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Issue #1642      June 11, 2014


Two mates dance the same tune

The National Press Club’s special 50th anniversary event featured former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former Coalition PM John Howard. There was no sign of past political point-scoring or parliamentary slanging matches. It was more like a mutual admiration society, with two men warmly reminiscing over the good old days and recalling points of agreement. They were just as arrogant and articulate as ever, wallowing in all the media attention and not shy about giving their respective parties’ leadership some advice. “Bob Hawke and John Howard show how it’s done,” was how the Brisbane Times summed it up.

The extent of agreement between the two former leaders was striking; something that was not so transparent when they were in office or opposition. Hawke and his Treasurer Paul Keating began the process of privatisation and economic and financial deregulation including deregulation of the Australian dollar and trade liberalisation (removal of trade barriers and tariffs). Labor also set in train decentralisation of the system governing wages and working conditions – shifting the focus from national awards to enterprise bargaining and the trading off of conditions for wage rises.

They were successful in co-opting the trade union movement through the Prices and Incomes Accord – a social partnership agreement between Labor and the ACTU under which unions agreed to co-operate with employers and restrain wage increases in return for some social reforms including Medicare. The wage restraint and trade-offs resulted in a loss of working conditions and a real reduction in wages for many workers.

The Howard government continued the process of economic deregulation and privatisation. It took a far more aggressive stance towards the trade union movement, with successive waves of industrial relations legislation, culminating in WorkChoices (with individual employment contracts) and the establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. There were savage cuts to social welfare and other areas of spending. The Howard government mounted an attack on wages and working conditions by gutting awards and restricting the content of enterprise agreements.

Howard, still the shrewd politician of the past, had a message for PM Tony Abbott: “Politics, at the end of the day, is not a public relations contest ... we sometimes lose the capacity to argue the case. We think it is sufficient that we utter slogans. In truth, in politics you need slogans and arguments ... Australians do have a great capacity to absorb the argument.” He then went on to explain that Australians want policies to be in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

Hawke, on his part, had a message for Labor leader Bill Shorten: “You can’t expect, nor should you expect, the support of the Australian people to throw out an existing government and put you in unless you have done them the courtesy, and the country the service, of working out a coherent policy, not necessarily of reform, but of adaptation to changing circumstances. You will not just get into government by sheer opposition unless the government is going really badly.”

Howard, in his contribution to the Press Club, was clearly admiring of some of the Hawke government’s economic reforms, in particular the floating of the dollar which Howard as Treasurer in the Fraser government had not managed to do. Howard pointed out how he had backed many of the Hawke reforms while in opposition and gently admonished Labor (when not under Hawke) for not returning the favour in regard to the GST.

“Could I say gently to the current opposition,” said Howard in the true spirit of mateship, “that if you’re worried about the influence of minor parties, one way of eliminating their influence is for the two major parties to get together on sensible change.” This suggestion says it all.

The speed of change, the processes of change, the attitude towards trade unions, the size and form of their safety nets, and the spin to sell policies may be different, but underlying these external differences, both major parties are pursuing a similar big business agenda of deregulation, privatisation and “smaller government”. Howard’s comment about getting together to squeeze out the real opposition forces such as the Greens reveals the common class interests, as does their mateship that was so evident during the National Press Club event. It also demonstrates the need to build a left and progressive, political alternative in Australia prepared to challenge the might of the transnational corporations and put people and the planet first.

Next article – Govt unlawful action at Maules Creek

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