“TWO DECADES ago on this day, Bob Hawke, Labor’s most successful prime minister, won office. In Victoria and South Australia, voters were mopping up after the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires that took 75 lives, recession and drought were the order of the day and a defeated Malcolm Fraser accepted the election outcome with tears in his eyes.

Unlike Gough Whitlam, however, Bob Hawke has not invoked the cult worship of Labor groupies, despite his evident success as a prime minister. Hawke’s management skills, his ability to tack and weave through a succession of crises, to compromise and adapt to the need for reform, along with the bitterness surrounding his demise as leader and defeat in the party room in December 1991 has left him lacking the martyrdom and heroic virtue Labor finds in the Whitlam legacy.

In many respects, Bob Hawke has been the most characteristically Australian of Australian prime ministers to date. His larrikin ways, his pragmatism, even those pre-prime ministerial years as womaniser and boozer, marked him out as the people’s PM.

For all of the success of his Governments’ economic reforms, the picture that stays with us of Bob Hawke is the TV footage of a red-eyed and ecstatically laughing Australian PM, after a sleepless night watching Australia win the America’s Cup in September 1983 the morning he told Australian employers to go easy on employees who didn’t turn up for work that day.

Hawke’s win in 1983 was to become more than a milestone for the party that had blown its reputation as a good economic manager, in particular with Whitlam but also following Ben Chifley’s attempt to nationalise the banks and airlines in the 1940s. In just under a decade, Hawke restored Labor’s reputation for competent stewardship in economic affairs.

Today it is impossible to review the past two decades without acknowledging that it was Labor, under Hawke and Paul Keating, that began the long process of much-needed financial and industrial reform. Under Hawke, Australia deregulated banking, floated the dollar and drove down protection. This might have been expected of the previous Coalition government under Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, but didn’t happen. And, while at first resisting the change, it was Hawke who took the first steps to privatisation of government-owned institutions.

Kim Beazley, recalling Hawke’s strengths, remembers him as a “terrific manager of Cabinet”. Another Cabinet colleague, Neal Blewett, in Australian Prime Ministers (edited by Michelle Grattan) describes Hawke as a master of process, who by July 1987 had restructured government so that only major issues would come before Cabinet. He delegated generously, leaving most governmental policy making to individual ministers. This left Hawke, together with a few of his hardheaded and most trusted officers, such as the Expenditure Review Committee, to drive the government.

One irony of the Hawke years is that its economic reform paved the way for industrial-relations reform while Keating was prime minister after 1991. In her autobiography, Hazel Hawke described Bob as having “revolutionised the wage-fixing processes in Australia” a reference to the years Hawke was ACTU president. But in spite of the Accord, developed by Hawke with the ACTU during his time as prime minister, it was this very wage-fixing process that the Hawke-Keating years would be forced to begin to unravel and deregulate, much to the horror of the left.

Hawke’s biographer, Stephen Mills, maintains that Hawke could have gone on to win the 1993 election, provided he hadn’t had the poisonous effects of Keating’s push to take the leadership, provoking the Kirribilli agreement in 1988 that Hawke would retire some time after the 1990 election. But politics is not like that. Hawke himself had white-anted Hayden’s leadership to gain the Lodge; Keating’s impatience was not surprising in the scheme of things. Hawke thus became the first Labor Prime Minister to be voted out by his party.

But more than a decade on, the success of the Hawke legacy is coming back into focus. It was an era of progress for Australia, both internationally and at home. In so many forums, Australia was significant APEC, the GATT, the Cairns Group, CHOGM and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Women also benefited with the Hawke Government. Former Senator Susan Ryan saw how Hawke noted the increase of women in the Caucus. “He was truly committed to consensus and a number’s a number for Bob,” she recalls. “He accepted that. And there were remarkable achievements for women in that time.”

It should also be remembered, as we watch developments in the Persian Gulf today, that under Bob Hawke, unlike Labour in New Zealand, Australia retained a strong and cooperative relationship with the United States.”

Article published in The Canberra Times