By Steve Painter
The Hawke-Keating government was a product of the speculative boom of the '80s. With the boom over, most of the big borrowers bankrupt and Australia in the midst of its deepest recession since the 1930s, the government is in crisis, and the Hawke-Keating leadership contest reflects that crisis.
The underlying crisis is largely obscured by the media focus on a constant of ALP politics: the party as battleground for the personal ambitions of professional politicians. This time it's Keating vs Hawke, last time it was Hawke vs Hayden, and before that it was Hayden vs Whitlam. Such struggles are an inevitable outcome of the politicians' view that the party is little more than a vehicle for their ambitions.
Perhaps this time the arrogance of the contenders and the nakedness of their motives is a little more startling. Little could be more grotesque than the private November 1988 deal, witnessed by Bill Kelty and Sir Peter Abeles, that Hawke would step aside for Keating after the 1990 elections and in time for Keating to establish himself for the next elections.
Many have been stunned by the assumption of all four parties to the deal that not only the leadership of the ALP, but the prime ministership, is private property to be traded like any other commodity.
Then there's the spectacle of all involved lying repeatedly for several months. Hawke promised during the last elections that he would serve a full term when he had made a deal to step aside, and Richardson, Keating and others swore there was no challenge while they were busy organising it.
As in the early '80s struggle between Hayden and Hawke, few political issues of any importance are at stake in the present struggle. This is the Labor Party thrashing around, trying to evade the consequences of an eight-year ride to economic disaster. But Hawke and Keating were jointly responsible for the economic "rationalist" policies that allowed the speculation and borrowing of the '80s to run unchecked until they landed the country in recession.
Even the factional line-ups mean little. Some might take satisfaction from the fact that a Hawke victory would deal a thoroughly deserved blow to the arrogant machine men of the NSW right. It's true most of the parliamentary left is supporting Hawke.
But what sort of a left is it when the Australian can point out that its leading figure, Brian Howe, has won "almost universal admiration for his adherence to rational economics within Cabinet's expenditure review committee"? The Labor left is as responsible as the rest of the party for the present economic situation, and for the political disaster facing Labor. Whatever small differences of political emphasis there may be, they're not consistently to the left or right. Some in the environmental movement might lean to Keating for the very good reason that he has publicly indicated scepticism about resource security legislation, though it must be added that doesn't necessarily mean he'd do anything to stop it once he feels some pressure from the mining and forestry industries.
For some time there have been signs that the ALP might be building up to some minor changes of direction, regardless of which professional politician leads it.
The right-wing NSW machine's populist campaign in the recent state elections, finance minister John Dawkins' calls for more government economic intervention, ALP president and SA Premier John Bannon's recent calls for Keynesian-style major infrastructure projects, all reflect a level of nervousness with the economic policies of the '80s. In his attempts to win support in the Labor caucus, one of Keating's promises has been a return to traditional Labor values.
The lessons of events across the Tasman would not have been lost on many in the Labor caucus. Few sights could be more calculated to chill a professional politician's heart than the New Zealand Labour Party's electoral devastation as a result of its economic rationalist policies.
For some time now, the NSW-based right machine has been showing uneasiness about some consequences of Labor's Liberal-type policies through the '80s. Graeme Richardson has commented several times on the desertion of the ALP's ranks, and has watched closely and tried to influence moves by greens and Democrats to fill some of the electoral space abandoned by Labor in its move rightward.
Labor will probably make adjustments towards a more populist course regardless of whether Hawke or Keating eventually wins the leadership struggle.
Despite the pious calls of the Hawke supporters for a single vote to settle the matter once and for all, it's almost certain the June 3 vote is only the first round of a protracted struggle. Why wouldn't Keating do what Hawke did to Hayden in the early '80s?
Hawke ran a sustained campaign to tip Hayden out of the leadership, to the point that at the July 1982 national conference Hayden made a speech complaining of "a deliberate campaign ... to destabilise the party", a campaign doing "serious damage to its morale and credibility". He then called a meeting to vote on the leadership, and Hawke lost after a week of intense lobbying.
But Hawke's campaign didn't end there. His machine kept working on the task of ousting Hayden, and it succeeded about six months later, in February 1983.
Given that history, how can Hawke reasonably expect any different treatment himself? The Keating supporters argue that Hawke is over 60, while Keating is in his 40s like Liberal leader John Hewson, and ke's political judgment is suspect, a point Hawke supporters must find it hard to dispute in view of his capacity for making a fool of himself in public and his friendships with now-failed business figures such as Abeles and Bond.
While Hawke stakes his case on his electoral popularity, a recent media poll in his own safe Labor electorate of Wills gives him only 31% support to the coalition's 30%.
Whatever the Keating supporters might say about Hawke, the treasurer doesn't come out much better himself on questions of personal and political judgment, and he's a long way behind in electoral popularity. If Hawke is not very popular, Keating is anathema to many voters because of his economic policies. Meanwhile, Keating has been involved in scandals over his travel allowance and forgetting to put in his tax return, and last year he used a VIP jet to take himself and 10 journalists to Melbourne to watch a football match.
Whatever the outcome of this fight of the egos, it will have little bearing on the political direction of the Labor Party. It certainly won't solve any of the big social, environmental and economic problems facing Australian society, and it probably won't save us from a Liberal government after the next elections.