Reform isn’t bipartisan. One party advocates for it and then fights hard to keep it | Greg Jericho

The desire for reform is ever strong from all sides of the political spectrum, and invariably it involves people advocating for things they like and demanding others agree with them all in the name of bipartisanship or “working together”. In reality most reforms worth that name are rarely uncontroversial and almost never bipartisan.

It is not true that we have lost the spirit of reform over the past decade.

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Anyone who argues that politicians cannot enact reform in the current era due to increased partisanship, or the 24 hour news cycle, or social media, or any other malady they believe is holding the nation back, should remember that not long ago we had a government that lacked a majority in both houses and yet introduced a price on carbon.

That was an actual reform of the economy – it set it up for the next century as the world shifts away from fossil fuels use.

So reform can be done, but invariably such changes need to be in place for some time otherwise they are susceptible to removal.

It may seem the Abbott government rescinding the carbon price is a perfect example of how we are now unable to stomach reform, but in reality it was just another case of a conservative party doing its best to turn back the clock.

All those who look with longing to the 1980s and 1990s when they would have you believe a spirit of bipartisan was in full flower should remember that the Liberal party would have abolished the capital gains tax had it won either the 1987 or 1990 elections.

As it was, John Howard kept that desire buried in his heart and in 1999 changed the rules of indexation and introduced a 50% discount on capital gains tax that help set fire to the housing market and made negative gearing so lucrative.

At the 1984 election, Andrew Peacock proposed allowing people to “opt out” of Medicare and argued that “socialised medicine is not the way”. In 1987 Howard called Medicare “a complete disaster” and sought to replace it with a policy where people paid the first $250 of any medical and hospital bills in any one year.

Abbott was thus not an indicator that things have changed, rather he was just representing the standard operating procedure of the Liberal party. The shock with Abbott’s policy of rescinding the carbon price was not that he was seeking to undo a reform, but that he was rejecting scientific opinion as well.

But then it is easier to take such a retrograde step when your government contains people such as our new deputy prime minster, Michael McCormack, who in his maiden speech in 2010 argued that just because there might be a drought “does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly”.

The main problem with any reform is that if it is an actual policy which changes the economy or our society – such as the Family Law Act, the Native Title Act, Medicare, maternity leave, or any other number of measures – it will face supreme opposition and often needs a long period in place before opposition dies down.

And even then the opposition will never fully die.

Another problem is those arguing for things they call “reform” generally have a vested interest in such reforms.

The former secretary of the Treasury, Dr Ken Henry, may well have been a very capable public servant who offered great advice during the global financial crisis, but he is now the chair of NAB, so he is not exactly coming from a neutral position when giving a speech that argued for a shared purpose that includes a company tax cut – even if he did advocate for it in his tax review in 2010.

Henry talked of the need for businesses to “accept responsibility for the social and environmental outcomes of our activities”, and he boasted of how NAB has “backed the not-for-profit Good Shepherd Microfinance” and that it also has partnered with the CSIRO “to identify some of the ways we, as a nation, can respond to the challenges and opportunities facing us out to 2060”.

All good community stuff, but it is also worth noting that one of the ways NAB identified it could respond to challenges was to reduce its staff by 4,000 employees over the next three years while also announcing a $5.3bn profit.

Henry also called on governments to act with a “shared purpose”, arguing that “when business commits to improving community wellbeing, it creates room for government to pursue a higher ambition. We should want our political leaders to be motivated to ensure that all Australians have the opportunity to choose lives of real value, and that future generations have no lesser opportunity.”

That’s all lovely, but currently we have a government that has pursued a policy of attacking people on welfare for no social good, but because it plays well to their conservative base. This week it was revealed that a crackdown on Disability Support Pension “rorters” which has so far subjected 30,056 people to medical assessments, had led to just 135 people having their pensions cancelled – just 0.45%.

How’s that for pursuing a higher ambition?

It’s hard to argue for a higher ambition when what one party believes is higher, the other thinks is lower.

And do we want more agreement, or do we want just better advocacy for changes the public wishes, or perhaps needs?

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Henry argued that “the country needs a 10-year plan built on a unifying proposition”.

Really? Fine, get the Liberal party to agree we need a price on carbon and we’ll talk. We mostly have a unifying position on how we treat asylum seekers, has that worked well? How about we all be unified on the issue of public health care and education? Does anyone have a picture of what that would look like in any real sense other than vague motherhood statements?

We can argue forever on the need for reform, but it will be achieved as it always is – not through bipartisanship, but by one party advocating for it, generally off the back of grassroots support (especially in the case of social change), and then fighting hard to ensure it remains in place.

Greg Jericho is a Guardian Australia columnist