A touch of Fightback! would do Abbott a lot of good
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Federal Coalition's groundbreaking economic reform manifesto, Fightback!
At a time when the public is beginning to question the Federal Coalition's commitment to a serious reform agenda, it is pertinent to remember where Fightback! began.
Announced in late 1991 amidst a conflation of soaring unemployment, spiraling debt, declining productivity, growing welfare dependency and a deteriorating Federal budget, Fightback was promoted as a panacea for the ills plaguing the Australian economy at the time.
In seeking to restore Australia's economic prosperity, Fightback! aimed to ‘achieve a generational change in policies and attitudes. Fightback! proposed a 15 per cent GST, $13 billion worth of income tax cuts, $10 billion of expenditure cuts, a multi-billion dollar privatisation program and a complete overhaul of Australia's social security, Medicare, higher education, workplace relations and public service systems.
By putting policy before politics, Fightback! sought to recast the political landscape, placing the battle of ideas front and centre.
At first, this approach was hugely successful. It brought down Bob Hawke and his party's public support. But over time, Fightback! became better known as a form of slow-working political poison. Its sharp edges, rigid ideology and lack of political grease resulted in the Coalition losing 1993's unlosable election, and brought about the political demise of its key architect, John Hewson.
Yet, while Fightback! died unloved, its policy legacy lived on.
Over four consecutive electoral terms, the Howard Government successfully implemented much of the Fightback! agenda. Indeed, the intellectual arguments for the GST, personal and company tax cuts, public enterprise privatisations, IR liberalisation and the modernisation of the higher education and Medicare systems can all trace their roots back to the original Fightback! vision.
But today, no such vision exists. Fightback! has been forgotten, the economic dries have vacated the field and liberal politics is now dominated by the practice of relentless opposition. Where in the 80s and 90s liberal politics was a melting pot of ideas and serious debate, today it is a policy wasteland. Destroying ideas is almost as important as creating them, and nearly every reform the Government proposes is wrong.
This development is a tragedy for Australian politics and bodes poorly for our nation's long term future.
When political parties stand for nothing other than their desire for power, policy integrity begins to erode. And in recent months, the consequences of this affliction have begun to show within the Federal Opposition. Protectionism, economic isolationism and timidity on IR reform are all the early signs of a policy vacuum opening up.
While populism has always had its place within opposition politics, it cannot be allowed to rule the roost. Eventually, ephemeral statements must be replaced by philosophical conviction.
As our nation delves deeper into the 21st century, complex issues such as population growth, skill shortages, rising energy costs, declining productivity, sustainable development and tax reform will all require a comprehensive Liberal response. The challenge for the current generation of policy leaders is to ensure that a detailed and thoughtful one is authored.
Unfortunately, the lesson many politicians learnt from the original Fightback! experience was the importance of placing smart politics before good policy. Indeed, it is this lesson which has given birth to the small-target strategies of many subsequent opposition leaders.
However, Australian politics need not be this way. Fightback! had more than one lesson to teach.
Fightback! showed us that while smart politics was important for winning government; sound policy was necessary for providing good government.
As the Federal Coalition knuckles down in the lead up to the next Federal Election, it should keep this lesson in mind.
Good governments cannot govern on the hop. They need a roadmap to ensure they do not lose their way. Fightback! did that for Howard. No one did it for Rudd. Time will tell if someone does it for Abbott.
This article first appeared on The Drum on 23/11/11 and can be accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3689452.html.