Change For The Good (16/07/2010)

Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner argues the case for Federal Labor's reform credentials.lindsay-tanner300w.jpg


REFORM is a strange word. Everyone's in favour of it, except when it's being done to them.

Ever since the Great Reform Act, which extended voting rights beyond a small elite, passed in Britain in 1832, reform has been associated with progress. Anything that can be labelled reform is by definition portrayed as a good thing.

In practice, your reform is my outrageous attack on basic rights and vice versa. The former prime minister, John Howard, portrayed WorkChoices as reform. I saw it as a deliberate attempt to turn the clock back to a less enlightened era.

Reformers are rarely popular while they are reforming. Years later, they sometimes get the accolades they deserve retrospectively.

It has been rather amusing to watch the gradual change in attitudes in recent years towards the Bob Hawke-Paul Keating reforms of the 1980s. Ten or 15 years ago, no one wanted to own them. Now they're seen as part of a golden age of good government.

Retiring is an effective method of boosting your political popularity. I have been amazed to discover that the Liberals regard Senator John Faulkner and myself as the government's best ministers.

I can't work out why they kept this a secret until after we had both announced we are retiring.

In 20 years, no doubt, the Liberal opposition will be telling Labor economic ministers that they are not a patch on those great heroes Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, who saved Australia during the global financial crisis.

The Rudd-Gillard government has often been accused of lacking the nerve to undertake serious reform. In my view, the record tells a different story.

While one or two of our more high-profile efforts have encountered difficulties, the truth is this government has undertaken an enormous range of reform endeavours. There is hardly a minister who hasn't driven at least one serious reform agenda. There are some who have pursued several major reforms.

Some of these reforms have involved upsetting important vested interests. Some have involved significant risk. Some have merely been good public policy in practice.

Here's a sample of the government's reform efforts in the past 2½ years:

  • Implementing the long-delayed switchover to digital television.
  • Introducing national quality standards and staff ratio requirements in childcare.
  • Gradually increasing the aged pension eligibility age to 67.
  • Reforming the eligibility for the youth allowance so many more students from lower-income backgrounds qualify and the loopholes benefiting wealthy families are closed.
  • Eliminating entrenched discrimination against same-sex couples across federal legislation in taxation, social security, immigration and other areas.
  • Restructuring eligibility for the research and development tax concession to drive more new research and improve access for smaller companies.
  • Reforming drought assistance to emphasise investment in preparing for drought rather than welfare payments discriminating against the most diligent and efficient farmers.

That's just a sample of reforms that have been implemented or commenced. There are many more happening, and there are more to come. There is little doubt, for instance, that the Cooper review will lead to a serious overhaul of Australia's superannuation sector.

Reform is often challenging. Those who feel they are adversely affected complain vociferously. Those who benefit are often unaware they are doing so. The benefits can be distributed thinly across most of the population. No government can tackle everything. Even the Hawke government, for instance, baulked at reforming the regulatory regime protecting pharmacies.

You probably find many of the reforms I have mentioned less than exciting. Most of them do not arouse great ideological passions in the community. Yet they are all important, and they all contribute to the never-ending process of delivering better quality, more efficient government.

This government is doing a lot of reform work. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Lindsay Tanner is the federal Finance Minister and MP for Melbourne. This opinion piece was originally published in Fairfax's National Times.