The Hawke Legacy: 30 years on

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March 5, 2013 by brettdgale

It’s a sad truth that by and large Australians have been ill served by their democratically elected leaders over the 112 years since Federation. You can count the number of great governments Australia has had on the fingers of the hand of a bad butcher.

Curtin’s government saved Australia in World War Two and deserves more than its fair share of cheers. Whitlam’s introduced a huge variety of important social reforms yet was fundamentally flawed. But, it was the Hawke government that truly transformed Australia and thus deserves the moniker – Australia’s Best.

And, as Australia’s modern politicians trip over themselves in banal theatrics in western Sydney it is more than timely to remember today’s 30th Anniversary of the election of the Hawke Government.

The Hawke and Keating years have been the subject of many fine books, from the sublime (Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart) to the self serving (The Hawke Memoirs); the hagiographic (Blanche D’alpuget’s Hawke The Prime Minister), to the hardened (Whatever It Takes by Graham Richardson); the retrospective (Susan Ryan) to the reactionary (Dean Jaensch); the economic (John Edwards) to the analytic (works by George Megalogenis and Paul Kelly).

Many of the key players of those years have written their memoirs; Peter Walsh, Gareth Evans, Graham Richardson, Neal Blewett, Barry Cohen, Susan Ryan, John Button and Barry Jones.

As Richardson said in his introduction, no one writes books about the Liberal Party (except perhaps these days Peter van Onselen and Gerard Henderson). But boy do they write them about the Labor party.

Thus there is a rich load of tomes on the Hawke years (which is also the title of a fine book by my friend Stephen Mills as it happens) much of which is worth mining for insights into how an effective and reformist Labor party can govern.

In the first flash of victory, as has now become standard in every election cycle, a plethora of journalists published a plethora of quickies, focussing on the campaign itself and the months leading up to it with the ascension of Hawke over Hayden. Paul Kelly’s The Hawke Ascendancy being the anomalous standout of the bunch – a fair and deeply thoughtful examination, long before he became merely a cipher for the Liberal party.

At the height of both the Government’s powers and popularity it was struck at via a number of critical tomes by left wingers suddenly realising that the socialist utopia they had envisaged on the coming to power of a Labor government after the dark years of Fraser were unlikely to come to pass under Hawke and Co. Books appeared with titles like The Hawke Keating Hijack and The Hawke Government and Labor Tradition (the thesis of the latter clearly being that Hawke and Keating had nothing in common with Labor tradition).

But perhaps those criticisms were not that unexpected. Despite having just turned 14 at the time I can remember with clarity the wave of euphoria that swept the nation, the wave of expectation and hope that greeted the election of the Hawke government and the end of Fraserism – indeed, the drought broke and the recession ended. But, as Barack Obama found two and a half decades later, the hopes and dreams of those idealists who paint their desires onto a larger than life politician will often be disappointed – so ‘twas with Bob Hawke. Wrongly as it happens. Hawke, Keating et al were more than willing to show that Whitlam’s warning that only the impotent were pure would not apply to them. It was a government of power that wasn’t afraid to use it. It was a government characterised by discipline, stability and, pragmatism. Yet who now would query either the cause, its execution or its results?

It was only with the end of Hawke/Keating and the election of Howard that a true retrospective of the years 1983 to 1996 was available. It was a retrospective that was overwhelmingly positive (and today is even lauded by that sometime unreliable narrator Tony Abbott). Thirty years on from its inception and 17 from its demise it is possible to place the Government in its proper historical context.

It is indisputable that without the economic reforms put in place by Hawke and Keating Australia would not be as well placed as it currently is. A country that had been one of the richest at the turn of last century and risked falling into the abyss by the late 70’s is once again the economic envy of the world – a journey superbly mapped by George Megalogenis in both The Longest Decade and The Australian Moment.

Yet those who merely concentrate on the economic triumphs completely miss the bigger picture of the genius of Hawke and Keating.

Hawke’s corporatist consensus style of Government allowed radical economic reforms to be enacted whilst at the same time employing the social safety net, enlarging the conception of Australia’s place in the world and expanding the horizons of environmental protection and education for all.

A new concept – the social wage was introduced. A concept lost in the Howard years of hand over fist tax cuts and the rise of consumer greed gone rampant. Under Hawke it meant a blunt restructuring of the economy could occur without precipitating a split in the labour movement. As Hawke himself has said, he believed that economic reform was not the enemy of social progress, but the necessary condition for it.

The Hawke approach, bringing Australians with you on the journey, is one that all subsequent Government’s should aspire to, but none have, mores’ the pity.

It was a visionary Government entering the land of the blind.

It was a government of giants in a country that for too long has been Lilliputian.

One must fear we will not soon see its’ like again.

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