More featuring John Hyde»

John Hyde, “Time for the Coalition to split,”
The Weekend Australian, September 3-4, 1988, p. 26.

The Opposition is in disarray. It is racked by passionate distrust — it is hard to find an Opposition member who is not angry with somebody. Even more fundamentally, it is racked by uncertainty about its role.

The extent of the anger and the uncertainty was driven home by Mr Bruce Lloyd’s extraordinary briefing of the rural press.

By way of background: the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, plans to desocialise the domestic wheat market.

The Minister’s intentions are opposed by the grower politicians, who control the Australian Wheat Board, and by growers who see the monopoly board extracting a higher price than a free market would from domestic consumers.

Mr Lloyd, the Opposition spokesman for primary industry, told the rural media of his preference for the statutory wheat board monopoly of wheat used for human consumption in Australia.

That alone was a breach of shadow Cabinet solidarity, but when Cabinets and shadow Cabinets leak like sieves it is not exceptional. The extraordinary feature of Mr Lloyd’s press release was that it told us how individual members of the shadow Cabinet line up.

The press release was revealing and disappointing. It seems that although a majority of the shadow Cabinet opposed the monopoly, it was supported by every National Party member, including Senator John Stone, if you please, and Mr Wal Fife of the Liberals.

Senator Stone is president of the H.R. Nicholls Society. The society, of which I am proud to be a member, is dedicated to encouraging support for a labour market in which trade unions do not have monopolists’ powers and in which the price of employment is no longer set centrally by the Arbitration Commission.

It opposes centralised wage fixing on two grounds. First, the practice is an affront to human rights preventing people from selling their skills and often causing them to be unemployed or employed in a manner they do not choose.

Second, like all monopolistic practices, it reduces average living standards, increases inflation and exacerbates the balance of payments problem.

Wheat farmers have their remuneration measured by the number of tonnes they grow rather than the hours they work, but I do not see that this minor difference in procedure should make their rights inferior to those of wage earners.

Why should a farmer, but not a farm worker, have the fruits of his labour confiscated at a price set by a committee, which met in Melbourne? Why is centralised wheat-pricing any more efficient than centralised labour-pricing?

I am willing to prepare a paper for the next Nicholls Society meeting arguing that the rights and efficiencies affected by the two markets are not significantly different.

The most important economic (as opposed to human rights) objections to centralised awards is that labour is “pooled”.

Carpenters are distinguished from boilermakers and pastry cooks etc but, within the skill categories, common minimum prices are required by law. The minimums are set so high that they become the paid prices for most people, while denying work to others.

The wheat board also distinguishes between broad categories — prime hard, Australian standard white etc — and it too sets common prices.

Since good wheat is pooled with bad, wheat growers have even less incentive than day workers to improve the quality of their product.

The situation would be inefficient enough if end users all wanted the same qualities; but one potential buyer wants carbohydrate energy, another wants protein, another baking strengths, yet another freedom from a particular weed or chemical, and so on. The waste inherent in pooling is appalling.

It is in the national interest to avoid all unnatural monopolies. The wheat industry is exceptional only in its ties with the National Party.

Ever since Senator Stone joined the National Party, I have expected him to have difficulty with his socialist colleagues when it came to rural marketing.

Indeed, I have often speculated in private and in public about how he would react when he could not win them over to free-enterprise principles.

No blame attaches to failure in that super-human task, but never have I thought that he would join them in the privacy of the shadow Cabinet.

Before 1983, the dries referred to that sort of behaviour as “doing a Malcolm”, but I expect the expression has fallen into disuse.

To return to the Coalition’s problems. It has neither core beliefs to which all give allegiance, nor an external enemy more frightening than they are to each other.

Sometimes it seems that all they have in common is that they are not members of the Labor Party. For the time being, the Opposition’s beliefs are too disparate for effective coalition.

The National Party has threatened to split the Coalition over the wheat marketing issue. It has already put it under great strain by breaking every rule in the book.

As soon as both parties can agree on a common and intellectually consistent philosophy, the National and the Liberals should combine for the reasons outlined in the Nationals’ excellent paper, The Future. However, in the meantime, the Coalition should split.

Our nation has serious economic problems. Mr Keating’s boast that he has brought home the bacon is dangerous nonsense — just how dangerous is shown by last week’s balance of payments figures.

There is no way out of the balance of payments bind that does not involve a sharp fall in living standards or a considerable rise in productivity. Therefore, we cannot afford an Opposition that opposes even the steps that Labor has taken to deregulate and privatise.

The wheat marketing issue is also symbolic.

If the National Party does not want a free wheat market, who will heed it when it calls for lower tariffs, labour market deregulation, lower government spending, or anything that requires someone else to sacrifice a practice that is harming the economy?

*****

John Hyde, “Rifts within Coalition mean it must divide in order to rule,” The Weekend Australian, September 10-11, 1988, p. 26.

Last week [above] I wrote that the Coalition had neither core beliefs nor a sufficiently frightening external enemy to hold it together: therefore it would be better to split. Let me explain.

On the whole, the Hawke governments have performed better than the Fraser administrations that preceded them but, nevertheless, it’s time.

The Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, and his Treasurer, Mr Keating, are not as good as the commodities boom makes them look.

Some policies, health care for example, are disasters of Whitlamesque proportions. The better government of the past five years is as attributable to a public that has woken up to the fact that the party is over, as it is to Mr Keating’s genius.

The Hawke Government is running down, its people are getting tired and like all political parties that have been in office too long, it is committed to policies it would not have chosen with hindsight.

Thus, it is time the alternative government got its act together. However, it seems it lost the script at the time of the last election.

The public knows divided parties cannot follow consistent strategies, and it is almost a political axiom that they do not get elected.

So why divide the Coalition? One reason is that division seems a better option than allowing the present Liberal Party divides to become a rift that cannot be healed.

The Liberals are themselves a coalition of differing interests and opinions that in other times tolerated each other with more good nature.

If something is not done to relieve the tension, the Liberals run the risk of splitting or dissipating their energies in internal quarrelling.

Another reason is that coalitions of people who do not agree on fundamentals are coalitions in name only.

Within the Opposition, economic rationalists sit with regulators and manipulators. Elitist utopians, who would mould public tastes and personal behaviour by using taxes to subsidise merit goods, sit with classical liberals.

In the past few weeks alone, the effort to find common beliefs has resulted in a divided Coalition on immigration and Aboriginal policies and wheat marketing.

The National Party exudes an aura of racial nationalism and economic socialism.

Most Liberals are uncomfortable with at least one of these images; many with both. Both images are perceived by Liberals to have infected Coalition policy.

Whether that perception is true or not, it has the making of an unholy row. On top of it all, few Liberals can forget the Joh-for-Canberra campaign cost them the Treasury benches.

In politics every politician wants office, but for most office is not an end in itself. Politicians have ambitions for themselves and their nation.

They will trade their ambitions to form the parties and coalitions that allow them to hold and use office.

None the less, each holds to some principles and ambitions without which he or she feels office would be pointless. Thus it is not possible to cobble together coalitions of people who share too few common goals.

What is more, the art of compromise requires a little sweetness and light. It is not helped by old, disappointed, bitter and vengeful rogue bulls who have lost the respect of the herd and who feel slighted because they are neglected.

At present, the joint party room must admit rather too many of these rogue bulls.

Until the Opposition really agrees on more than they do now, they have no option but to reduce the extent to which personal belief intrudes on team loyalty.

To reduce this intrusion, the Coalition will eventually divide along one of its many fault lines. It seems that the question is quickly becoming, which line?

To break the Coalition would be traumatic, but the resulting wounds will be healed, as they have been healed in the past. If the Liberal Party were to divide, the wounds would not heal for a long time.

The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, should take up the Nationals’ threat to split the Coalition over wheat marketing.

The Coalition should be divided while its members are still talking to each other. At the same time, he should conspicuously set in train the processes that will eventually lead to true amalgamation.

People in both parties must articulate core beliefs and establish them within their parties. They must decide what is really important and convince others of it.

The parties’ manifestos must be compatible, otherwise coalition is not possible. Concessions to the Liberal wets and to National traditionalists must be chosen carefully.

The economic rationalists must insist on microeconomic reform, including the markets for labour and rural produce, because the country needs it and because there is no room for much of a coalition to the Left of Labor.

But the Human Rights Commission and equal opportunities legislation, which are so dear to the wets, are not worth going to the barricades for.

The middle class rip-off must cease, so we can afford to be more generous to Aborigines and the poor.

By weeding out all the tax and other legislation that discriminate against the conventional family, the traditionalists might be appeased in a way that should appeal to true liberals.

Only when present tensions are reduced can a highway broad enough to accommodate both wets and dries, Nationals and Liberals, be built.

If the effort fails, then nothing worth saving will have been lost.