Bob Hawke: policy legacies

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday June 14, 2019

So long, Prime Minister, and thanks. Bob Hawke, 1929-2019.

Australians will have the chance to honour former prime minister Bob Hawke at a state memorial service at the Sydney Opera House today.

In celebration of his life, we have compiled a number of articles contemplating his time as Australia’s leader, courtesy of our friends at Griffith University.


Tom Conley

“I know that we have had to take hard and unpopular decisions for difficult times. I know – I understand completely – that those decisions have been tough for many decent, hard working Australians. But I also know that I would not be fit to lead our great country if I had chosen the easy, popular way at the cost of the nation’s future. And anyone – however glib or smooth – who tells the people of Australia that the future lies at the end of an easy road is not fit to be Prime Minister.”

Bob Hawke. 8 March, 1990

The situation facing the incoming Hawke Labor Government in 1983 was bleak.

Despite the best efforts of the Fraser government, inflation remained a fundamental economic problem, unemployment was nudging 10% and the current account deficit had blown out to 5.5%. The Hawke government faced both a cyclical and structural crisis: recession and a growing perception that Australia had a third world economic structure underpinning first world living standards.

The Hawke government not only engineered a political and economic transformation, but also changed Australians’ perceptions of their place in the world. The Whitlam and Fraser governments began the process of change, but it took a former trade union leader – Hawke – and a high school dropout – Keating – to transform Australia from a protected, insular country to an outwardly focused, globalised one.

One of the Hawke government’s first major policy decisions – the decision to float the dollar and abandon exchange controls – was also probably its most important. Financial liberalisation exposed the Australian political economy to the market disciplines of international finance, providing a useful rhetorical device to persuade Australians about the urgency of change.  The float of the dollar allowed Australia to adjust flexibly to seismic events elsewhere.

Another significant change was in the area of industry and trade policy. Protectionism was an “article of faith” in the Australian economic ethos. Whitlam began the move to lower tariffs, but Fraser returned to the protectionist faith when dealing with the growing economic malaise from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s. Hawke and his government increasingly asserted that protectionism was preventing necessary adjustment to global changes and exacerbating Australia’s vulnerabilities. The Hawke government’s policy response was to cut tariffs significantly in 1988 and 1991, with the latter cuts occurring during the severe recession of the early-1990s. It is these decisions that put the nail in the coffin of the old insular Australia, delivering a final knockout blow to not only protectionism, but trade union ideas about strategic interventionism.

Hawke argued, “We have rejected the views of the so-called ‘new protectionists’ because they are simply proposing, in effect, the same discredited policies that had isolated our national economy from the rest of the world and caused the great damage we are all working to repair”.

Hawke aimed to liberalise the Australian economy across the board, with his beloved industrial relations one of the major targets of liberal reform. That Hawke managed to convince the trade union movement to support liberal reforms through the Accord process is testament to his powers as an advocate.

Australia is a profoundly more open economy and Australians better understand the economic opportunities to our near north because of Bob Hawke and his government.

Subsequent governments have augmented and reshaped the reforms of the Hawke government, but it is possible that Bob Hawke’s lifelong contention that the ultimate aim of economic reform – to improve the lives of working people – has gone missing in recent years. While liberal reforms have had many benefits, there have been many costs, with increasing household indebtedness and stagnating wages, particularly worrying today.


Robyn Hollander

In 1990 Bob Hawke boldly committed a ‘New Federalism’.

While he was not the first (or last) to do so, his version was shaped by his characteristic consensus building approach and in marked contrast to that of his predecessor, Malcolm Fraser, whose New Federalism sought to devolve power. While Hawke was not adverse to expanding Commonwealth powers to overrule the states, he also saw that winning their cooperation would prove more productive over the longer term.

One of his first actions after winning the 1983 election was to overrule the Tasmanian government’s intention to dam the Franklin River. This intervention established that the commonwealth had an important and ongoing role in environmental protection. Despite the political fracas surrounding the Franklin River, Hawke did not enjoy being confrontational and preferred to work with the Premiers in a ‘closer partnership’.

Thus followed a series of Special Premiers’ Conferences in the early 1990s, where Commonwealth, State and Territory leaders agreed to four principles: nationhood, subsidiarity, structural efficiency and accountability. Working together, they addressed key issues including the establishment of a national electricity grid; a uniform road transport regime for heavy vehicles; a National Rail Corporation; national food standards; and uniform building regulations.

They began negotiations for the National Competition Policy, a complex package of microeconomic reforms, and committed to using Ecologically Sustainable Development as the overarching principle that would inform their policy making going forward. This more ‘collaborative’ style of federalism was in marked difference from the arm’s length adversarial interaction which had characterised commonwealth-state relations since Federation.

Prime Minister Hawke left a long term legacy in the form of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), established under Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating.  

While COAG’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the past 25 years it has remained an important institution for engagement between commonwealth, state and territory leaders and a testimony to Hawke’s collaborative approach to leadership.


Liz Van Acker

Regarded as a notorious adulterer, a larrikin and a man’s man, Bob Hawke might not come to mind as an advocate for feminism, either practically or intellectually. However, he recognised the need for political equality and economic justice and supported equal pay for women.

In 1983, he appointed Susan Ryan to the portfolio of Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, and selected Ann Summers to run the Office of the Status of Women in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The following year, the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed sex discrimination and protected women from sexual harassment in the workplace. The Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 has its legacy from the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. Employers had to report on the numbers of women they employed, their seniority and their pay.

The government increased spending on childcare so that access to childcare expanded quickly.

These achievements challenged the notion that a woman’s place was in the home.

Despite resistance from those who did not understand the need to address “women’s interests”, or thought that reforms would destroy the traditional family, these policies provided women with opportunities in the labour force.

There was hostility from within the Cabinet, the Opposition, the bureaucracy and wider society, however Hawke supported the proposals which guaranteed their implementation. Reforms to pensions and dependent spouse tax rebates provided more financial support for women as did child maintenance payments from fathers who did not live with their children. Women in the arts and in sport gained new acknowledgement and funding opportunities.

One of the less praiseworthy aspects of the four terms of the Hawke government (1983 to 1991) was that only four women became Cabinet ministers in contrast to more than 40 men. This raises questions about women’s representation in politics and the need for quotas – problems which are still relevant today.


Giorel Curran

In a recent article commemorating Bob Hawke’s prime ministership, Bob Brown – past leader of the Australian Greens – described him as ‘our environmental prime minister’. This is quite an accolade coming from such a long standing environmental warrior. Brown likely attributed this accolade both on substance and on style.

Hawke’s environmental achievements were substantive. His prime ministership led with an environmental motif when he swept into power in 1983 in part on the back of promises to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. This issue had migrated to the mainland and signalled the centrality of environmental concerns for growing numbers of electors.

Several years later, he went on to establish an important Australian marker in the global sustainable development discourse by establishing Australia’s own version of it: ecologically sustainable development (ESD).  

Institutionally he elevated the environment department from the stalls to a central cabinet position; undertook considerable renovation of the institutional culture to embed environmental considerations within it; and, importantly, signalled that environmental concerns were worthy of political leadership at the very top including Hawke himself and his appointment of a senior party strategist and key Cabinet actor to the environment portfolio.

Other accomplishments of the Hawke era were significant. These included the protection and heritage listing of some iconic natural assets such as the Daintree rain forests in northern Queensland and Kakadu national park in the Northern Territory, the expansion of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the establishment of the highly successful Landcare program.

Hawke’s style was equally renowned.

He expanded his widely noted consensual style to include environmental actors during an era widely recognised as the most inclusive for them. Key environmental actors at the time acknowledged the inclusivity and respect with which Hawke considered their views. The ESD process was also renowned for its collaborative efforts across a wide range of industrial, political, scientific and environmental groups.

But he was also a pragmatist – a pragmatism well exemplified by the appointment of Graham Richardson as his environment minister. Both Hawke and Richardson recognised the electoral repercussions of the emergent environmentalist era, an awareness that underpinned their environmental policy platform and successful electoral strategies.

Few have taken the environmental leadership reins in quite the same manner than Prime Minister Bob Hawke did several decades ago. The post-Hawke decades have been marked by significant to-ing and fro-ing on environmental issues, both by the different political parties in power, as well as by different Labor leaders.

While a key legacy of the Hawke era has been steady progress on the environment front, the post-Hawke environment agenda has noticeably lacked his era’s innovation, buoyancy and commitment.

Overall, he was sufficiently visionary to recognise that the environment was an important issue that could no longer be brushed aside, and sufficiently pragmatic to recognise that it needed to be managed very carefully politically.

Hawke as PM: a more nuanced assessment

John Wanna

Bob Hawke had many achievements during his time as Prime Minister. The government he led has an enviable record in public policy, especially in economic reform. He is Labor’s longest serving PM, and won four successive elections, a record only Howard (four) can match and Menzies (six) better.

He was also the very public and popular face of Labor who chaired a talented, high-performing cabinet, which introduced many economic and social reforms in a period of intense global restructuring. Like Menzies before him, Hawke effectively stole the policies of his opponents while taking the hard ideological edge off them. The one big exception was the introduction of Medicare. Hawke never lost an election as leader but was spectacularly pulled down by his own party in December 1991, after losing his mojo, and replaced by Paul Keating. His removal was in many ways a harbinger of subsequent removals of PMs, from Kevin Rudd down to Malcolm Turnbull.

Arguably, Hawke’s reputation as a great reformer rested more squarely on the shoulders of his lieutenants like Treasurer Paul Keating, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, and economic adviser Ross Garnaut, as well as some competent ministers such as Peter Walsh, John Dawkins and Neal Blewett.

Accordingly, we could ask whether Hawke really deserves his impressive reputation as a reformer. In reality, many with a close knowledge of the Hawke era consider his main leadership qualities  as delivered while chair of the board of a reforming Labor government. We should also reflect a bit more discerningly on his time in office, just short of nine years in total.

He came to the prime ministership after orchestrating a coup against the well-respected Bill Hayden, managing to defeat the Fraser government with more conciliatory language.

Hawke was generally a poor election campaigner and, after his sizeable defeat of the unpopular Fraser government, his lacklustre campaigning in the 1984 election was almost a disaster for Labor. Hawke called the election early, after the government had governed for just 21 months. He was convinced of his own impregnability, called a campaign lasting almost two months and was largely out-campaigned by Andrew Peacock on tax.

The 45-day campaign in 1987 was not much better. Labor largely won because of the impact of the ‘Joh for PM’ campaign run out of Queensland, and Hawke was often missing in action throughout the campaign. After 1983, Labor’s two-party preferred vote declined at every subsequent election, dropping from 53.2% to 49.9%. More worrying for the ALP was that its primary vote declined from 49.5% in 1983 to just 39.4% in 1990 – almost the same level of support as the party received in the wipe-out election of 1996.

On important decisions Hawke often became indecisive and dithered. Examples include his wavering over the mining of uranium, the debacle of the MX missiles dispute with his own cabinet, his deceitfulness over the indirect tax option ‘C’ which he had promised to back, and mismanaging the pilots’ strike of 1989 when pilots were trying to break out of the pay freeze as well vacillation over Ansett Airlines restructuring with Air NZ which heralded the company’s demise in 2001.

While the economic summit of 1983 was perceived as a success, there was not much of an agenda other than industrial reconciliation, and subsequent summits into tax and drugs were abject failures.

One of Hawke’s most respected ministers, Peter Walsh in Finance, famously termed the PM ‘Jellyback’ because he would not stand up for anything important. Other ministers were scathing of his lack of leadership in an ABC expose of Labor in Power shown after the 1993 election. Hawke had also signed the ‘Kirribilli Agreement’ in 1988 in which he promised to step down after the 1990 election, but then refused to so do.

At other times Hawke could be mercurial and off the cuff. Remember ‘no child shall live in poverty’ made off the cuff in the 1987 with no idea how to implement it, also the decision in 1991 for Australia to join the US in the first Gulf War on Iraq. He also indicated to his Industry minister John Button that Australia would not float the dollar, the very same day that he announced it in late 1983 (Button found out by hearing it on the car radio!).

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Hawke did not govern for his own constituency – the labour movement. Real wages fell under his government year on year, largely due to the various self-imposed income policies known as the Accords. Corporatism supposedly ruled, but while unions were not often at the table, Hawke managed to unify big business – which formed the Business Council of Australia. Union membership fell especially among manual workers, with union density falling from 50% in the early 1980s to mid-30%s by 1992 (and then continuing to fall to 15% today). Unemployment after declining throughout the 1980s, also rose dramatically after 1988 to close on 11%.

The Hawke government presided over the decline in manufacturing. The much-vaunted ‘Button car plan’ was nothing more than an expensive temporary fix, which did not achieve its objective – to keep car manufacturing here.

Hawke also championed privatisation of banks and airlines and other federal organisations against union wishes. But unions were more supportive of the ‘social wage’ which introduced various government payments to the lower paid households.

While Hawke was undeniably popular and well-liked, the so-called ‘love affair with the public’ (unless you were that ‘silly old bugger’ in Whyalla), he had many flaws both politically and personally.

Despite this, he is still regularly regarded by Australians as one of the better prime ministers. His legacy will undoubtedly rest on his government’s record of economic management, but perhaps some balancing of the ledger may more appropriate.

Hawke and Cabinet

Patrick Weller

Hawke’s cabinets were among the best run in the last 35 years.

In part that was fortuitous. When he was elected leader, he wanted an immediate impact.  The one policy document ready for release was the report of a taskforce, Labor and the Quality of Government, prepared primarily by Gareth Evans and Neal Blewett. Among other issues it described how a Labor cabinet would work. It proposed an inner cabinet and outer ministry, breaking the assumption of the Whitlam government that all ministers should be part of cabinet. It re-asserted that collective responsibility should apply within the party as well as in public.

These changes added discipline that was to be a hall mark of the early Hawke governments, in contrast to the experiences of its giddy predecessor. Every new minister was committed to the process. In the first five years that commitment meant the rules and procedures, requiring due process and proper negotiation, were almost self-enforcing. Ministers would ask if a new proposal had followed the rules, making the chairing of cabinet easier for a new prime minister.

Hawke was in any case an excellent chair.

His experience at the ACTU was as a negotiator, bringing different sides together to find some common solution. In cabinet he was prepared to give a largely talented group of ministers their head, entering the debate only where he was needed to find a compromise. He had a general desire to identify the points of difference. In a few areas, relating to the Summits, he had strong views and would give a lead; more often he was concerned that predictable processes allowed adequate negotiation and led to a sensible and practical conclusion.

At times he was prepared to work outside cabinet. The decision to float the dollar was a surprise even to some of his most senior ministers, but that was necessary.

More often, his unilateral decisions (on MX missiles, the Combe-Ivanov inquiry, convening the tax summit) were less successful and might have been moderated had they gone to cabinet for discussion. On balance his ministers were more impressed by his skills as chair of cabinet and head of government than they were by his political judgement.

The early Hawke cabinets were a constitutionalist’s dream: collective, consultative, united and well-led. Later when factions, ambitions and the inevitable tiredness brought dissension and rancour to the scene, that image was tarnished. By the end many of the senior ministers were backing Keating. Hawke had stayed too long.

That should not be allowed to detract from the skill with which he had led a cabinet of talents more successfully, more cohesively and for longer than any other Labor prime minster.

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