View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Labor wonders where the glory days went

Current leadership speculation is reminiscent of the final year of the Hawke government. AAP/Dave Hunt

Thirty years ago today, Bob Hawke’s government was elected. The former ACTU leader went on to become one of modern Australia’s best prime ministers. “Hawkie” won three more elections before Paul Keating ousted him in a caucus ballot.

A demoralised Labor party looks back nostalgically. How did that government do so well, while this one is mired with its wheels spinning?

Bob Hogg, initially Hawke’s senior political adviser and later ALP national secretary, says Hawke had “most of the features of a good leader”. He won the trust of his colleagues early on; he took wide counsel from them, and the government had a strategy for reshaping the economy. “The underlying issue is one of trust”, Hogg says. “Without that you get away with nothing.” Pressed for a comparison with the Gillard government, he says, “Let the readers draw their own conclusions”.

Hawke was always the people’s choice; Australians idealised him and identified vicariously with his larrikin reputation. Less remembered is that some senior Labor MPs were sceptical before he became leader, fearing he was a lightweight. Given Australian voters had for years wanted him as their PM, they didn’t much care that he pushed Bill Hayden aside. It’s been a very different story for Julia Gillard, partly though not entirely explained by the fact she shoved out a first term PM, while Hawke replaced an opposition leader who’d had his go at one election.

Hawke hated it when, on taking over, he was asked how he felt to have blood on his hands. It had, in the end, been a consensual handover. But anyway, those hands were cleansed by an immediate decisive election win. The tied 2010 election meant that Gillard has never managed to put behind her the manner of her ascension.

Both the Hawke government and contemporary Labor (most notably in its Rudd years) faced big pressures from abroad. The Hawke administration had little choice but to force open the Australian economy, which meant sometimes flying in the face of Labor’s platform, at other times strong-arming the party into changing it. Before Hawke was elected it would have seemed inconceivable that Labor would float the dollar, commence deregulating the labour market, slash tariffs, and embark on privatisation.

Hawke’s inclusiveness, and his government’s (especially Paul Keating’s) close working relationship with a forward-looking union leadership enabled this extensive reform, especially impressive in hindsight. Bill Kelty, the then-ACTU secretary who collaborated closed with Keating under the Accord between government and unions, says Hawke and Keating understood that “you’ve got to create wealth before you can distribute it. They changed the view of the unions, [saying] don’t talk about class, talk about the economy … let’s be productive”. This compact in turn delivered social wage benefits to workers.

The glitches and troubles tend to be forgotten in the glow of the backward glance. A robust caucus could be bolshie; strong factions were both blessing and curse. The great campaigner flopped in the 1984 election, losing seats.

This government has its Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper scandals; the Hawke one was not flawless. One minister, Mick Young, had to quit – though he soon returned - for leaking that a Soviet diplomat was about to be expelled. But the scandals were not as debilitating and. most important, were dealt with decisively. Taxation was testing then as now. The mining and carbon taxes dog this government. Hawke and Keating reformed taxation but failed to achieve Keating’s ambition to bring in a broad-based consumption tax.

The media scrutiny of the 1980s and early ‘90s was intense, but it was more manageable than today’s 24 hour cycle. There was greater in-depth analysis of policy. Paul Keating took his white board seriously, and insisted journalists did too.

The Conversation

Paul Strangio, associate professor of politics at Monash University, who researches political leadership, believes the long term political cycle worked in favour of the Hawke government. The post war reconstruction period, which lasted through the Menzies era, disintegrated in the 1970s; by the Hawke years there was a new cycle of market based reform, which John Howard then consolidated. “However there is a real sense of the Rudd and Gillard governments coming into office when that project had already reached its maturation and exhausted its policy utility. I think we’re now in something of a policy regime interregnum, when no one quite knows where we’re heading. This helps explain the Rudd and Gillard governments’ difficulties in weaving a story around a coherent policy framework”, he says.

“Paradoxically, their problems have been also exacerbated by the legacy of the Hawke-Keating era. The accommodation with the market left social democratic parties like Labor in a philosophical vacuum”. Strangio argues.

An alternative view is that the Hawke-Keating government – operating in the Thatcher-Reagan era – in its accommodation with the market was able to show how to deliver a social democratic outcome (including national health and superannuation schemes).

As we watch the leadership convulsions over coming weeks, recall the final year of Hawke. In mid- 1991 Keating quit as treasurer to make an unsuccessful run at the leadership. He had been pushing for the job since the late 1980s. By the end of 1991, just before he was defeated by Keating, Hawke had a Newspoll dissatisfaction rating of 64 per cent. Gillard’s current dissatisfaction rating is 52 per cent. The ALP primary vote was 36 per cent (32 per cent now).

By then Hawke had had nearly nine years. He was chiselled out of a job he loved but he had written himself positively into history. He, with Keating, had spotted the key issues, won the big battles, landed much policy and tallied more victories than losses.