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.

Various explanations were offered for Labor’s exclusion from power, many of them strikingly similar to those now being offered in Britain for the enfeeblement of the British Labour Party. Working-class appearances were, it was pointed out, deceptive. Continuous post-war prosperity, high wages and exceptionally low unemployment had turned Australia into a working-class paradise, with the workers enjoying conditions of life in the suburbs of Sydney or Brisbane – owning cars, houses, consumer durables and boats – that would have been inconceivable to their opposite numbers in Glasgow or Manchester. In Australia, as in Britain, the Labor Party failed to adjust itself to what was becoming a predominantly suburban society, whose citizens, whatever else they wanted, did not want change, and were little interested in ideology.

But there was also a justified belief on the left that Labor’s ineffectiveness was partly caused by ineffective leaders. Where was the Labor equivalent of Sir Robert Menzies – a man of great physical presence and even greater political cunning? The answer, when it finally came, was Gough Whitlam. He was a man of commanding height, a middle-class barrister like Menzies, a skilled debater, supremely self-confident, a platform speaker who could rouse even an Australian audience. He became Labor leader in 1967 and Prime Minister in 1972. Here, at last, was the larger-than-life figure who could give the Australian Labor Party the image of sophistication and respectability that the electorate seemed to want, and turn the ALP into the natural party of government. Whitlam promised even more. Menzies had been besotted, in the eyes of his critics, by the British connection, by his grand friends in London, by his easy relations with royalty. Whitlam could change all that, and would free Australia to recognise that its future lay in Asia, not in maintaining the rusty old links with an island on the other side of the globe.

These expectations were not, initially, disappointed. In less than a month Whitlam established diplomatic relations with China, brought back Australian troops from Vietnam, broke off relations with Taiwan and, to rid Australia of the racist stigma that was obstructing its approaches to the South Pacific and South-East Asia, put an embargo on exports to Rhodesia and banned sports teams from South Africa. As for Britain, he soon showed what he thought of the old ties by turning down the chance of belonging to the Privy Council and by stopping, so far as he could, the award of British honours to Australian citizens.

It is important to remember the electrifying effect of Whitlam’s early frenzy in order to understand what is happening now. Twenty stifling years had come to an end. The exhilaration was felt in Britain. Australians who had felt themselves to be in exile here, such as Richard Neville, the editor of Oz, hurried home to help with the crusade. Germaine Greer briefly ceased to knock her own country. Almost anything seemed possible.

In three years, the dream collapsed, in circumstances that had a lasting effect. On 11 November 1975 the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Whitlam as Prime Minister, dissolved both houses of parliament, and installed the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser, as head of a caretaker government pending immediate elections. It was the gravest crisis in Australian history. Hawke warned trade-unionists against turning to violence. At the subsequent election Labor suffered its worst defeat since 1931: conservatives were yet again back in office.

The Governor-General had been forced to sack Whitlam because, Sir John argued, the Senate was refusing to vote money bills and the business of government could not otherwise have carried on. Whitlam said that in fact the crisis was being resolved by normal financial and political methods. He had, he claimed, been brought down by a conspiracy between the leader of the conservative forces in Australia, Malcolm Fraser, and a ‘deceitful and dishonourable’ governor-general. ‘Maintain your rage,’ Whitlam told a large and angry crowd outside Parliament House in Canberra immediately after he was sacked. And they did. Or at least the intellectuals did. Whitlam declared himself henceforth committed to a republic. So did Australia’s most celebrated historian, Manning Clark, and its most celebrated writer, Patrick White. A new bitterness, of the kind that divided Britain over Suez and the United States over Vietnam, now split Australia. That Whitlam had greatly contributed to his own destruction by his indifference to economic reality – the oil price rise came soon after his election – and by his arrogance, was almost forgotten.

The events of 1975 convinced many Australians that the actual system of government – as enshrined in the written constitution and manipulated by a ruthless establishment which had over the sacking of Whitlam included the Chief Justice of Australia – was rigged in favour of the haves and the political party that represented their interests. The beneficiary of 11 November was not a conciliatory man. Fraser, too, was a kicker of heads, and in this respect, if in few others, he could not be accused of partisanship. He kicked his colleagues’ heads as hard as he kicked his opponents’. Many of them turned against him. So did the economic statistics. Perhaps it is true that, by last March, an increasingly isolated and floundering Fraser could have been beaten by a drover’s dog. Even the suburbs turned against him. Bob Hawke, indeed, is much nearer the average suburban Australian than is the patrician grazier Malcolm Fraser.

But if Hawke, a conciliator who ran his presidential-style campaign on the theme of bringing Australia together, is not Fraser, nor is he Whitlam risen again. He kept Whitlam in the background of his campaign, and since he took office has appointed him ambassador to Unesco. There is an irony here. After Sir John Kerr had ceased, prematurely, to be governor-general, he was appointed to that very same post, amid much merriment and scorn, for the job had been revived for Sir John’s particular benefit. Among the most scornful critics of Sir John at that time was Whitlam. Five years later, he occupies the post himself, also as a retirement benefit from a federal government. Whitlam may not see the irony. Hawke, one may be sure, does.

Hawke not only tempted Whitlam to leave the country, but behaved in his first six months in exactly the opposite way from Whitlam. Whitlam did everything. Hawke did nothing – or, at least, nothing to disturb any anxious conservatives. As soon as he reached the Prime Minister’s house in Canberra, even before he installed a billiard table, he announced that he had had a look at the books and had been deeply shocked by the position they disclosed. His Government, accordingly, would not be able to fulfil a number of expansive promises made during the election campaign. Hawke also kept on, as the senior Treasury official, John Stone, a constant target of Labor during the Fraser years. Stone (another Oxford graduate) would feel at home in Nigel Lawson’s Treasury. He has a powerful intellect, a sharp tongue, and does not believe in governments spending more than their income. He was held responsible for much of the stinginess of the Fraser Government. Yet he has stayed, and Hawke has even defended him for his wisdom and impartiality, which is like St Peter saying he had been misinformed about Beelzebub.

Then there was the republican issue. The one Australian political issue since the election of Hawke that has been brought with any force to the attention of the British was that his triumph coincided with the visit to Australia of Prince Charles, his wife and his baby. What, asked the British press, would Hawke do? Was he not a proclaimed republican? Well, he did not bow, though his wife curtseyed. Further than that he declined to go. One day, he said, Australia would become a republic, and no doubt it will, but it is improbable in the extreme that Hawke will have anything to do with such an event. The difficulties of changing the Australian constitution are formidable. Besides, though many Australians may scorn the monarchy, or, like many non-British migrants, regard it with bewilderment, many more do not – even some non-British migrants do not. On his June visit to London, Hawke had his picture taken, with an eye on Australia, with Rod Marsh, the Australian wicket-keeper – and with the Queen, Prince Charles and the Queen Mother.

On the same trip he embraced President Reagan and spoke approvingly of Reagan’s Latin American policies. More recently, Hawke’s Government brought in a Budget that could well have been brought in by Fraser if he had been confined to bed by a mild attack of compassion. Hawke was trying – successfully, as it seems at the moment – to retain the confidence of the business community in order to keep interest rates down. About the same time he shot himself in the foot, metaphorically, by becoming entangled in a complicated case involving the KGB and a former Labor Party official, but the judicial inquiry that has followed seems likely to exonerate the Prime Minister, if not the Australian Intelligence services.

A political tyro, Hawke has for six months been engaged in job training. He has come to office at a difficult time. The Australian economy, like others, has been depressed, a particularly unsettling state of affairs for Australians to live with after the exceptional prosperity they enjoyed for so long. True, this depression is nothing like as bad as that of 1929-32, with its dole queues, violence and thousands of hessian ‘humpies’ on the beaches of Sydney lived in by the desperate unemployed and their families. But the basic cause of the depression is the same. Australia still depends on what is either grown on top of the land or dug from underneath it: on wool, meat, wheat and minerals. Apart from the rotary clothes line and the circular-bladed mowing machines – both useful inventions – Australia has not been able to produce any manufactured object that excites the interest of outside buyers. Denis Lillee’s aluminium cricket bat was not a success. Even the wine has not found the market it deserves. Some of the fields in which Australia leads the world – invective, in vitro fertilisation, comfortable racetracks – are not easily exploited for foreign earnings. Australian films have acquired great prestige, but made little money. The country is too far away for mass tourism, though jet-lagged groups of Japanese or Americans occasionally pass through the capital cities on their way to the mysterious hump of Ayers Rock. Unable to produce much at a price the world will pay, Australia is ringed by a protectionist fence, which contrasts oddly with the anti-tariff speeches that her leaders habitually make when they go overseas.

More serious, though, than the state of the economy is the state of Australian morale. The Whitlam frenzy was inspired by the notion that Australia was different. It was not only the lucky country but could become still more lucky: it could be the home of a uniquely egalitarian, multiracial, contented society, with a useful international role to play as honest broker between rich countries and poor. These days Australia has fewer illusions. On 15 July 1977 Donald Mackay, the owner of a furniture store, walked out of a hotel bar in the New South Wales town of Griffith and simply disappeared. Next day, Mackay’s bloodstained mini-van was found in a hotel carpark. He had been crusading, almost alone, against drugs and knew that Griffith was the centre of a multi-million-dollar drug racket. A royal commission subsequently found that the Honoured Society, a Mafia-type or Mafia-related organisation, was active in Calabria in Southern Italy, and in Griffith. The Honoured Society had learned that Mackay was passing information to the New South Wales drug squad. His death was an execution. For the first time, Australia realised that big, vicious international crime had entered the country.

Since then, the evidence of corruption has grown. It involves drugs, laundered money, arms deals and murder. A royal commission set up to investigate the notorious Painters and Dockers union – the wharfies – found the union deeply involved in schemes of tax evasion, some on a very large scale. Tax evasion turns out to have been, as many suspected, endemic, not so much in business or politics – where in any case Australians expect to find a certain insouciance in sailing close to the legal wind – but among the professional classes, where they do not. A flurry of official inquiries has not yet uncovered the full range of the corruption, or the links between a series of scandals. True, Australia possesses a law-breaking tradition, and has made heroes of some lawbreakers. But Ned Kelly only robbed banks. He was not a hypocrite. He did not drive a Jaguar, mix with the best people, vote conservative and complain about the fecklessness of the unemployed. Equally, tradeunionists in Australia have been tough and sometimes violent. But a trade union has not hitherto been found, officially, to be connected with a string of murders.

So Hawke’s – and Australia’s – problems are not easy to solve, and will not be solved merely by the recovery of the world economy. The word ‘colonial’ quit the Australian vocabulary on the first day of 1901, with the swearing in of the first Australian government. But having ceased to be a British colony, Australia is still threatened with becoming either a Japanese colony, industrially, or an American colony, for reasons of defence. Even these large questions, though, are perhaps less important than the question of what sort of country Australians wish to inhabit and what sort of people they wish to be. To a greater extent than in older societies, the possibilities are still open. Hawke, of course, cannot alone decide these matters, but he might imaginably have the stature to compel his fellow-citizens to begin to ask the pertinent questions. ‘She’ll be right’ and ‘No worries’ are two favourite Australian expressions. These days, they sound inadequate.