Issue 7, May 2008 | David Ritter

Beyond the Wasted Decade

On 24 November 2007, Australia brought the Prime Ministership of John Howard to an abrupt end.  Exactly why the Coalition lost the Federal Election despite a period of sustained economic wellbeing will be a subject of enduring debate.  However, deliberating the reasons for the result and assessing the quality of the government that has gone are quite different matters.  There should be no doubt: the Howard Government was vicious, complacent, smug, and in many respects, simply incompetent.  On their lack of merits, the Coalition richly deserved the loss they were handed.  They enjoyed the good fortune of being able to slackly ride a boom enabled by the reforms of Hawke and Keating and the world historical phenomenon of Chinese industrial expansion, but after eleven years, profound economic luck was not enough to hide the manifest manifold dismal failings of the Howard Government.

As John Langmore's recent To Firmer Ground: Restoring Hope in Australia1 makes clear, in so many respects the Howard Government simply failed the nation it was elected to govern.  The litany of debacles of the wasted decade of the Howard administration makes for grim reading: ruinously bad foreign policy, contempt for international systems, pitiful lack of investment in infrastructure, chronic under-funding of education, undermining of the conventions of Westminster government, the collapse of accountability in key defence procurements, denial then failure on climate change and the anti-worker viciousness of WorkChoices: and that is without even delving in to what are seen as the softer issues of refugees, multiculturalism and Indigenous affairs.  It was an era of the emaciation of collective good as a matter of Commonwealth governmental policy.   

Waking in fright, we can now shudder at the passage of what Robert Manne dubbed "the barren years"2; a crucial decade that went uncultivated, squandered by a selfish and hubristic Prime Minister and a bullying braggart of a Treasurer.  In spitting sweetness, they went out together, Howard having ruined the Prime Ministerial aspirations of Costello.  The former treasurer will now forever stand remembered for a legacy that journalist Virginia Trioli described as not having "the bottle to take on John Howard."3  One suspects that "doing a Costello" is the eponymous phrase now burrowing down in to the Australian vernacular, applicable to any person who backs away from a challenge, particularly to achieve what they most desire.  After the downfall, Alexander Downer, returning to the familiar fumbling of words and intonations that caused him to be the shortest lived leader in the Federal history of the Liberal Party, unintentionally nailed it when he told  Kerry O'Brien on the 7:30 Report, that "Peter Costello is no Paul Keating."4  Indeed he isn't.  One waits with meager anticipation for Costello!  The Musical, to be staged as an amateur puppet show.  

Despite having done the inaugural "Costello" when he had his chance to make a run for the leadership and then lacking the inclination to stick around in adversity as leader of the opposition, the former treasurer was still full of the joys of himself when interviewed on Lateline shortly after the election:

[W]hen you have a change of government, by this stage shouldn't you have had the announcement shock horror, Budget secretly in deficit, books cooked?  You know what's amazed me? Just the quietness of this week. There's been no revelations about the Budget.   Here you have a group of people who have inherited a beautifully balanced Budget, no debt!  Let me tell you when I was elected, the Monday afterwards, what had supposedly been a Budget surplus was $10 billion in deficit and the thing that amazes me about Labor is you know, all the equanimity around the place.  No hidden skeletons, no hidden shocks.5

Indeed, it must be conceded that by many indicators, Howard and Costello did preside over an economy that was doing well.  Yet enjoying and causing prosperity should not be confused.  As securities analyst Stephen Koukoulas has written

While there is no doubt that Costello was Treasurer when some very good economic times were recorded, his legacy could be compared to a doctor who tells a patient they don't have cancer rather than the surgeon who performed the miraculous operations to cure another cancer patient.6

It is also important to conceptualize the overall economic performance of Howard and Costello in terms that go beyond narrow fiscal indicators.  As Costello boasted, it is true that no hidden budget deficit has been uncovered by Wayne Swan, but grave debts of another kind still fall due for the Howard Government's profligate mismanagement.  The concept of ecological debt was pioneered by British economist Andrew Simms7, who has argued that people in wealthy nations using up far more than their fair share of the global atmospheric carbon budget and by not paying for the consequences of global warming, were running up huge ecological debts to the poor, majority world.  The concept of ecological debt is fundamental in much of the work of the London based New Economics Foundation8 where Simms is policy Director. 

In December last year Clive Hamilton applied the concept of ecological debt in a powerful essay, entitled "We will all pay for Howard's hidden greenhouse debt."  Agreeing with Costello that after checking the nation's accounts, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan had indicated that there was no hidden debt, Hamilton then set out the grim arrears of climate change.

Over 11 years, the Howard Government allowed Australia's greenhouse gas emissions to grow so profligately that the task of cutting them back and meeting international expectations appears almost impossible.9

The figures are severe: as Langmore points out in his book, Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world, with the fastest growing emissions in the last decade of any OECD country.  In other words, Howard and Costello have indeed left the country in a debt-ridden mess, albeit that the currency is carbon emissions.  Given that climate change is the single greatest issue facing humanity, the failure of the Howard Government is of epic proportions and Costello's shrill glee in defeat could not be more misplaced.

During the wasted decade progressive political and intellectual energy in Australia has of necessity been directed towards struggling with the Howard juggernaut; contesting the advance of the dunes of arid politics, step by policy step.  Now that he's gone, priorities can shift.  Progressives of the left (but hopefully also, within the Liberal Party, wet liberals and conservationist conservatives) must now seize the agenda and embark on policies that reinstate fairness to the centre of the national narrative, insist on investment in the res publica and begin the urgent business of dealing with the climate debt.  Eyes turn to the Rudd ministry, faced with the solemn responsibility of redressing the decade of waste and neglect and most urgently, responding to global warming.  Inhaling the fresher air beyond the wasted decade, the renewal of the nation can begin, but there is a great deal of work to be done and time is short.

David Ritter is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

  1. Langmore, John, (2007) To firmer ground: restoring hope in Australia. UNSW Press.
  2. Manne, R. (2001) The Barren Years: John Howard and Australian Political Culture, Text Publishing, Melbourne.
  3. Virginia Trioli talks to the former Treasurer Peter Costello Lateline ABC, Broadcast: 30/11/2007
  4. "Downer in the hot seat". 7.30 Report ABC, Broadcast: 26/11/2007 Reporter: Kerry O'Brien.
  5. Virginia Trioli talks to the former Treasurer Peter Costello Lateline ABC, Broadcast: 30/11/2007
  6. Stephen Koukoulas "Do-nothing Costello's legacy" Crikey, Monday, 3 December 2007:
  7. Andrew Simms, (2005) Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations. Pluto Press
  9. Clive Hamilton, "We will all pay for Howard's hidden greenhouse debt", Crikey, Friday, 14 December 2007: