I’m writing a chapter for a book on the Howard government, in which I’m assessing its economic policies. Here’s my draft conclusion (comments much appreciated).
The experience of seven years of nearly uninterrupted expansion under Howard, following three or four years of tentative economic recovery under Keating has given the government a reputation for good economic management. This reputation has been reinforced by the maintenance of low interest rates.
It is hard to see, however, that the government has contributed much to these outcomes. As in standard nowadays, the Reserve Bank is primarily responsible for the maintenance of macroeconomic stability. The Reserve Bank has judged monetary policy well since the mid-1990s, and, as a result, Australia has gradually recovered the ground lost in the 1989-92 recession.
But whereas the then Treasurer, Paul Keating, must share significant responsibility, along with the Reserve Bank, for the disastrous misjudgements that gave us ‘the recession we had to have’, the current government can claim little credit for the correct judgements of the Reserve Bank. It cannot even claim credit for not interferign. The policy of central bank independence has turned out well in Australia in the last, but it failed badly in New Zealand, where bad monetary policy contributed to a string of recessions in the 1990s.
In its first term in office, the government claimed credit for the decline in interest rates on the basis that the tight fiscal policies associated with the 1996 Budget cuts. The merits of the ‘crowding out’ hypothesis underlying this claim are debatable, particularly in a world of unrestricted capital movements.
More importantly, the government has abandoned any claims to fiscal rectitude since 2001 when it dissipated what remained of the budget surplus, Since then, the government has more or less officially adopted a zero budget balance (on whichever of the various accounting systems seems most appealing in any given year) as its target. This policy ensures that an economic downturn will produce large budget deficits and a substantial reduction in public sector net worth. If the government took its own rhetoric about fiscal prudence seriously it would be running surpluses to prepare for such an event.
Similarly at the microeconomic level, it is hard to see any basis for claims of superiority in economic management. The government has neither produced an alternative to the microeconomic reform agenda of its predecessors nor made any significant contribution of its own beyond the completion of unfinished business and some desultory swipes at the trade unions.
In retrospect, it seems likely that the long expansion of the 1990s will be viewed as a missed opportunity. Such a period of economic stability does not come along very often and is unlikely to persist indefinitely. Yet Australia has surprisingly little to show for this long period of prosperity, except for massive additions to an already impressive stock of housing, now valued at equally impressive prices. Unemployment has fallen a little but is still above the low points reached in previous expansions. No new initiative has been made to deal with the problems of financing retirement for an aging population; there has not even been much progress in tidying up the tangled web of policies inherited from the Keating government. The most important single investment in the future is education: if anything, we have gone backwards in this respect, particularly in relation particularly in relation to post-secondary education, the main area of Commonwealth responsibility.
In 1964, Donald Horne described Australia as ‘a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck’. This epigram could be applied, with equal or greater justice, to the Howard government and its term in office, particularly as regards economic policy. Sooner or later, however, this kind of luck will run out.
Update Lots of useful comments already! I’m grateful for substantive, stylistic and typographical corrections and suggestions. As well, the comments thread has some good discussion of things like measures of unemployment. I’m very encouraged by this and will probably post more.