The last days of Hawke's government?


By Tracy Sorensen

In her 1983 biography of Bob Hawke, Blanche d'Alpuget noted a word of warning Hawke had given Gough Whitlam during the famous "It's Time" campaign that swept Labor to government in 1972:

"Murdoch had barracked hard for Whitlam in 1972. During one of the campaign meetings Hawke had said to Whitlam, 'You're going to regret the day you got into bed with Rupert'."

He was right. The Murdoch press's falling out with Gough Whitlam's government became the stuff of which mini-series are made.

Now its Bob Hawke's time for regrets. Whitlam's early fling with the big end of town seems positively straight laced compared to the bacchanalia of Labor's 1980s intimacy with Alan, Laurie, Dallas and Yosse, to name just a few.

Since the WA Inc royal commission began its hearings on March 12, what is now euphemistically being referred to in the media as the "excesses of the '80s" — that is, indulgent governments' encouragement of a handful of entrepreneurs to make themselves ridiculously rich by buying and selling pieces of paper, spawning a new breed of pasta-eating, gym-going, super-consumers known as yuppies — has come back to haunt Bob Hawke and the Labor government.

Perhaps something had softened Hawke's celebrated Oxford-educated mind: all booms since the dawn of the industrial revolution have been followed by bust. He should have thought about that.

Now that WA Inc is up and running, there's no relying on short political memories. Labor has lost out on any hope of making a smooth transition from good times host to sober navigator of the stormy seas of recession. For a start, its media image has run right out of control.

End of the 'dream run'

Labor's "dream run" in the '80s drew heavily on millions spent on advertising jingles and public relations experts. It was an era in which the press, on fundamentals, was mostly uncritical — as witnessed by Hawke's outraged stalking out when asked a couple of curly questions by John Pilger in 1987.

Now, the images conjured up by the royal commission hearings — of secret fundraising lunches, of deals done and favours returned, of briefcases bulging with cash — are all wrong for a government telling the electorate of the "recession we had to have" and the virtues of patience.

For Hawke, who, unlike Keating, always appealed directly to "the community" through a largely amiable media, this period has been particularly difficult.

Hawke's "charisma" traditionally relied on an ability to project himself as an egalitarian figure who could straddle the worlds of the ruling class and the working class; who could "laugh like a boy" when given the keys to a rich man's Rolls Royce (d'Alpuget) and just and have a yarn with ordinary blokes. Hawke has traditionally presented himself as an embodiment of consensus, the heart of Labor's strategy for office.

The endless television file footage of him and former WA premier Brian Burke in the company of now discredited and, in some cases, criminal or fugitive, ex-tycoons is probably doing as much as the range of allegations to destroy once and for all Hawke's image as a "man of the people".

Whatever he says now seems to make the situation worse. Attempted explanations in parliament about the June '87 lunch in which he might have promised Laurie Connell a three-year moratorium on a gold tax in exchange for a $250,000 donation to the ALP only led to two humiliating apologies when it was pointed out he'd got the facts wrong.

The gaffes continued. At a centenary lunch for the Victorian branch of the ALP, Hawke began his speech with the words: "I know we've been in a trough ..." — an unfortunate choice of words for a politician denying allegations of financial impropriety.

The April 13 by-election in the WA seat of Geraldton, which had been held continuously by the ALP for 40 years, brought a 30% swing against the party.

Labor in WA does not face another election until 1993. Until then, the government will be a lame duck, relying on the good will of three independents — two of whom, Ian Alexander and Pam Buchanan, are resigned Labor MPs.

The situation is similarly shaky, for similar although not so dramatic reasons, in Victoria and South Australia. The Tasmanian Labor government is likely to fall over "resource security" legislation.

Recession, like a royal commission, can be difficult to transform into visual images. In the past weeks, the television stations have been getting out their still photographs of the 1930s depression. Chilling stuff for Labor pollsters.


On April 16 the Industrial Relations Commission, for the first time in the history of the Hawke government, thumbed its nose at the Accord between government, unions and employers. While an element of spite might be traced in the IRC's decision — the ACTU had blocked a proposal for a big pay rise for IRC judges — the decision could also be read as a sign that some major institutions see the writing on the wall for the Hawke project.

For Labor, the only bright spot in a bleak landscape was held to be Paul Keating's magnificent defence of Bob Hawke in parliament.

How did he demolish the opposition's case over the lunch affair? Not by clearing Labor's name, but by muddying the Liberals'.

Keating pointed out that the Liberals had also accepted big no-gold-tax donations from Laurie Connell. The Liberals, he said, were so keen to get Connell's support for the 1987 gn that they even dumped their pro-gold-tax leader, John Howard.

Was that about to make everyone happier about the workings of democracy in Australia? Was the electorate supposed to be pleased that both major parties were begging to sell themselves for a few bucks?

Despite Labor MPs' pleasure in Keating's performance, any idea that he might become Labor's saviour in the medium term is contradicted by the fact that he is not just a treasurer presiding over a plummeting economy but also a politician who has always been very unpopular in the polls.

In its 100th anniversary year, the Australian Labor Party's great decade, in which it was returned to office for historic third and fourth terms, and in which there are still Labor governments in all states but one, is finally over.

Failure from success

The very success of the Hawke-Keating project, in which whatever democracy existed in the party was smashed, in which the Left was routed and in which the relative influence of the trade unions in the party was diminished, has seen to that.

If Labor does manage somehow to ride this one out and win the next federal elections, it will be as a party quite different from the one which was elected in 1983.

The April 2 Bulletin quotes Dr Andrew Parkin, senior lecturer in politics at Flinders University, who points out that changes in the ALP have produced a "fairly modern, sophisticated and autonomous party elite".

"Labor is much more autonomous from the rank and file of the party, much more flexible, more managerial, more right wing as a whole. But the pay-off has been success and electoral professionalism. They have won elections they should not have won."

The Bulletin story appeared just before WA Inc started heading for Canberra. Since WA Inc, all those innocuous terms take on new meaning.

For example, the evidence pointing to Burke's hiring a private detective to spy on Liberal politicians, hints of documents conveniently gone missing and a secret Leader's Account give an interesting dimension to "autonomy." Autonomy for the WA Labor government meant that public information and government accountability simply didn't exist. Those in power did what they liked, for as long as they got away with it.

Using taxpayers' money, the WA ALP followed the logic of its trajectory right to the end, becoming itself a player on the bull stock market along with its mates Connell, Bond, Dempster and Goldberg. The government went down when other players did, although it was able to stave off total collapse by more injections of public money.

The structural changes which had to take place within the ALP before this level of "autonomy" could be exercised are outlined in awke-Keating Hijack (Allen and Unwin, 1989). According to Jaensch, this process of transformation began with Whitlam and was carefully honed by the 1970s NSW Wran government before becoming normal for the party as a whole.

Of central importance was a new way of looking at the party's platform. The platform has traditionally been modified and amended in a process in which motions are moved at local branches, passed through progressively higher tiers and finally fed into biennial national conferences.

"Since 1967", writes Jaensch, "there has been an increasing seepage of authority to Cabinet, which under Hawke has become a flood. The platform is still regarded as the party's prime document, but the Cabinet has considered itself less and less bound by it. Under Hawke, this has been pushed to a new level, with the government not only failing to put the platform into practice, but actually legislating in ways which are antagonistic to it ...

"In such decisions as that to sell uranium to France, the Hawke government has denied the platform."

By the 1988 Hobart party conference, holds Jaensch, "the process of transfer of authority to the parliamentary wing was completed". He quotes a Queensland delegate: "The normal methods that we use to develop our politics in this party have been reversed ... Rules and traditions provided that the party, through the conference, should determine objectives and that Labor politicians should implement them — not the other way around."

The ALP Left

As this process continued, the Left was repeatedly routed. The last big fight was in 1984, when the plank advocating the phasing out of uranium mining was overturned and replaced by the three mines policy. For thousands, it was the last straw, and they left, ignoring plaintive cries from those remaining to "stay and fight".

A pathetic echo remains: the Left recently threatened a big fight in favour of the three mines policy, which Hawke wants overturned to allow more mining. But the Left is no longer capable of big fights.

Figures such as ministers Nick Bolkus and Gerry Hand now carry the banner of the Left in the party. Their recently declared support for Bob Hawke over Paul Keating in any leadership contest is comment enough on the once-powerful faction's current state.

Meanwhile, the success of the Hawke-Keating push to ensure that the party was less financially beholden to the union movement is obvious from the size of the donations from big business. Union donations to the party as a proportion of total funding can only have declined through the '80s.

At the same time, the Accord, which forbids industrial action in return for a promised "social wage" (a nebulous thing no longer mentioned; workers are now told to shut up and put up in exchange for nothing more concrete than the general good of the economy, just as they were under Liberal Malcolm Fraser) has caused a historic decline in union membership and participation.

Eighties Labor's systematic destruction of its power bases in the rank and file and the trade union movement might have given it autonomy, flexibility and a media-encouraged electoral attractiveness. But it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Regardless of how much longer Hawke manages to survive in office, for supporters of progressive causes this is already a lame duck — even a dead duck — government. n