No need to magnify Labor's failings
They say history is written by the victors, and already the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government's many critics are busy reshaping our memory of the recent past. But, though Labor's performance was poor in many respects, they shouldn't lay it on too thick.
Those who claim Labor Party governance led to "chaos" should look up the meaning of the word, while those who repeat Tony Abbott's claim that this was "the worst government ever" are too young to remember the Whitlam era.
What is true is that Labor's latest incarnation was far inferior to the 13-year Hawke-Keating government. In just the term of the Howard government, Labor seemed to lose its race memory of how to govern.
Rather than blame all its troubles on the three years of Rudd-Gillard infighting, or keep telling itself its policies were good, Labor needs to reflect deeply on why its execution of policy fell so far short of the Hawke-Keating example.
A fair bit of the reason is its failure to unceasingly explain and justify its policies and instead rely on wet-behind-the-ears spin doctors and dodgy taxpayer-funded ad campaigns.
Rather than explain and justify, ministers preferred to criticise their opponents, forgetting the punters are never edified or impressed by arguing pollies and inadvertently giving the opposition greater credibility. Labor forfeited most of the advantages of incumbency.
One big difference was the way Bob Hawke and Paul Keating maintained the confidence of business. Part of the explanation was that when you reveal yourself to be a soft touch for rent seekers - as Rudd did almost from the start - you incite envy and disaffection, not respect.
Another part of it was Gillard's resorting to the rhetoric of class conflict, which did much more to disenchant business than to energise complacent workers. Hawke and Keating did a lot to redistribute income, but didn't make speeches about it.
The more Abbott and Joe Hockey are forced by economic reality to back-pedal on their promises to "end the waste" and "repay the debt", the more they'll cover their retreat by exaggerating Labor's budgetary failings.
So let's set the record straight from the start. It's unimpressive enough without any need for hyperbole.
The standard critique of Labor governments is that they're "big-spending, big-taxing". This time the latter accusation is false, but the former is all too true.
If you measure the burden of federal taxes as a percentage of gross domestic product - as you should - it reached an all-time high of 24.2 per cent in the mid-noughties and was 23.7 per cent in Howard's last year.
Under Labor, and with much help from the recession we supposedly didn't have, it fell to 20 per cent in 2010-11 and is expected to have recovered only to 22.2 per cent in Labor's last year.
How could this be when Labor introduced two "big new taxes" on carbon and mining? The trick was that most of the expected revenue from these taxes was returned to taxpayers on the form of income tax cuts, business tax breaks and other "tax expenditures". This is why Abbott's unwinding of both tax packages will do so little to cut taxes overall.
Turn to the spending side, however, and you find spending was 23.1 per cent of GDP in Howard's last year and is expected to reach 25.3 per cent in Labor's last year. That represents average real growth of 3.9 per cent a year.
Both those calculations effectively abstract from Labor's clearly labelled fiscal stimulus spending after the global financial crisis, because it really was temporary.
And that average real growth rate of 3.9 per cent occurred even though, in the last four of its six budgets, Labor professed to be more than achieving its goal of limiting real spending growth to 2 per cent on average over the forward estimates.
How was this trick done? All the restraint was in the "out years", never the present. To be fair, real annual spending growth averaged 3.7 per cent in the 10 Howard years before the financial crisis.
The big areas of growth under Labor were public housing, education and health, not counting the biggest, interest on the public debt.
Treasury projected in its pre-election economic and fiscal outlook that, left to its own devices, spending will grow at the real rate of 3.5 per cent a year in the coming decade, spurred by health, the national disability scheme and the Gonski education reforms.
Labor's problem was that its appetite for increased spending on worthy causes knew no bounds but it lacked the courage to ask the electorate to pay more to cover this expansion.
We'll see how much more courageous Abbott and Hockey prove to be.