’s previous grand, vague outlines, his jealous guarding of his popularity and subsequent machinations only confirmed he had never been a member of any political party.

He’d been a member of the Rudd Technocrat Party, membership one.

In his second coming as PM, by the time he got to the Northern Territory in the 2013 federal election campaign, Kev had already jumped the crocodile.

Thus we had special northern tax zones, AKA the Rinehart Remittance.

This was topped by his announcement the Garden Island naval facility would be moved from Sydney to Queensland.

Who the Gods destroy, they first make ridiculous. The alleged smartest man in the room had become a prize dill.

All good Schadenfraude for those who want to experience it, but it was tragic.

Rudd at least had two great achievements; his decisive OKing of the response to the GFC, and the Sorry apology.

He gets no thank yous now, though he deserves them for those achievements. Perhaps future historians will say those achievements will be mitigation for his destructive egomania.

Post the Costello $22 billion surplus: those future historians might wonder how there was such a gap between the perception and the reality in Australia.

Try this simple quiz.

How many federal budgets since federation have produced surpluses?

How many surpluses did Coalition governments between 1949-72 produce?

How many surpluses did the Howard governments produce?

Answers: 18, none and 10 in a row.

Supplementary question. The United States has been the world’s economic powerhouse for the last century. How many surpluses has it produced in that time.

Extra points for knowing the number between one and 10.

Do these stats say the Menzies-Holt-Gorton-McMahon governments were hopeless economic managers because they didn’t produce $22 billion surpluses?

Was John Howard an economic ignoramus when interest rates topped 20 per cent and Australia had its last wage explosion while he was treasurer?

Was he transformed into an economic genius when he became prime minister 13 years later?

If he was prevented from taking measures he wanted to take when treasurer, what were they?  What were these great, delayed innovations he could introduce as PM?

Could it be politics is a continuum, and not just ‘surplus good – deficit bad’, and ‘Liberal good – Labor bad’, or ‘Labor good – Liberal bad’?

Howard said the times would suit him as PM; the times would have suited anyone.

In the second half of his prime ministership, he and Costello had money pouring out of every orifice.

It’s forgotten now, but Rudd as opposition leader before the 2007 election said the spending spree had to stop.

Once PM, he chose popularity over policy and reduced Howard’s $34 billion in promised tax cuts to, to… $31 billion.

Once opposition leader, Abbott could bombard with his three-word slogans, protected by the Howard-Costello $22 billion surplus and Labor’s leadership dysfunction and failure to provide a narrative.

Boxed into a corner, a dogged Wayne Swan promised a surplus that was both an unrealistic aim and unnecessary, given circumstances.

Was there an alternative narrative for the times?

There was Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s describing Australia’s response to the GFC as ‘’a model’’.

There was internationally recognised economist, Chicago’s David Hale saying: “There is no major country in the world where the disjuncture between the economic realities of a nation and the political standing of its government is so stark.

‘’Australia is an outlier – it gets an A for its economic performance, where most of the industrialised countries get a C or a D – yet it has the same anti-incumbent mood as countries with recessions and serious problems of unemployment.

‘’Why can’t the government get any credit?’’

Why indeed?

The Gillard-Rudd governments had provided any opposition with a surfeit of material to pound them with.

But the irony of the last election was that the only thing the Labor government could take to the electorate was its economic management, and that’s what it was pounded on, is still pounded on.

‘’Diabolical mess’’ says Jeff Kennett, ‘’Labor’s debt-and-deficit disaster’’ says Mattias Cormann, themes pounded by Abbott-Joe Hockey, supported by Barnaby Joyce’s gross-net debt, looming sovereign disasters and $100 steaks.

Which parallel story to choose, as the conflicting narratives are batted back and forth like a tennis match.

Low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment, low debt and deficit, say Labor supporters of the Rudd-Gillard legacy.

Massive debt and deficit, massive waste, incompetence, irresponsible spending sprees; debt more than $300 billion-$600 billion as figures are pulled out of backsides without reference to what they mean.

And government success to be judged by a return to surplus few governments have achieved in 114 years of federation.

There lies the problem.

Protected by that $22 billion surplus, Abbott-Hockey have never had to do any hard thinking. Three-word slogans have sufficed.

Will someone aim for a Mark Riley moment, ask Abbott what is a tax and what is its purpose? He’s told us of Labor’s great big taxes. Can he give examples of good and bad taxes?

Taxes will always be lower under a Coalition government, he says.

Does that mean ultimate success will be when income tax is nil?

Ask him why the Howard governments he was a part of, could dwarf Rudd-Gillard in taxing and spending, and produce surpluses.

How could the profligate Whitlam governments produce surpluses?

Ditto, the same questions for Hockey-Corman etc.

When Joe Hockey said the age of entitlement was over, did he tell workers they paid the fifth lowest income tax in the OECD, the fourth-lowest petrol charges in the developed world, in justifying the fuel excise increase?

What sort of budget would he have produced, had Abbott replaced the Gillard minority government, as he worked towards forcing an election from day one in 2010?

Age of entitlement? Attacking superannuation rorts, negative gearing, company tax avoidance, eliminating private health-insurance rebates and distorted schools funding, increasing the GST; all the themes have been worked over and left unaddressed.

Instead, a budget whose themes could have been written on the back of a large envelope in a day was produced.

We have to destroy a society in order to save it… that’s too big a mouthful in place of three word slogans, but will that be the legacy of an Abbott government which seems to have no intellectual underpinning beyond the simplistic philosophies of the Institute of Public Affairs?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.