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Reith’s departure is cause for concern

(AFR 3 July 2001)

Far from being a free-market ideologue, Peter Reith was a prudent conservative who’ll be missed, argues Des Moore

That Defence Minister Peter Reith won’t stand for re-election is a loss not only for the Coalition but for the country. Australia can ill-afford to lose experienced politicians of such quality, particularly those prepared to advocate and promote the hard economic reforms that most regard as in the national interest.

Mr Reith has been no ordinary advocate either. While some have resented his often forceful presentations, they usually reflected the comprehensive briefs he had prepared and his confidence in their basic theses. All too frequently our politicians have neglected to prepare themselves adequately when canvassing reforms. That Reith did his homework can be seen from the few policy questions asked of him in Parliament by the Opposition.

Those who have mistaken his firm advocacy for an unbending attitude have also overlooked his capacity for patience and compromise. This was well demonstrated by his long drawn-out negotiations with then Democrats leader, Cheryl Kernot, over the Workplace Relations Act 1996; and by his relentless but well-formulated pursuit of further labour market reforms after 1996.

It was not Reith’s fault that the reforms allowed by the act fell well short of what is needed. There can be no doubt that they have improved the flexibility of employer-employee relations and led to more productivity-enhancing bargaining at the individual and enterprise levels. The limitations placed on the Australian Industrial Relations Commission’s wage setting role was a significant step forward.

He has also displayed both the courage and the capacity to tackle the hard issues that inevitably arise when reforms require the breaking down of existing monopolies. Nowhere was this clearer than during the waterfront dispute, during which he received minimal support from either the judicial or police services despite the obvious criminal activity in the picket lines.

The latest productivity figures of over 25 crane lifts per hour across every major Australian port (a national first) provide clear evidence of his and Chris Corrigan’s success in achieving what union officials described at the time as unachievable. The sour union welcoming of the Reith announcement tells its own story too.

It would be a mistake to see Reith as an ideologue with a fundamentalist, even free market, agenda. His approach has come more from the conservative side but one prepared to support and promote change where the case could be established. He has been a pragmatic politician, moving when he perceived it was the right thing to do in the national interest, even where it could offend vested interests.

Reith probably first came to attention as a serious contributor to policy issues during the 1988 referendum when then Attorney General Lionel Bowen proposed four constitutional changes that included a mini bill of rights. As shadow attorney, Reith revealed the weaknesses in all of them and the referendum was lost by a record majority.

But his most important contribution may have been to the formulation and enunciation of Fightback! prior to the 1993 election when he was shadow treasurer to John Hewson. Reith played no small part in the development of a reform package that was probably the most comprehensive and detailed set of policies ever produced by an Opposition. Little wonder that a pamphlet containing the main principles still hangs in his office.

Although industrial relations reform was described as the centrepiece of the Coalition’s economic policies, Fightback! included major changes in taxation, budgetary, monetary and structural policies. Its development provided the intellectual and political basis that the Opposition had lacked during most of the 1980s and it recognized the need for Australia to respond more quickly to mounting international competitive challenges.

Once the Coalition was elected in 1996, Reith continued to make a major intellectual contribution to government policy beyond his own key portfolio of workplace relations. His 1997 small business package on trade practices matters and his (leaked) 1998 letter to the Prime Minister on employment policy were two such examples.

Although there is a complex set of reasons for his departure, it undoubtedly sends a signal to the Government. Reith would be the last to claim academic prowess, but the move by the Coalition to the political centre diminishes the prospect for those prepared seriously to pursue the reform task.

Some would argue that, unless the Coalition more clearly differentiates itself from Labor, it will be extremely difficult to obtain a third term. Peter Reith’s decision will make the task of differentiation even harder. On both scores his imminent departure is a worry for Australia, too.