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Book extract: The Eighties – The Decade That Transformed Australia

Mutual admiration between big businessmen like Alan Bond (left) and the Labor Party was a double-edged sword for Bob Hawke in the 1980s. AAP/NAA

Book extract: The Eighties – The Decade That Transformed Australia

This is an edited extract from The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia by Frank Bongiorno, published by Black Inc.


In April 1986 Prime Minister Bob Hawke told a television interviewer:

The party is over. Finito … We are now in a crisis which is as great as the crisis of war.

A few months later a document drafted for the party’s campaign committee reported that the government had sometimes made it seem to traditional Labor supporters that it:

… gets a sadistic pleasure out of their hurt or we make it seem like the electorate is getting deserved punishment.

There was even worse news about the electors who would actually determine the government’s fate. The mood in the middle ground was “seething anger and resentment” at the government’s economic management.

Hawke’s problem lay in the perception that despite the rhetoric of sacrifice, a few Australians still seemed to be doing very nicely indeed. The 1980s is now recognised as the beginning of “the great divergence”. After several decades in which people had been growing more equal, Australia – like other Western capitalist states – entered a period in which inequality became more marked.

The poor often had more money to spend, but they were unable to share fully in the benefits of a growing economy. And middle-income families with children who were largely outside the social security system suffered a fall in the real value of their disposable incomes.

As the stockmarket boom peaked during 1987, the paradox that many Australians appeared not to have much benefited was becoming harder to ignore. Researchers found that Australians were remarkably tolerant of income inequality but that most people grossly underestimated the differences between the earnings of ordinary wage and salary-earners and the very well paid.

Those who were better informed about the obscene amounts that the super-rich actually earned could see danger brewing. Business journalist Robert Gottliebsen was excited about the booming sharemarket in 1987, but worried that:

… the great problem faced by entrepreneurs and senior executives as they become better rewarded is that the workforce will, understandably, want the same treatment. If that happens, inflation will once again go through the roof and our prosperity will end.

There was no shortage of businessmen prepared to sing the praises of the Hawke government, nor was Hawke himself coy about complimenting Australia’s leading businessmen as public benefactors of the highest order. At a business awards ceremony during the 1987 election campaign, Kerry Packer and Alan Bond both endorsed the Hawke government. Bond said that “the government should be applauded for allowing Australian business to succeed”, while Hawke described Packer as a “close personal friend”.

But mutual admiration of this kind was a double-edged sword, giving rise to increasing press coverage about Labor’s relationship to big business. Brian Toohey’s blistering “The Death of Labor” appeared in his new magazine, The Eye, in July 1987 because his previous employer, Fairfax, refused to publish it. Toohey explained:

Hawke and Keating do more than enjoy the company of the new tycoons, they share their values … The Labor Party is an irrelevancy – an embarrassment that can be explained away to the people who count; a vehicle to deliver votes from those who don’t.

It might have been the government’s sensitivity to this kind of criticism that helped produce the only real gaffe of the 1987 election campaign, when Hawke committed his government in his policy speech to the proposition – so obviously unattainable – that:

By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty.

The phrase apparently remained in the speech by accident. Hawke had intended to say that with the government’s new Family Allowance Supplement, there “would be no financial need for any child to live in poverty”.

Labor’s decision to hire for the campaign John Singleton Advertising was another indication of the party’s hard pragmatism. In the folk memory of the Labor Party, Singleton was recalled mainly for his involvement in the right-wing libertarian Workers’ Party in the mid-1970s and his role in running scurrilous anti-Labor advertisements in 1974.

Often described as an ocker, a larrikin and – rather like Hawke – everybody’s mate, Singleton was widely admired for having the common touch. His firm came up with a catchy jingle for the campaign – “Together: Let’s Stick Together, Let’s See It Through” – which enjoined Australians to “keep on holding tight / To that great Australian dream” while reminding them that:

Nobody ever got anywhere / Changing horses in mid-stream.

Bob Hawke’s 1987 election campaign ad.

Singleton also produced “Whinging Wendy”, actually Wendy Wood, the wife of a friend and a woman who as “Beryl Timms” had sometimes featured on his radio program as a rough-as-guts proletarian everywoman. The ad was brilliant, featuring Wood looking into a camera from a suburban kitchen, speaking to John Howard in her own broad working-class accent. “Where is the money coming from?” she asked. What was Howard going to cut?

The ‘Whinging Wendy’ ad.

The Liberals, already wounded by the crazed attempt of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to become prime minister, committed a further error when Treasury detected an accounting error in their tax policy. In the end, there was a small swing in the overall vote to the Coalition but it was concentrated in safe Labor electorates. Meanwhile, the government’s success in some marginal seats held by the Coalition allowed it to increase its tally from 82 to 86.

Perhaps one-fifth of the electorate had switched sides since the 1984 election, but it is a measure of the confused character of the politics of the mid-1980s that the defectors from each side seemed to more or less cancel each other out.

All commentators could agree that Hawke was still a major asset. According to one estimate, he had swung 1.4% of the vote to Labor that would otherwise have gone elsewhere.

The 1987 election was the last one of the 1980s “boom”, such as it was. By the time Labor next faced the polls in 1990, the stockmarket had collapsed, the political agenda was being reshaped by environmental issues, and Australia was well on the road to yet another recession.

In the meantime, Australians grappled with the challenges of living in an era that brought together boom and crisis, nationalism and globalisation, confidence and anxiety, conservatism and exuberance, creativity and conformism.

No period since the 1920s had seen such a confusing melange. Pessimists thought that this historical comparison was all too apt, being haunted by the thought that 1987 might be another 1929.

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