1Q: Does the country really change when the government changes?

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An inter-blog discussion group has been set-up of which I am thrilled to be a part of. The first question for the group comes from Tim Dunlop:

Q: Tim Dunlop – My first question is picking up on something said by both John Howard and Paul Keating, namely, that when the government changes, so does the country. Both made the comment at a time when it looked to them like they might be about to lose power and so there was, of course, a sense of warning in their observation. So that’s my question: Does the country really change when the government changes?

A: If “It’s Time,” does that mean there’s change?

The first thing that popped into my mind when thinking about this was Al Gore on Saturday Night Live last year where he made a speech as if he had been declared the winner in 2000 and was the current President. (Here is that sketch). Suffice it to say, that anticipated lots of change. This was in contrast to The Economist newspaper that editorialised that had Al Gore been elected nothing really would have been different.

The second thing that I thought about was, of course, the issue of correlation versus causation (and I was not alone there). Does a new government cause change or has change occurred that causes the new government? In which case, the change we may or may not see may be occurring anyway and the change in government is just a reflection (or symptom) of it. Given that it may be impossible to tell.

If I look back to the last two major changes in government I remember — Fraser to Hawke (in 1983 when I was a teenager) and Keating to Howard (in 1996 when I was not) — there actually appear to have been changes; especially, economically. With Hawke came the floating of the Australian dollar, The Accord and a renewed openness to the rest of the world. With Howard, came drastic reductions in government spending on education and welfare, cutting in the public service, a dropping of any agenda on indigenous Australia, and a renewed and continual sense of international embarrassment over stances on immigration and the environment. And one gets the sense that part of these changes was, in fact, leadership driven rather than a ‘reflection of the times.’

The comments by Keating and Howard — of course, with political connotations as it is an incumbent’s interest to create fear of change — surely are not purely strategic and without their own belief in that. Would we really want leaders who did not believe that their actions were without consequence? I think the job selects for those who believe that their policies make a difference and if someone else had the job things would be different. And it is very hard to look at the last 7 years in the US and not believe that that is correct (the UK is another matter).

Inter-blog responses (updated as they come in):

  • tigtog at Hoyden About Town: who argues that governments can move ahead or behind the nation on change.
  • Harry Clarke argues that there isn’t much difference between the parties and we might get some swings and roundabouts on industrial relations reforms but no lasting change to nations from changes in governments.
  • Ken Parish thinks we overestimate what governments really do and conducts an audit to show that throughout areas of policy there is little that we can point to where the party and not the nation drove things.
  • Robert Merkel takes the view that the government does matter and had Labor been in power many things would have been different (especially, our reaction to global warming).
  • Andrew Bartlett in a thoughtful essay agrees with Merkel and myself (on the US) that governments do matter. Then again, one would hope that would be the case for a politician.
  • Kim at Larvatus Prodeo takes a personal view and sees much that hand of politicians past will continue to constrain the present and future.
  • Tim Dunlop writes that there is some truth to this but there is no need to fear displacing the incumbent.

One interesting thing: I wrote the least. Let me add some more having read others’ thoughts …

In summary, it is interesting. When it comes down to it, on fundamental policy, there is not a lot of evidence governments really matter very much. They may be faster or slower, more or less responsive but the general trends occur and the policies that makes sense usually get implemented. The threshold test of “changing the country” doesn’t seem to be met although having impact on peoples’ lives is another matter.

But on the softer-side, the government does matter. We concentrated on the national level but having grown up in Queensland one cannot help but think about the years of Bjelke-Peterson and not think that that mattered. Although even there I recall those in other states thinking that it was Queenslanders who were strange and not necessarily their government. Hard for me to tell; it was so long ago.

Governments play a role in setting national identity to the outside world. Just look at Lange in New Zealand or Sharon in Israel. For good or bad, they carry the national image overseas. The issue is how much that feeds back into real attitudes of the citizens.

9 Responses to "1Q: Does the country really change when the government changes?"
  1. “drastic reductions in government spending on education and welfare”

    This raises another interesting question – do the things people believe the government did though it did not change the country? Total spending on welfare never went down, and has increased significantly in real per capita terms over the life of the Howard government. Education spending did dip in one year (as increased HECS replaced government spending) but then resumed its rise.

    Yet arguably many people’s perceptions of Australia did change as the result of these things that did not happen, though they believe that they did.

  2. It’s quite clear from this week;’s Age front pages that the Howard gov’t’s policy re the Aboriginal population is: 1 film star + 1 dance troupe per decade. The rest is “Let them eat yellowcake.”

  3. Joshua – I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but even on the GDP measure (not a great one, because there is no inherent link between many spending items on GDP growth) this has been a big spending government.

    If we take 1995-96 as the benchmark, in only 2 of the Howard years has spending on social security and welfare services been less as a percentage of GDP than it was when they took over; a pathetic result in my view as in 1995 we still had a very large number of unemployed.

    For school education there were 3 years below the benchmark, the last of which was 1999-2000.

    The only significant saving has been on interest payments, though increasing HECS had brought some lasting savings (though a lot of that has now been blown on the Higher Education Endowment Fund).

  4. Joshua

    On ” …a renewed and continual sense of international embarrassment over stances on immigration …”

    The rather odd thing about the current Federal government is that its rhetoric and actions on immigration haven’t always been in line. While the government has at various times presented itself as ‘anti immigrant’ the statistics tend to suggest otherwise. From the ABS:

    “In 2005-06 Australia’s population increased by 134,600 persons due to net overseas migration (NOM). This represented 51% of total population growth for the year.
    Over the past two decades the percentage contribution of NOM to Australia’s population growth has fluctuated from a low of 17% in 1992-93 to a high of 56% in 1987-88 and 1988-89.”

    In absolute terms rather than percentages the ABS notes:

    “In 2005-06 NOM was 134,600 persons, an increase of 8.7% from the previous year (123,800 persons). Over the twenty years to 2005-06 NOM was highest in 1988-89 (157,400 persons) and lowest in 1992-93 (30,000 persons)”

    So the current government (coupled with good economic times that encourage immigration) appears to be rather pro-migration.

    With this in mind, the “international embarrassment” may reflect domestic politics. No ’embarrassment’ and no real (in)action – just pandering to certain parts of the electorate.

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