A larrikin who made a great PM

17 May 2019

Professor John Hewson reflects on the incredible legacy of Bob Hawke and his own inadvertent role in the downfall of Labor's longest-serving PM.

Bob was the highly intelligent larrikin who made Prime Minister.

He brought our country out of the recession of the early 80s united by his Accord, and then led a genuine reform agenda through to the early 90s.

He redefined Labor, and to some extent our nation.

He was certainly the best Labor leader since WWII, and arguably our best Prime Minister since then.

He understood people and had a fine sense of our national interest.

He was a Great Australian.

Probably the first time I ever heard of Bob Hawke was from a comment by my father, in the 60s. Dad didn't talk much at home about politics, indeed not about anything much at all.

But, on one of my evenings spent in our small tight garage, while my Dad washed his car, which he did almost every day, he mentioned that I should watch that smart, young, union bloke, Hawke - apparently, a Rhodes Scholar to boot. Even though Dad would have had no idea what would have made a Rhodes Scholar, given his qualifications and employ as a fitter and turner.

I only came to recognise Bob's political significance in the early- to mid-70s. He first loomed large on my radar when I was working for the RBA, having returned from the IMF and graduate studies in the US. This was the time of a "We Was Robbed" lunchtime rally in the Sydney Domain during the election campaign of '75 that followed Whitlam's dismissal. Bob could certainly work a crowd, even though that message then was doomed to fail.

When I joined Treasurer Lynch's staff in '76, I soon recognised Hawke as a significant, formidable, and increasing political force to be reckoned with: through his role as ACTU President, and especially with the National Wage Cases, on his entrance to Parliament in 1980, and as a mounting threat to, and inevitable replacement for Bill Hayden as Opposition Leader.

I vividly remember the day, when Bob assumed the leadership of the Opposition.   It was a day that defined Bob's fate, assured his place in our history, and ended the Fraser Government.

Malcolm had been advised, indeed I believe that there had been a Cabinet determination, that if the ALP ditched Hayden for Hawke, Malcolm should delay the election for about a year.

It was expected that by then the world economy would have pulled out of the early 80s recession, which would have seen us in recovery with about a six month lag. Plus, it would have given Malcolm and his Ministers a year to "destroy" Hawke in the Parliament, where it was widely expected that he would have been a "hopeless performer".  

Malcolm thought he knew better. "I can beat Hawke," he said.  It was a fateful call.

Hawke essentially won in '83 on his popularity, and that it was time to give someone else a go. The electorate had tired of Fraser, who had fallen well short of its expectations. Hawke went on to win, and again, beating Peacock twice (in '84 and '90) and Howard once in '87.

But, Bob's legacy is not just these electoral wins, and the tag as Labor's longest serving Prime Minister. It's the way he ran government, provided national leadership, and for what he achieved in policy terms.

In personal terms, Bob wore his private life on his sleeve - all the ups and downs, the excessive drinking, women, marriage pressures and the breakdown, kids, their drugs, whatever. In a sense, we all lived the highs and lows with Bob. His larrikinism dominated all of this, as too the America's Cup win. People related to Bob, and he understood, and related to, them.

I must admit my embarrassment in the role I apparently played in his downfall. I am told, and it is today widely acknowledged, that it was Bob's inability to respond effectively to my Fightback package that provided Keating with the issue to replace him as Prime Minister.

What can I say? Keating did, and I lost. Keating told me in post-election reflection in '93, "I needed to understand that to him politics was just a game, and that he would say or do whatever he had to win".  And he did.

But, history should never let itself be rewritten. We may not learn from history, but we should never let it be rewritten. Bob Hawke's achievements should be recognised and recorded.

I recall the enormous momentum that the Fraser government had built, on the back of the Report of the Campbell Committee, to deliver financial sector reform. The snowball had been set rolling by Fraser, but Hawke's contribution was to deliver it - bank deregulation, licensing foreign banks, and floating our dollar (Bob told me, personally, soon after the decision, that he had had to drag Keating to that one). It shouldn't be forgotten how significant these achievements were, given that the ALP still had "bank nationalisation" in its official policy platform when it won the 1983 election.

Bob's contributions spread across most areas of economic and social policy. Again, although it had been the Fraser Government's agenda to spread financial sector reform to the goods market and to infrastructure, Hawke did it, and pretty much without the accusation that he had sold out to the Liberals.

He started the process to reduce tariffs, the inevitable move to enterprise wage bargaining, to reform of the tax system, and to start to privatise government assets (such as the Commonwealth Bank and CSL for example), as well as to initiate the drive to what was called "micro-economic, structural reform".  Moreover, he initiated APEC, introduced a Family Assistance Scheme, along with pension reform, and many other important changes.

In our latter years, post politics, Bob and I did a number of significant business functions together across our country. He was always paid more than me, as it should have been. His usual joust was, in saying how much he admired me, that he could "never forgive me for giving our nation John Howard".

"If only," he said, "I had put the GST in the bottom draw, to pull it out after the election". As Bob said, repeatedly, I would have saved the nation from Howard!

Of course, he was right, in the sense that yes, I would have defeated Keating. But, in my political naivety, I believed that politicians should "tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". And, so much to my disadvantage, I still do!

Please remember Bob, for what he was, for what he achieved, and for what he tried to do in our national interest. He contributed much, more than most - he was a Great Australian.

Professor John Hewson was leader of the Liberal Party from 1990 to 1994. He is Chair of the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.