Bob Hawke: The PM who tamed the labour movement

May 24, 2019
Puppy Love by Paul Atroshenko. On the left is Peter Abeles and on the right is a sacked Ansett Pilot.

Bob Hawke, Australia’s longest-serving Labor prime minister, died at his home in Sydney on May 16, aged 89.

The same night, former Liberal PM Tony Abbott caused a stir when he released a statement on Twitter, describing Hawke as a “great prime minister”. After listing what be believed to be Hawke's key achievements — “financial deregulation, tariff cuts and the beginning of privatisation” of major national public assets — Abbott went on to claim they “went against the Labor grain”.

“You might almost say he had a Labor heart, but a Liberal head,” Abbott said.

On the last morning of campaigning before the disastrous May 18 election loss, then- Opposition Leader Bill Shorten refuted Abbott’s contention: “Bob Hawke had a Labor head and a Labor heart.”

The Accord

Maybe, in retrospect, they were both right. The era of the Hawke Labor government, 1983–1991, was the crucial period of the taming of the Labor Party and the labour movement, primarily through the introduction of the Prices and Incomes Accord.

The Accord supposedly traded “wage restraint” by the unions for price controls and raising the “social wage” — social welfare and provision of government services to working people. However, in practice, while wages were effectively held down, prices were never properly controlled and social wage improvements were limited.

In 13 Years of Hard Labor: Lessons of the Accord experience, Pat Brewer and Peter Boyle write: “Most importantly, the major role the union movement played in policing industrial peace and wage restraint under the Accord eroded traditions of militant and independent unionism, leaving the union movement widely discredited in the eyes of workers and in a poorer position to resist the capitalists' reactionary offensive.

“Today it is clear that the Accord was a disaster for the working class and paved the way for the reactionary Liberal-National government that replaced Labor in March 1996.”

The historic decline of the Australian trade union movement, which escalated sharply during the Hawke years, is indicated by the drop in union membership from 51% in 1981 to 40% in 1992. It further dropped to 25% by 2000.

By 1992, the number of work days lost to strikes had plummeted to its lowest level in 30 years. Since then, industrial action has declined to all-time lows, as union membership has sunk to 15% or less.

While the anti-union attacks of Coalition governments from 1996 onwards have played a major part in accelerating this decline, the rot had fully set in under the Hawke-Keating Labor governments.

Taming unions

It should not be forgotten that the attempt to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998 during the Patrick dispute, promoted by John Howard’s Coalition government, was prefigured by the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation by the Hawke Labor government in 1986, and the same government's use of the RAAF to break the anti-Accord pilots' strike in 1989.

Hawke had form on this. After becoming ACTU research officer in 1956, he showed such promise in settling industrial disputes he was elected president of the peak union body in 1969.

A prime example of his role in selling out militant unionists was the betrayal of the Victorian State Electricity Commission (SEC) workers in February 1972. The workers had struck for two weeks in support of their demands for no redundancies, four weeks’ annual leave and a shorter working week, in face of a state Coalition government threat of sackings and wage cuts.

I attended the February 15, 1972, mass meeting of 3000 angry power workers in Yallourn, at which Hawke and other union leaders urged them to return to work and accept arbitration of their dispute. In the end, they reluctantly voted to end their strike.

The SEC strike is “a test case — a test of the solidarity of the working class against the employers’ offensive,” I wrote in the March 1 issue of Direct Action newspaper. “The role of Hawke is in quite the opposite direction to this. He is directly selling out on this issue ...

“Hawke as a ‘left-winger’ is only a myth ... His attitude includes the idea of keeping things 'quiet' in order to elect a Labor government. This is a false perspective.

“Workers, of course, must work towards getting a Labor government into office, but a Labor government with Liberal policies which continues to run capitalist society in the interests of the bosses is no use to the workers.”

This was Bob Hawke’s strategy for most of his union career and it continued into his position as prime minister.

Hawke, using his full authority as the former president of the ACTU and then prime minister played a key role in orchestrating the shackling of the union movement to a strategy of class collaboration with the Australian corporate sector and the state. We are now living with the disastrous consequences of the decline in union power and militancy that exists today.

This is the primary legacy of Bob Hawke and his Labor government. Whatever else might be written and spoken about the “man of the Australian people”, the “silver bodgie”, he was the person who did more than anyone else to undermine the Australian labour movement’s tradition of industrial struggle and militancy.


In addition to this, Hawke played a crucial role in “modernisation” of the Australian capitalist economy: tariff cuts, deregulation of the banks, and most disastrously of all, the privatisation of key public assets. The privatisation of the government airline Qantas and, most significantly, the Commonwealth Bank (CBA), established the basis for the accelerated neoliberal offensive launched under Coalition governments after 1996.

Perhaps the most critical of these privatisations in the long term was that of the CBA, which contributed in a major way to the profiteering, rip-offs and corruption of the Big Four banks, as revealed in the recent royal commission. Moreover, a publicly-owned CBA today, placed under workers’ and community control, could play a leading part in reviving the public sector, which has been devastated under both Coalition and Labor governments over the past three decades.

Hawke claimed to be a champion for Aboriginal land rights and a treaty. However, he backed down under pressure from the right wing and the mining corporations.

He overturned the Gough Whitlam Labor government’s free university education policy, and introduced tertiary fees in the late 1980s.

Hawke also sent Australian troops to join the US invasion of Iraq during the First Gulf War in 1990. He remained a loyal supporter of the US-Australia Alliance and a close friend of Israel throughout his career.

Bob Hawke played a critical role, along with Paul Keating, in the launching of the international neoliberal offensive in Australia during the 1980s, which has now reached its peak under the current Coalition regime. But perhaps his most damaging legacy is the taming of the trade union movement, which has had long-term serious consequences right up to this day.

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