CONDOLENCE MOTION – ROBERT JAMES LEE HAWKE
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 3 JULY 2019
He drinks like a fish, swears like a trooper, works like a demon, performs like a playboy, talks like a truckie—and acts like a politician. Almost your cliche Aussie. Except in this case it's Bob Hawke, and the only typical thing about him is the way he's larger than average in almost everything. Bob Hawke is your typical Australian, oversize.
If you want to understand Australia's 23rd Prime Minister, you can do no better than to read Craig McGregor's 1977 profile. It's a time when Bob Hawke isn't Prime Minister, he's not even in parliament—he's running the ACTU—but it's an extraordinary insight into the man.
Craig McGregor follows Hawke for a few days, and in part of it he tells the story of Bob popping into a bar in Melbourne for a quick five-minute chat. Two hours and half-a-dozen drinks later, Hawke starts to leave.
As McGregor recounts:
… he is the focus of a great deal of affection right across the spectrum: men, women, workers, sportsmen, businessmen. It buoys him up, even exhilarates him, but he remains easygoing, serious, arguing or defending himself when necessary.
McGregor tells the tale of Ron Barassi and Hawke running into one another in Melbourne and how:
… an elegantly dressed woman in huge, fashionable sunglasses … throws her arms around Hawke's neck and gives him a warm, sensuous kiss.
… "There's some bloody hope for Australia when women prefer politicians to footballers!"
And McGregor concludes with a description of a Hawke press conference. He says:
… a press conference by Hawke isn't just a conference, it's a media extravaganza, a glamourfest, a promotional wonder like those MGM spectaculars of old, in which Hawke plays King to his adoring court, fences and jibes with his carping Lords, puts down the media Fool, works himself into a lather of anger at The Enemy Outside, and finally sends his audience home, as after an Aristotelian tragedy, exhausted, admiring, and experiencing the exquisite pleasure of catharsis.
In his 3,207 days as Prime Minister, Bob Hawke oversaw the Accord, ACT self-government, saving the Franklin, banning uranium mining in Jabiluka, handing back Uluru to its traditional owners, establishing APEC, an economic summit, floating the dollar. And there were many reforms that were not supported by the other side of the House: the Sex Discrimination Act, Medicare, capital gains taxation, fringe benefits taxation and asset-testing the pension. But the one reform I want to focus on today was his opening up of the Australian economy by bringing down the tariff walls.
When I was at university I wrote, in 1994, an honour's thesis on trade liberalisation and the Australian Labor Party. I was puzzled as to why Australia brought down our tariff walls not because other countries were going to do it as part of a deal, but unilaterally. And why in other countries it had been conservatives that brought down the tariff walls, whereas in Australia it was a party of the Left.
In 1994, 25 years ago, Bob Hawke was good enough to sit down with me for an interview. He told me that his commitment to tariff cuts went right back to when he was studying economics at the University of Western Australia in 1951-52. He said, 'I was intellectually a free trader from my earliest thinking days.' I asked him about the extraordinary moment in 1973 when Whitlam cut tariffs by 25 per cent without consulting Hawke, and Hawke, as the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, put out a statement which cautiously defended it. He told me his philosophical belief in the need to reduce industry protection meant that he agreed with the principle of the decision. It is hard for me to think of a trade union leader in the modern era who would have such a response to a unilateral tariff cut which he got no warning about beforehand.
He not only was ahead of his time but was also a markedly different trade union leader in his approach to modernising the Australian economy. In late 1983, he was talking about the importance of reducing tariff rates for the sake of Australian industry. He argued protection had 'dulled the entrepreneurial spirit and reduced the competitive pressures for high performances by a number of Australian manufacturers'. His government was to go on and cut tariffs in 1988 and again in 1991. He said that in his view the most central reason for wanting to cut tariffs was that Australia was at our best when we engaged with the world. He told me:
'I'm basically an internationalist. As I said in the very first days of becoming Prime Minister, Australia's future involves becoming more enmeshed with Asia. You can't pursue that policy of enmeshment behind high tariff walls.'
As his former speechwriter Stephen Mills said, 'In Hawke's mind, resurgent protectionism, if not adequately restrained, threatened the very peace and security of the world.'
Australia is better off because of so many achievements of the Hawke government, but in his leadership in trade liberalisation he modernised the Labor Party as much as in any other issue. It brought a greater dose of competition to the economy, and it reminded us that to be a social democrat, to be a progressive, to be a member of the Labor Party, is to be an internationalist—to believe that Australia is at our best when we choose openness.
Bob Hawke was a great leader and a great internationalist. He changed Australia and Labor for the better. May he rest in peace.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.