Why the ALP should return to the Hawke and Keating period of electoral governance

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the ALP returning to the Hawke and Keating method of electoral governance in relation to solving the ALP’s problems of the present day.

On one side, there are people like Simon Crean, Bill Kelty and to a lesser extent Mark Latham who want to return to that mode of electoral governance and on the side there are people like Bob Carr who say that the ALP shouldn’t get nostalgic about the period. There are also people like Ken Henry who say that the Hawke and Keating period had as heated a political atmosphere over policy issues as the one that dominates politics in the current day.

As a member of Generation Y (an age group that never really experienced the Hawke and Keating government), I understand first hand why the ALP must embrace the Hawke and Keating mode of electoral governance.

When I went through my schooling years, John Howard was Prime Minister for pretty much the entire time. The only memories I have of political events centered around his Prime Ministership (the only other political figure I remember clearly when I went to Primary School was Pauline Hanson). When I finished my Bachelor Degree in late 2008, Kevin Rudd had been the Prime Minister for less than one year.

Politics to my generation before 2008 WAS John Howard. No one else. You might have heard a little bit about Kim Beazely or Simon Crean or Mark Latham, but they never won elections. Howard was the Prime Minister and he was the one who was making the decisions.

With that in mind, lets look at what the electorate in the present day considers the most important election issues. This is from the Essential Media Communications poll from February 11th 2013 (there were a lot of issues listed, however for the purposes of space, I’ve narrowed it down to the top three. If you want to see the full table, click on the link below).

Q. Which are the three most important issues in deciding how you would vote at a Federal election?

25 Jan 10

6 June 11

5 Dec 11

30 July 12

19 Nov 12

11 Feb 13

Management of the economy







Ensuring a quality education for all children







Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system







As the table above shows economic management is clearly judged as the most important issue in deciding people’s vote at a federal election with ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system number two and a distant third is ensuring a quality education for all children.

Here’s how the party’s compare on each of these issues at the present moment.

Q. Which party would you trust most to handle the following issues?




Don’t know

11 Feb

Management of the economy






Ensuring a quality education for all children






Ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system






As we can see, there’s not much difference between Labor and the Liberal Party on issues like education and health (which is not normal as usually Labor would be dominating the Liberal Party on these issues), but on the economy, there’s a major gap between the two major party’s with the Liberals leading Labor by 15%.

The Australian economy right now is the envy of the world given everything that has happened since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009, yet the ALP hasn’t benefited politically from it.

What the Liberal Party have done over the last five years or so is frame Howard and Costello as the ones who gave Australia the strong position from which to deal with the Global Financial Crisis and the ALP as wasting the surpluses they accumulated over 11 years in government and plunging the nation into debt and deficit.

“Budget surpluses” = good economic management. “Debt and deficit” = bad economic management. That’s all the Liberal Party have done: word association.

So when most people my age hear this sort of message, they feel extremely insecure about the ALP’s economic credentials because all they remember is Howard and Costello being “good” with the economy. The facts don’t matter, all that matters is what gets triggered in the brain.

So when someone like me in 2008, when I didn’t know anything about politics, thinks about the ALP government and the economy, they had been emotionally primed over an 11 year period to feel insecure about the ALP’s ability to handle worldwide economic meltdown. They might have trusted the ALP more than the Liberal Party on issues like health and education, but they’re not as powerful issues as an issue like the economy (as the tables above demonstrate).

The simple fact of the matter is during that 11 year period, there was no real authoritative challenge to Howard and Costello on the economy. It might have been mentioned here or there, but they were never wrestled to the ground and taken apart.

With all of that in mind, when someone my age, in 2008 sees a clip like the one below, it’s an extreme breath of fresh air because it puts Howard and the Liberal Party into perspective on economic issues.

People my age have no idea that Howard was Treasurer between 1977 and 1983 let alone presided over a recession during that period. It doesn’t matter if the facts Keating states in the clip above are accurate or not (they mostly are accurate), the fact is that this was a genuine contest and the ALP were landing real blows against the Liberal Party on the issue of economic management.

The reason Tony Abbott is able to get away with a lot of the rhetoric about returning to the “golden years” of economic management under the Howard government is because there isn’t anyone in the federal ALP leadership challenging or taking apart his and the Liberal Party’s legacy from the middle.

My age group has no idea what the Hawke or Keating government did to Australia in the 13 years they were in government. They have no idea how they fundamentally changed Australia and set up the conditions for over 20 years of economic growth without a recession (my generation hasn’t directly experienced a recession, which is something to keep in mind) and how Howard and Costello sat on their hands for their period in government and did bugger all except implement a Goods and Services Tax (GST) and WorkChoices.

All they know is the Howard years were apparently good years for the economy and the ALP apparently don’t know what they’re doing.

It’s for this reason the current ALP government needs to rediscover the way Hawke and Keating communicated their strong economic credentials to the electorate because quite frankly my age group … (no let me rephrase that) … the entire Australian community doesn’t seem to have a clue!


3 thoughts on “Why the ALP should return to the Hawke and Keating period of electoral governance

  1. intuitivereason April 7, 2013 at 4:47 am Reply

    I’m a little older; my school recollections are of Hawke and Keating. Even looking back, I remain deeply impressed with what Keating achieved, particularly with the ‘recession we had to have’. There are times when a country needs a recession; difficult times, but they really do set things up for the period ahead. To a significant extent, Costello was only able to achieve what he did because of what Keating did before.

    Thing is, nothing that has been done since this government came to office has indicated that they have half the nous that either Costello or Keating had. In fact, they have shown repeatedly that they a rather more willing to abuse their position in government in a vindictive and arbitrary manner. They have sacrificed the countries reputation for low sovereign risk with the way they tried to introduce the MRRT, and now again with superannuation. It’s not that these aren’t potentially good policies; the Henry Tax review provided a superb basis for policy. Its just the approach that has been taken with both of them shows a callous disregard for proper governance.

    It’s not an issue of communication; they communicate just fine. It’s an issue of intent, attitude and ideology that simply doesn’t sit well with the Australian people.

    I listened to Simon Crean give his press conference in the middle of the non-challenge a few weeks back. That.. that is the sort of selfless attitude, leadership and restraint that I have always associated with Labor at its best.

    I’d love to see that back.

  2. DMW April 8, 2013 at 12:09 pm Reply

    They have sacrificed the countries reputation for low sovereign risk with the way they tried to introduce the MRRT, and now again with superannuation.

    The use of the term ‘sovereign risk’ in relation to the MRRT and superannuation illustrates the brilliant con job that the coalition have done.

    Sovereign risk is the risk that a government will default on its’ loans.

    To suggest that the MRRT creates a ‘sovereign risk’ implies that state royalties on mining would also create a ‘sovereign risk’.

    Although it operates slightly differently we have the Petroleum Resources Rent Tax (introduced by Keating) and it has not created a ‘sovereign risk’ .

    Once again it shows the brilliant con job of the opposition and the mining industry and the lousy job the treasurer has done in selling our economy.

  3. Anthony X May 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm Reply

    I am in my 50s and remember political history further back than probably anyone writing on this blog. Yes, John Howard was not always a brilliant economic manager and had a mediocre record as Treasurer in the Fraser Liberal/National Party government. The recession of 1982-83 during Howard’s treasurership was severe. However, unions contributed significantly to that with extreme wage demands and there was no mining boom back then. Also, it needs to be known that the United States and the United Kingdom were coming out of severe recessions around that time so there had been a recession that hit most of the western world at the time. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser made Howard’s situation worse by forcing bad policy decisions on Howard in a futile attempt to win the 1983 election.

    Paul Keating did some very good things in the Hawke Labor government as Treasurer. He floated the dollar, deregulated the financial sector and engaged in a large privatisation program. These were not natural Labor policies and were largely copied from the so-called economic rationalist policy manifesto of the right of politics. It should also be remembered that the Hawke/Keating recession of 1991-92 was every bit as severe as that under the Fraser/Howard Liberal/National Party government. Thousands of businesses went broke and hundreds of thousands of Australians became unemployed and or lost their homes with interest rates peaking at 17-18 per cent. Unemployment was still over 11 per cent during the 1993 election and peaked at 11.3 per cent during the campaign. Unlike the Fraser/Howard Liberals, Hawke/Keating Labor had the dubious distinction of leading the only western economy that went into recession during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    A comparison of Fraser/Howard Liberal/National Party government and Hawke/Keating Labor, shows unemployment peaked around 10 per cent under Fraser/Howard by 1982-83 and 11 per cent plus under Hawke/Keating.

    Hawke/Keating presided over $90 billion of government debt. Howard’s government of 1996-2007 paid off that debt.

    One thing younger generations need to understand is that politicians always exaggerate there own success and the failings of their opponents. I have voted Labor and Liberal in my lifetime and come from a family of generations of Labor voters. Don’t be seduced by Paul Keating or John Howard’s claims to great economic management, the truth is somewhere in between.

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