Bob Hawke’s Australia

Michael Davie

When Bob Hawke romped home in the Australian federal election last March, becoming the first Labor Prime Minister since 1975, a colleague remarked drily that the election could have been won by a drover’s dog. Another colleague, Bill Hayden, said it could have been won by a cripple. Hayden, now Australia’s Foreign Minister, had reasons to be less than wholly delighted by Hawke’s triumph. Until the very day that the election was called, Hayden was the Labor leader. He was dumped after years of loyal service on the grounds that he was uninspiring whereas Hawke, although he had been an MP for only three years, was a born vote-getter. Hawke’s rise has been phenomenal. Before he became an MP, with his hooded eyes firmly fixed on the Prime Minister’s job, he had been president for a decade of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It was as if Len Murray had decided to have a go at politics and had suddenly been propelled into Downing Street.

Except that Hawke is no Len Murray. Mr Murray, for all his sound qualities, presents the air of a loser, a man who has suffered and expects things to get worse. Hawke, with his snappy suits and elaborate hair-do, his reputation as a conqueror of women and a hero of pub drinking sessions, looks a winner, and believes himself to be one. Having come off best, as a Union advocate, before many an Australian industrial tribunal, he had long been seen as a coming man. He freely confessed to everyone who interviewed him that he saw himself as a man of destiny. That had been his mother’s opinion ever since he was born, and he could see no reason to take a different view. As the boss of the ACTU, he was consistently successful. Some said his success was mainly built on an immaculate sense of timing, meaning that he intervened in industrial disputes only when he knew he could resolve them. But in any case he built up a nationwide popularity, as the opinion polls regularly showed, second to none.

He worked both sides of the street. He could drink with blue-collar workers in the ‘hotels’ – an hotel in Melbourne is named after him – and yet be entirely at home in the comfortable drawing-rooms of the middle class Labor intelligentsia, sipping, and commenting on, the Hunter Valley claret. Nor was he ill at ease with capitalists. He used to lunch once a month with Sir Roderick Carnegie, the head of the big mining firm CRA that is the Australian offshoot of the giant British conglomerate RTZ. Both men were at Oxford. Thus, as Roy Jenkins used to be the Conservative Party’s favourite Labour politician, so Hawke was the Australian Right’s favourite man of the Left – if he really was of the Left. His accession to power did not cause any capitalists to leap out of windows. The previous government, led by Malcom Fraser, had been showing distinct signs of loss of grip. Ability is not as common a trait as it might be in Australian politics, and kicking the other fellow’s head in for the sheer pleasure of it is the oldest of all Australian political principles. The Labor Party, historically, had been somewhat weighed down by head-kickers and time-servers. Hawke offered a new dawn to Labor voters, and seemed to offer a gleam of hope even in company boardrooms, who thought that at least he might be able to keep the more rumbustious unions in check, and soothe a troubled country.

And indeed Hawke’s election automatically healed one festering wound. It has long been one of the puzzles of Australian politics that the Labor Party has held power for such brief periods in the past 30 years. Australia looks, sounds and feels like natural Labor territory. The unions are strong. The vast bulk of the post-war migrants have been working-class. There is no local tradition, as there is in Britain, of the underdogs believing that the over-dogs are endowed by birth, wealth and education with a special talent for running the country. Yet before 1972 the conservatives – the Liberal-Country Party coalition – won 11 successive general elections.

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