Published in The Weekend Australian on 1.03.14
Australia has been assessed by the UN to have the second highest living standard in the world and by the OECD as the best on earth. When we ask who built this country, the right answer is the Australian people. Yet national governments can play a role in nation-building. They help create the economic environment and they influence the broader quality of life of the citizenry.
Although the Snowy Mountains scheme is considered Australia’s defining nation-building piece of infrastructure, another Labor initiative has been far more important. Chifley’s Labor government began Australia’s truly nation-building postwar immigration program.
On racial issues, the Holt Liberal government began relaxing entry for non-European immigrants, and Labor ended the shame of the White Australia policy when Gough Whitlam announced non-discriminatory immigration rules. The Fraser Liberal government distinguished itself in the treatment of asylum-seekers after the end of the Vietnam War.
Malcolm Fraser opposed apartheid in South Africa, and Bob Hawke played a leading role in the sanctions against the white regime that ended it. The Keating government introduced native title laws and the Rudd government issued a national apology to indigenous Australians.
Australia’s health system is judged to be among the best in the world. Universal health insurance through Medibank was a Whitlam Labor initiative, scrapped by the Fraser Coalition government and reinstated as Medicare by the Hawke government. The Gillard government legislated a national disability insurance scheme.
Funding for non-government schools was a Menzies government initiative. When the Hawke government came to office, only one in three children completed high school. Hawke and Paul Keating presided over more than doubling that number, enabled by enhanced income support for low-income parents with school-age children. The Gillard government legislated a needs-based school funding system.
The Chifley Labor government established the Australian National University and the Menzies government funded the development of Australian universities, but it was the Whitlam Labor government that changed the culture of university education, opening it up to working-class students.
Australia is considered to have the world’s best retirement incomes policy: universal superannuation supported by an age pension safety net. The Keating government introduced compulsory super and the Gillard government legislated its phased increase to 12 per cent. The Coalition has opposed every Labor policy to introduce and increase super for working people.
On community safety, essential to the quality of life, John Howard showed enormous courage in introducing gun control.
On the environment, the Whitlam government ratified the World Heritage Convention. The Fraser government nominated to the World Heritage List the Great Barrier Reef, part of Kakadu National Park and a Tasmanian wilderness area. The Hawke government prevented the damming of the Gordon River and added to the World Heritage List the rest of Kakadu, Tasmania’s southern forests, Queensland’s wet tropical forests, Uluru, Fraser Island and other icons. Hawke successfully led the international campaign to ban mining in Antarctica.
The Howard government announced its intention to introduce an emissions trading scheme in response to human-induced climate change, the Gillard government implemented it. The Abbott government intends to rescind it.
On the economy, although the Menzies government concluded a trade agreement with Japan in 1957, it was Labor governments that did most of the work in opening up the Australian economy. Whitlam introduced the first post-war tariff cuts and the Hawke-Keating reforms created Australia’s open, competitive economy, the foundation of 22 years of recession-free economic growth.
Whitlam and Hawke pioneered Australia’s engagement with China. Hawke initiated the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and Keating elevated it to leaders’ level. The Gillard government sealed a strategic partnership with China while maintaining the commitment to the alliance with the US formalised by the Menzies government.
On the budget, the Liberals claim to be the party of low taxes, but the budget papers from the early 1970s confirm that under Labor governments taxes as a share of GDP averaged 21.1 per cent, while under Liberal rule they were 21.9 per cent. The gap is greater when more recent comparisons are made between the Gillard government and the Howard government. If Labor had matched the Howard taxing effort, the budget deficit of $18.8 billion for 2012-13 would have been a surplus of $12.7 billion.
It is true that Labor has tended to spend more than the Liberals. It works out on average at one percentage point of GDP more, or about $15 billion in today’s dollars in a budget of about $400 billion. The Rudd and Gillard governments should have cut high-end welfare earlier despite sustained opposition from the Coalition.
Labor should support the Coalition’s efforts to legislate the savings in higher education that the Gillard government announced. But with an extravagant paid parental leave scheme to be legislated, it will be fascinating to see in the May budget for whom the Age of Entitlement has ended.
Though not strong on the economy, the Fraser Coalition government should be judged kindly for its record on human rights and the environment. The Menzies government deserves special praise for its commitment to education. Howard and Holt made some valuable contributions. But Labor governments have implemented most of the policies that help define Australia’s economic strength and quality of life.