Tuesday, June 12

A tectonic shudder as crusty conservatives shift to the middle ground

Did you feel the earth move, a slight tectonic shudder in the crust of conservative opinion? You weren't imagining it.

A significant editorial in The Weekend Australian on Saturday was unstinting in its praise of the economic reforms of former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Even more remarkable, the latest Quadrant concedes we're right to worry about global warming, and agrees that governments should be doing something about it.

In its editorial – subtitled, “Kevin Rudd must strive to reclaim Labor's reform legacy” – the Weekend Oz also said it believed the Howard government had dropped the ball on micro-economic reform, and the government's lack of vision had crimped the ability of the nation to capitalise fully on the boom fuelled by the rise of China.

The newspaper acknowledged that some saw it as a captive to conservative opinion, but said it had for many years lavished praise on the reform legacy of the Hawke and Keating years.

The period from 1983 to 1996 transformed the way Australia does business. While not always responsible for devising the policy prescriptions, Hawke and Keating were brave enough to seize the reform initiatives identified but not implemented by their conservative predecessor. This included the floating of the Australian dollar and deregulating the banking sector.

Keating can also claim credit for winding back import tariffs, opening the Australian economy to global competition, driving a wave of competition at a state level, introducing enterprise bargaining to boost productivity growth and introducing compulsory superannuation.

In Mr Keating's view, these reforms underpin Australia's contemporary prosperity and he can't understand why Labor does not want to claim the fruits as their own. We, too, have long believed that Labor has made a mistake in distancing itself from the Hawke and Keating reform legacy.

“Their conservative predecessor” is, of course, John Howard, who served as Treasurer in the Fraser government.

Howard has long been sensitive about accusations that he failed to implement reforms when he was Fraser's Treasurer. It was 2004, I believe, when he told The Australian's editor at large, Paul Kelly, he had at least appointed the Campbell inquiry into the economy. He claimed credit for something else, too, but I can't remember what it was.

Today, on economic reform, Howard can boast of little more than that he didn't oppose the Keating reforms.

Unless, of course, you agree with his attempt to destroy the right of workers to bargain collectively, returning industrial relations to the 19th century.

Quadrant's revised view of climate change, expressed in its editorial for June issue, is all the more remarkable. For years Quadrant has been our most vociferous mocker of those who believe man's activities are warming our planet.

Any scientist able to argue against climate change theory seemed sure of a run in Quadrant, guaranteeing their view would be disseminated by hard-right newspaper columnists across the land (at least until Rupert Murdoch recently acknowledged climate change, and committed News Corp to a softer environmental footprint).

Quadrant's hard line provided support to John Howard in the decade when he stubbornly denied global warming.

Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness doesn't say anything so crass as “We wuz wrong”, of course.

And he continues to say the climate change deniers should always be valued, as they play an indispensable role. Here's the core of his wordy and heavily qualified editorial:

There are many scientists of the highest professional standing, with great intellectual achievements to their names, who are convinced of the reality of the problem of global warming and the dangers it represents to the future of the world.

While the knowledgeable and well-qualified sceptics of the phenomenon should always be valued, since they are playing an indispensable role in questioning and refining the conclusions of other experts, there is by now sufficient reason for non-experts (the vast majority) to accept that there is something to worry about, and for governments to seriously examine what if anything can be done about global warming, and how urgent this is. This is simply a matter of risk analysis, as well as cost/benefit analysis.

You can read the Quadrant editorial here.

And here's The Weekend Australian's editorial. Also in that issue, a feature article, “Top Marks for Peter and Paul”.

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