Category Archives: politics

Issues that swung elections: the dramatic and inglorious fall of Joh Bjelke-Petersen



Joh Bjelke-Petersen with his wife, Flo, on their wedding day in 1952. Bjelke-Petersen made an ill-fated bid for PM in 1987 that ripped the Coalition apart.
Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd/Wikimedia Commons

Shirleene Robinson, Macquarie University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen’s reign as Queensland’s premier began in 1968 and came to a dramatic and inglorious end 19 years later with the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption. He is still Queensland’s longest-serving premier, but he leaves a complicated legacy. For many, he is remembered most for his rigid control of over all areas of government and his anti-democratic stance on public protests.

Bjelke-Petersen governed the state as leader of the Country Party (which later became the National Party) until his downfall in 1987.

In May that year, the ABC television programme Four Corners aired the first public allegations of organised crime and police corruption in Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen would hang on to office for only a few more months before being forced to step down.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry, launched in the aftermath of the Four Corners programme, continued for another two years, uncovering a deep and systematic web of corruption that implicated many at the highest levels of Queensland government and the Queensland Police Force.




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The man who would be commissioner: Bjelke-Petersen’s crooked pick


For Bjelke-Petersen, not only was his career as a state premier over, but so, too, were his national ambitions. In early 1987, Bjelke-Petersen had launched an ill-fated “Joh for PM” campaign in a brazen attempt to challenge then-Liberal Party leader John Howard as head of the Coalition, then run against Prime Minister Bob Hawke in that year’s federal election.

His bid for power split the federal Coalition. Capitalising on the internal dissent of the Opposition, Hawke easily won the 1987 election, holding onto the prime-ministership for another four years.

Bjelke-Petersen ends interview prematurely after questions about Fitzgerald Inquiry.

An ill-fated run for federal office

Hawke’s win in the 1987 election had been far from inevitable. The Coalition had actually been ahead in the polls for much of Hawke’s 1984-1987 term. However, internal divisions, typified by the rivalry between Howard and Andrew Peacock over the Liberal leadership, put pressure on the party. Tensions were further stoked when Bjelke-Petersen announced his intention to enter the federal arena.

In January 1987, when Bjelke-Petersen announced that he intended to run for parliament, he assumed that his success in Queensland could be duplicated at the federal level. Fresh from a win in the state election the previous year, he and his backers did not acknowledge the distinctive set of circumstances in Queensland that had given rise to his long time in office.

His bid for PM did make a brief splash in the national media, drawing further attention to the deep ideological rifts within the federal Coalition. Howard, leader of the Liberals, and Ian Sinclair, leader of the Nationals, struggled to contain the division caused by Bjelke-Petersen’s ambitions. The discord reached a breaking point at the end of February 1987, when the Queensland National Party decided to withdraw its 12 federal MPs from the Coalition in support of Bjelke-Petersen’s efforts. The Coalition formally split soon after.

Hawke seized on the Coalition’s infighting and quickly called an election on May 27. Bjelke-Petersen was not even in the country at the time, having gone to the United States. Outplayed and dealing with increased coverage of corruption and dissent in Queensland, Bjelke-Petersen swiftly abandoned his plan to run for prime minister.




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By the end of the year, Howard’s Coalition was fatally divided. Labor was returned to government and increased its majority in the House with 86 seats to 43 for the Liberals and 19 for the National Party.

The win allowed Hawke to take his place in history as the party’s longest-serving prime minister.

Bjelke-Petersen meets with fellow Queensland politician Russell Hinze. Both figures left office amid allegations of corruption.
Wikimedia Commons/John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland/ Queensland Newspapers Pty. Ltd.

A tarnished legacy in Queensland

The failings of the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland extended far beyond the arrogance that saw him attempt an ill-conceived move into federal politics.

Under his leadership, Queensland was not democratic. His government exploited the state’s electoral gerrymander, which over-represented rural electorates at the expense of urban ones. The state’s unicameral parliament meant the checks and balances a second house would have provided were absent.

Bjelke-Petersen also relied on a police force rife with corruption to prop up his government. Dissenters faced brutalisation at the hands of police when they took to the streets. A repressive set of laws that banned protests meant taking to the streets could result in time in prison. For too long, the media were silent about the corruption taking place in the state.




Read more:
Jacks and Jokers: Bjelke-Petersen and Queensland’s ‘police state’


Journalist Evan Whitton called Bjelke-Petersen “the hillbilly dictator” in reference to his carefully cultivated parochial style of leadership. Yet, Bjelke-Petersen was guided by a shrewd political awareness. He styled himself as a defender of a unique Queensland sensibility and scorned the more progressive southern states. He was not opposed to using fear and prejudice for electoral gain.

His treatment of LGBTIQ issues provides one strong example. During the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen government made efforts to prevent gay and lesbian teachers from being employed and gay students from forming support groups. When the AIDS epidemic reached Australia, his government demonised LGBTIQ individuals. As most other Australian states decriminalised sex acts between men, Bjelke-Petersen’s government attempted to introduce anti-gay licensing laws and criminalise lesbianism. In 1986, the Sturgess Inquiry into Sexual Offences Involving Children and Related Matters was used by the government to further ostracise gays and lesbians and turn the public against them.

The Bjelke-Petersen era provides a cautionary tale. It is difficult to imagine any other premier maintaining his or her position for this long again. His ill-fated bid for federal politics also reveals the impact that egomaniacal and divisive figures can have on political parties.

Bjelke-Petersen may not have been the only factor behind Hawke’s 1987 win, but his intervention certainly did Howard no favours – and deepened a rift in the Coalition that took years to mend.The Conversation

Shirleene Robinson, Associate Professor and Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Issues that swung elections: rural voters get a voice and topple a government in 1913



Prime Minister Andrew Fisher meets farmers in Murgon, Queensland, in 1913.
Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 3057

Peter Woodley, Australian National University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


One of the forthcoming federal election’s many questions is how rural Australians will vote. On issues such as climate change, coal seam gas extraction, water management and basic decency in politics, voters in regional Australia are disillusioned. The old certainties of rural politics seem to be breaking down, and there is a heightened sense that the long-established structures amplifying country voices are no longer working.

More than a century ago, rural Australia was in a similar state of flux over how farmers should engage with state and federal politics. The 1913 federal election was a pivotal moment in the contest of ideas about what sort of polity and society rural Australians wanted. The alliances that emerged from the election led to the formation of the Country Party, the precursor to today’s National Party.

The 1913 election was called by the Labor prime minister, Andrew Fisher, a former coal miner and avid trade unionist. Fisher first served as PM in 1908-09, leading a minority government. When he attained a comfortable majority in both houses of the parliament at the 1910 election, he initiated an ambitious reform program that included liberalising disability and old age pensions, introducing maternity allowances and workers’ compensation, and enacting a progressive land tax on the unimproved value of the largest rural properties.

It was a considerable record on which to seek another term of government, but also contained elements that would galvanise resistance in rural Australia.

Prime Minister Andrew Fisher ran into considerable opposition to his reform agenda prior to the 1913 federal election.
State Library of South Australia (PRG 280/1/3/289)

Developments in rural Australia

At the time, the New South Wales Farmers and Settlers Association (FSA) was emerging as a powerful and effective voice, claiming to represent farmers, both large and small. By 1914, it would boast 430 branches across the state.

The FSA executive opposed any form of land tax, even on the largest landholders, on suspicion that a Labor government would one day impose it on all farmers. However, farmers still struggling to acquire a “living area” were sympathetic to the Labor Party’s agenda, as many were once shearers or rural labourers.

When a resolution was proposed at the FSA conference in 1907 that would bar members of the Labor Party from joining the organisation, a Jerilderie delegate objected that such a motion would “cause disastrous splits in families the members of which included supporters of both organisations”. During that same period, senior members of the FSA executive resigned rather than renounce Labor sympathies.




Read more:
Issues that swung elections: the ‘credit squeeze’ that nearly swept Menzies from power in 1961


By 1913, another issue had intensified the FSA executive’s antagonism towards Labor: the increasingly active Rural Workers Union (RWU).

The conservative government of George Reid, which held power in Australia from August 1904 to July 1905, had excluded large numbers of rural labourers from the federal Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904, arguing that the seasonal and unstructured nature of agricultural work made formal schedules of pay and conditions impractical.

The Labor Party contested this view, and in 1910, Fisher’s government amended the act to include rural workers. The RWU then sought registration with the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration as a first step towards achieving an industrial award mandating minimum wages and conditions of employment.

Then, in early 1913, the RWU began negotiating with the powerful Australian Workers Union, which represented shearers and shearing shed hands, with the aim of amalgamating into one big rural union.

This provoked significant disquiet in FSA branches. The FSA executive, led by the articulate and politically astute farmer Robert Patten, redoubled its efforts to energise and expand its membership among small-scale farmers and their families, encouraging them to align themselves firmly on the side of capital.

The 1913 election

In the midst of these developments, Fisher called an election for the middle of 1913. He was opposed by Joseph Cook who, like Fisher, was a British migrant with a coal mining background.

Cook entered the new federal parliament in 1901, and by 1909, had become deputy leader in Alfred Deakin’s Commonwealth Liberal Party – a new, anti-Labor coalition, or “fusion,” of members formerly associated with Free Trade and Protectonist alliances. (It was also a predecessor of the modern Liberal Party.) Cook then became leader of the opposition when Deakin resigned in January 1913.




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Cultivating a nation: why the mythos of the Australian farmer is problematic


Fisher presented six referendum questions to the electorate to coincide with the 1913 election. Each was designed to extend Commonwealth powers in light of the High Court’s unsympathetic rulings on aspects of his reform agenda. All six proposals were rejected by a slim margin – a sign the electorate was perhaps wary of the pace and breadth of Fisher’s reform agenda.

In the election itself, the country vote would prove to be crucial.

Like the referendums, the House of Representatives election was tight. The main parties were separated by only 9,000 of the 1.85 million total votes cast.

Labor entered the election holding nine more seats than the opposition, picking up seats in the big cities and Victorian regional centres of Bendigo and Ballarat. But in rural areas, the Liberal Party prevailed, picking up four Labor seats alone in Victoria.

In New South Wales, the FSA endorsed supporters of its platform running as opposition candidates in seven seats. Four of them deposed sitting Labor Party members, including Patten, who defeated the pro-Labor independent William Lyne in Hume. It was the last seat declared, and Cook won government with a majority of one.

But Cook’s victory was short-lived. By the time he had selected a speaker, his majority had disappeared, and Australians would be back at the polls by mid-1914, just as war broke out in Europe.

The election would have a longer-lasting legacy with the organisation of rural voters into a sizeable – and powerful – voting bloc with a dedicated, conservative presence in federal politics. The Country Party emerged as an independent and distinctly rural voice during the war and held the federal balance of power by 1922.

Australia’s population was already drifting to the cities when the Country Party formed, but that has not prevented the rural vote from continuing to exert a strong, often disproportionate, influence on Australian politics.

As in 1913, the 2019 election could prove to be a decisive moment in shifting rural political alliances, with broader consequences.The Conversation

Peter Woodley, PhD candidate, School of History, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Issues that swung elections: Labor’s anti-war message falls flat in landslide loss in 1966



Anti-Vietnam War protesters march from the US Consulate to Hyde Park in Sydney in 1966.
State Library of New South Wales/Wikimedia Commons

Jon Piccini, Australian Catholic University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


As far as 1960s policy issues go, none were bigger than the Vietnam War. Images of helicopter gunships and long-haired protesters overlaid with rock music are the era’s stock footage. But, was it ever a major election issue in Australia?

In November 1966, an Australian Labor Party that had been in opposition for 17 years finally saw victory within its grasp. And the party’s ageing leader, Arthur Calwell, focused on the war as Labor’s main point of difference with a seemingly divided, aimless government.

Organisations like the Australian Peace Council, Save our Sons and the Youth Campaign Against Conscription pushed hard for a Labor victory. But, in the end, Prime Minister Harold Holt not only won the contest, his Liberal-Country Coalition actually gained 10 seats, leaving Labor to lick its wounds.




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Australia’s involvement in the war

An Iroquois helicopter picks up member of the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment during the Vietnam War.
Department of Defence/ AAP

Australia’s involvement in Vietnam began in 1962. What started as a 30-person training deployment quickly grew to a battalion after then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced – inaccurately at the time – that South Vietnam had requested further assistance in its defence against the North Vietnamese-backed communist insurgents in April 1965.

This was a strategy of “forward defence” that marked Menzies’ policy towards Asia, which was widely supported by the Australian electorate as a way to stop the spread of communism across Southeast Asia. This strategy mirrored fears of a “domino theory” that would bring communism to Australia’s shores.

Public reactions to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War were positive at the start.

However, conscription was not as popular as the war among Australians. Polling in October 1966 showed that the public opposed conscription for overseas service by about 60%. Calwell, who had been the Labor leader since 1960, knew this and made it the most important issue in the next election.

Menzies’ retirement in January gave Labor confidence going into the 1966 election. Holt was a relative unknown who barely differed from Menzies on policy. At the same time, Labor was modernising its platforms by doing away with things like support for the “White Australia” policy.

Also, an October 1966 visit from US President Lyndon B. Johnson, which Holt hoped would buoy his chances, was marred by anti-war protests that were broadcast around the world.

Labor’s failed conscription tactic

Prime Minister Harold Holt (left) shares a drink with Lyndon B. Johnson during the American president’s visit to Australia before the 1966 federal election.
Wikimedia Commons

Yet, if anything, the focus on conscription showed not Labor’s revival but its continued stagnation. During the first world war, Calwell had been involved in the defeat of conscription in two national referendums in 1916 and 1917. Fifty years later, Labor hoped to use the timing of the anniversary of those defeats to its political advantage.

Speaking in April 1966, Calwell cautioned that conscription was a “sinister word” for Australians that would “split the nation and leave the same bitter memories as did the referendum campaigns of 50 years ago”. Then, in a campaign speech only days before the vote, Calwell condemned those who wished to plunge their “arthritic hands wrist deep in the blood of Australian youth”.

While not particularly innovative politically, Holt’s relative youth and seeming vigour – demonstrated by somewhat salacious photographs he took on the beach with his young daughters-in-law – seemed a breath of fresh air.

But this was just one of the reasons Calwell’s rhetoric fell flat. The audience for his messaging was also unclear. Australia was an increasingly youthful nation, but the voting age of 21 meant the “baby boom” generation had little electoral weight.

And while growing numbers of young people were protesting the war, they did so without reference to the first world war, but with theatrical protest tactics from overseas.

Legacies of the 1966 election

A 2012 ceremony involving Australian and New Zealand troops to commemorate the battle of Long Tan during the Vietnam War in 1969.
Australian War Memorial/ AAP

Holt’s unexpected landslide victory – winning twice as many seats as his opponent –proved politically explosive. While receiving little credit for the win, which most put down to Calwell’s ineptitude, Holt used his remaining year in parliament to cement an independent reputation through such initiatives as the May 1967 referendum on Indigenous rights.

His disappearance off Cheviot Beach in December of that year left an unfinished legacy.




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As for the antiwar movement, Labor’s election failure led to disenchantment and reorientation. Increasing numbers of young agitators saw the result as a sign of deep public apathy with the movement. This led to more provocative and controversial protests, such as the daubing of soldiers with fake blood during parades, raising money for the Viet Cong and rioting outside the US Consulate in Melbourne.

Labor largely went quiet on Vietnam after its defeat, only returning to the barricades in time for the Moratorium marches of May 1970, by which time public opinion had finally turned against the war. It has been said that the 1966 election’s most significant legacy was as

the last stand of a distinctive Labor style – impassioned, traditionalist [and] Irish-Catholic.

Calwell’s post-election position proved untenable and he was replaced by the deputy leader, Gough Whitlam, who would spend the next five years modernising a party many considered stuck in the past. In the end, Calwell’s overzealous commitment to wielding the past as a political weapon only fast tracked this process.The Conversation

Jon Piccini, Lecturer, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Issues that swung elections: the ‘unlosable election’ of 1993 still resonates loudly


Haydon Manning, Flinders University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


The 1993 election is known as the “unlosable election” for the Liberal Party. It highlights how the course of a campaign can shift voter opinion to produce a result few would have predicted a month out from polling day.

As the current election campaign unfolds, a foreboding message may resonate from the 1993 campaign. Namely, that being the clear frontrunner tends to foster complacency, and touting a “big target” invites more intense scrutiny.




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Labor’s unlikely triumph

Labor in 1993 was a triumph, comparable to Whitlam’s 1972 win. After a year languishing in the polls, Labor won a fifth term and increased its majority by two seats.

In his victory speech, Prime Minister Paul Keating declared it “the sweetest victory of all”, and “a victory for the true believers – the people who in difficult times have kept the faith”.

For some, these words reflected one of the great Labor speeches; for others, they reflected the hubris that would eventually envelop the Keating government.

To win a fifth term having recently presided over a severe economic recession and a bitter leadership challenge was unprecedented. The combination of these factors should have sunk the Keating government.

Why Labor should have lost

The early 1990s recession was far worse than the 1974 or 1982-3 recessions that contributed to the Whitlam and Fraser governments’ defeat. And Keating appeared heartless when, as treasurer in November 1990, he remarked:

This is a recession that Australia had to have.

A year later, he challenged Prime Minister Bob Hawke in a leadership spill and defeated him by 56 votes to 51.

For the nation, mired in recession, Labor seemed indulgent and power-hungry. It was no surprise that the Liberals led comfortably in the polls.

Hewson’s policy platform was a ‘large target’

Keen to move beyond the bitter rivalry between Andrew Peacock and John Howard during the 1980s, the Liberal party turned to John Hewson after the 1990 election.

Hewson was inexperienced in politics, having only entered Parliament in 1987, but skilled in his working life as a merchant banker, former advisor to John Howard and professor of economics at UNSW.

Hewson was a visionary who managed to unite both the Liberal and National Parties around one of the most significant policy platforms ever enunciated in Australian politics: a 650-page document titled “Fightback!”.

Fightback’s enduring virtue lies in its coherent articulation of reform, accompanied by detail. Its problem was that it pushed too far into the realms of a neo-liberal economic reform. With such a “large target” as Fightback, Keating was able to make the opposition the issue during the campaign.




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Fightback’s centrepiece was a 15% GST, set alongside big personal income tax cuts. Fightback also detailed the introduction of enterprise bargaining, cuts to Medicare bulk billing, the sale of government owned assets, and other commitments aimed at limiting the size of government expenditure.

Over the course of 1992, voters observed a colossal political struggle as Hewson worked at selling Fightback to voters, and Keating warmed to the task of dismantling its vision. This would reach a crescendo in February-March 1993, with one of Australia’s most memorable election campaigns.

The Australia Election Study surveys show this election stood out because voters recognised that there was “a good deal of difference” between the parties.

Different styles of leadership

Arguably, this was not just about policy, it was also about the fact that Hewson and Keating had different leadership styles.

Hewson was committed to “policy as an end in itself” and he tended to shun the hard sell, preferring a more earnest type of advocacy delivered through public rallies.

Hewson’s problem was with Fightback’s complexity. According to the political journalist Laurie Oakes, he often appeared “mean and shifty” when he tried to explain the details. This was most evident when he tried to explain on television how the GST would apply to a birthday cake.

Keating fundamentally believed that the strength of political leadership would prevail. Lampooning Fightback, Keating said:

If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it; if you do understand it, you’d never vote for it!

With his superior command of rhetoric, Keating framed the campaign as one about core Australian values. Keating shied away from defending Labor’s achievements, instead making his opponent the focus. He championed Australian egalitarianism while painting Hewson as a radical. Keating once referred to Hewson as “the feral abacus”, a theorist hopelessly out of touch with average voter.

By the eve of the election, the parties were evenly balanced, but pundits were still predicting a Liberal win.




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In favour of a detailed policy platform

Why did Hewson take such a political risk with Fightback? The answer can be found in Hewson’s valedictory speech to parliament.

In the speech, Hewson reflected on the purpose of Fightback. He said it was to convince voters “in the midst of the worst recession in 60 years” that significant change was required, that the Liberal Party was once again credible because it “stood for something”, and that it was prepared to “challenge vested interests”.

He also said that entering government required a mandate based on detailed policy if there was to be any hope of getting legislation through the Senate. It is worth noting how pertinent this last point is today.

Since Fightback, no opposition has put forward such detailed policy. Putting aside one’s own ideological preferences, Hewson’s Fightback should be viewed as positive because voters deserve to be presented with detailed policy choices rather than just political spin.The Conversation

Haydon Manning, Adjunct Associate Professor, Politics, Policy and Global Affairs, College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University., Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Issues that swung elections: the ‘credit squeeze’ that nearly swept Menzies from power in 1961



File 20190423 15206 14rxkqx.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Arthur Caldwell almost defeated Robert Menzies in the 1961 federal election, dominated by debate over the economy and unemployment.
National Archives, National Library of Australia, Wikimedia, CC BY

David Lee, UNSW

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


In 1961, the Australian Labor Party came within a whisker of an unlikely victory.

At the time, the ALP was still recovering from a split with the Democratic Labor Party and was not viewed as a serious threat to the Liberal-Country Party Coalition. The DLP was a conservative, Catholic-based, anti-communist party that consistently gave its preferences to the Coalition over the ALP.

In the 1958 federal election, aided by DLP preferences, the government of Robert Menzies was returned to power in a major swing against the ALP. The Coalition gained 54% of the two-party preferred vote, with 77 seats in the House of Representatives to the ALP’s 45.

What nearly cost the Coalition the next election, though, was the Menzies government’s “credit squeeze”.




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The end of import restrictions and the credit squeeze

Despite its huge electoral advantages, the Menzies government began to encounter political problems in the early 1960s. From 1952 to 1960, the Menzies government had been forced to license imports because Australia’s rural exports did not earn enough to pay for its imports. An opportunity to abolish import licensing came at the end of the 1950s, when inflation started to rise.

Harold Holt, the then-treasurer, urged the government to end import licensing to boost imports and thereby dampen inflationary pressure. Sir John Crawford, the secretary of trade, disagreed. He feared a blow-out in the balance of payments, and urged caution and a gradual easing of import controls.




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Despite Crawford’s objections, the Cabinet preferred Holt’s plan and abolished import restrictions in February 1960. The result, as Crawford predicted, was a balance of payments crisis. In November 1960, Menzies took drastic action, sharply increasing sales taxes and imposing restrictions on credit to bring the economy back into balance.

The consequence of the “credit squeeze” was a minor recession. Unemployment, rose to 53,000 people at the end of 1960, and 115,000 at the end of 1961. The Menzies government’s longevity after 1949 had partly been due to its achievement of high levels of employment. Even moderate levels of unemployment posed a significant danger for a government that would have to face re-election in 1961.

But Menzies remained optimistic. He said:

I do not think we will be beaten. There are no circumstances which would suggest even a remote possibility of the opposition winning 17 seats.

The 1961 election

Gough Whitlam meets with Arthur Calwell.
L. J. Dwyer, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-142691238

The ALP, led by Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam, seized the opportunity given them by the Menzies government’s apparent mismanagement of the economy. Calwell, despite being a far less impressive television performer than Menzies, campaigned doggedly on the economy. Calwell also received support from the Sydney Morning Herald, whose owner, Sir Warwick Fairfax, had become disenchanted with Menzies.

Calwell promised that, if elected, the ALP would reduce unemployment through a series of selective import controls and expanded social services. Menzies lampooned Calwell’s ideas as pie-in-the-sky rhetoric, and broadened his attack to include the ALP’s alleged closeness to the Communist Party.

Queensland was the key state. The Coalition held 15 of the 18 Queensland seats in the House of Representatives, and the ALP needed to win a swag of them to have any chance of victory. But election observers predicted that the ALP would not pick up more than two or three in Queensland, and that the ALP’s overall gains would be limited to seven or nine seats.




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Following a frantic whistle-stop tour by Whitlam to north Queensland, the results of the December 9 election surprised everyone. For days, the election hung in the balance.

In the end, the ALP won a total of 15 seats, eight in Queensland. But the vote count finally tipped in Menzies’ favour when Billy Snedden was returned in Bruce and James Killen in Moreton, both supported by DLP preferences.

Menzies was so shell-shocked by the results that he did not congratulate Killen on his victory, forcing Killen to concoct a story that the prime minister had famously greeted him with the words:

Killen, you were magnificent.

Consequences of the election

In the long-term, Menzies and his colleagues were able to turn the near-defeat in 1961 into another decade of Coalition rule, aided by further electoral victories in 1963, 1966 and 1969.

When Labor was finally able to win office in 1972, it faced three years of unremitting hostility from the Senate, non-Labor states and an opposition that regarded an ALP government as so exceptional as to be illegitimate.

If Labor had won in 1961 and lasted until 1964, or perhaps longer, could this have had a longer-term impact on the country? Would Australia have entered the Vietnam War? Would conscription have been introduced? Would Australia have officially recognised the People’s Republic of China a decade earlier?

Menzies’ legacy also would have been cut short by what would undoubtedly have been considered one of the biggest election upsets in Australian history.The Conversation

David Lee, Associate Professor of History , UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Issues that swung elections: petrol shortages and the dawn of the Menzies era



File 20190415 147502 19ok7b0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Paying for petrol in Brisbane in 1949 using what are likely petrol ration coupons.
State Library of Queensland

David Lee, UNSW

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


In the 1949 federal election, a Liberal-Country Party Coalition led by Robert Menzies defeated the Australian Labor Party, ending Ben Chifley’s four years as prime minister. Menzies also dashed expectations that Labor had established itself as the “natural party of government” following decisive victories in 1943 and 1946.

Prior to the 1949 election, Labor had led Australia successfully through the second world war. The popular mood was solidly behind its agenda of full employment and social welfare.




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The Chifley government only began to encounter troubled waters in 1947. Its bid to nationalise the private trading banks swung popular opinion behind the Liberal Party. But after the High Court’s invalidation of bank nationalisation, the fortunes of the Labor Party revived. A Gallup poll in April 1949 showed a narrow lead for Labor and presaged a tight contest at the end of the year.

Historians have tended to attribute Menzies’ eventual victory to issues like bank nationalisation and the differences between the major parties over how to handle the Australian Communist Party. While these were undoubtedly factors in the election, the decisive issue was something else: petrol rationing.

Robert Menzies’ election policy speech in 1949.

Petrol rationing and the ‘sterling area’

In the 1940s, Australia was a loyal member of the British Commonwealth, as well as of a monetary and trading group known as the “sterling area”. Australia and other members of the group pooled their external reserves in London and rationed “hard currencies” like the American dollar. The sterling area was a system that helped British Commonwealth countries get through the second world war.

After the war, Australia continued to import most of its goods from Britain, with the exception of essential items such as petrol and news print. Petroleum, sourced overwhelmingly from US producers, could only be purchased with dollars. But Australians could not secure enough dollars to meet all their petrol needs. This meant that Canberra had to go to the British Treasury every year to ask for extra dollars – a situation that soon became unsustainable.

Britain was virtually bankrupted by the second world war. In an effort to avert a financial crisis, British leaders convened a meeting of Commonwealth finance ministers in July 1949 and asked the group to impose restrictions on dollar imports for the common good.




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Liberal Party ads from the 1940s speak today’s political language


To meet the British government’s request, Chifley had to overcome a major hurdle: the High Court’s invalidation of federal petrol rationing regulations. Menzies himself had introduced the rations as a wartime measure in 1940. But in June 1949, the High Court ruled that the rationing of petrol could no longer be justified in peacetime. To work around the court ruling, Chifley had to secure the agreement of the states. Once he did, petrol rationing was again in force across the country.

But by that time, Australians were hooked on petrol. In 1949, about one in every 10 Australians had a car in the garage. When rationing came back into effect, it sparked a national crisis. Motorists suddenly found it harder to fuel up than at any time during the war.

The 1949 election and its consequences

Following an electoral redistribution in 1948, the size of the House of Representatives had increased from 74 to 121 seats. A September 1949 Gallup poll estimated the Chifley government still had enough electoral fat to withstand a 3% swing against it in the enlarged House.

It was not enough. In the campaign speeches in November 1949, the Chifley government stood on its record. Menzies, meanwhile, pledged to do away with petrol rationing, in part by drawing on defence oil reserves held in Australia.

A Liberal Party campaign ad in the 1949 federal election campaign.

This bold, some might say reckless, move by Menzies was precipitated by Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party, who had earlier promised in his own campaign speech to eliminate petrol rationing. Fadden would later write:

I am inclined to think that petrol rationing was the rock on which the government finally foundered.

Opinion polls taken after the election confirmed Fadden’s assessment. The Coalition swung 6.61% of the popular vote to its side. Of the voters who switched allegiances, 60% said they considered petrol rationing when casting their votes. At the election on December 10, Menzies’ Coalition won 74 seats to the ALP’s 47 – a sizeable majority.




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Menzies, a failure by today’s rules, ran a budget to build the nation


After the Coalition victory, Menzies followed through on his campaign promise and brought an end to petrol rationing. And the economy began to look up. The Korean War ushered in a boom in the early 1950s. A massive increase in Australian wool exports, as well as other raw materials from British Commonwealth countries, helped bring about a revival in the fortunes of the sterling area.

So, the gamble by Menzies and Fadden on petrol rationing proved lucky. Far from confirming the ALP as the “natural party of government”, as would be the case in New South Wales from 1941 to 1965, the 1949 election actually began a period of more than two decades of Liberal-Country Party rule.The Conversation

David Lee, Associate Professor of History , UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Issues that swung elections: an arbitration dispute and the first ousting of a PM from parliament



File 20190424 19286 1bq2b78.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and Prime Minister-elect James Scullin hold a private meeting a day before Scullin takes office in 1929.
Wikimedia Commons

James C. Murphy, Swinburne University of Technology

With taxes and health care emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War.


Some issues electrify Australian voters. They take over elections, crowding out all other factors. We saw it in 2001 with terrorism and in 1954 with communism.

It also happened back in 1929 when Australians went to the polls, focused almost solely on arbitration.

In its early days, Australia pioneered a system of compulsory arbitration — basically a new kind of court to settle disputes between unions and employers and set wages. From the late-1800s, arbitration courts were set up in most of the Australian states, and after Federation, a federal court was established in Canberra. At first, this federal layer was designed only to deal with the most serious, nationwide industrial disputes, but it soon became a full-fledged second layer of arbitration governing all facets of industrial relations.

Most unions and employers rather begrudgingly came to accept arbitration as a kind of compromise – an institution that could make industrial disputes a little more civil and, hopefully, a little less violent.




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Unions have a history of merging – that’s why the new ‘super union’ makes sense


But not all accepted the compromise. In the 1920s, the Coalition government (it was the Nationalist-Country Party Coalition back then, but they are roughly comparable to today’s Liberals and Nationals), led by Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, made several attempts to water down the arbitration system, or at least remove one of the layers.

While unions saw the dual-layered system as an important check preventing a pro-business state or federal government from watering down hard-won protections and wages, the government believed it allowed unions to “venue-shop” until they got the result they wanted.

The Coalition also believed that high wages were putting off foreign investors and risked Australia’s economic development. Something had to be done.

The Coalition’s unpopular assault on arbitration

Initially, Bruce tried to solve the problem by asking the states to give up their courts in favour of one centralised system in Canberra. The states, then mostly governed by Labor, refused to hand over their powers to the feds.

Next, Bruce sought to change the Constitution to beef up the Commonwealth’s power to regulate industrial relations. The referendum, brought in 1926, failed to gain a majority of votes or states, with only Queensland and New South Wales voting “yes”.

Stanley Bruce, recording ‘A Talk to the Nation’ during the 1929 federal election.
National Library of Australia, nla.obj-137205196

Frustrated, and alarmed by a growing economic crisis and a slew of bitter strikes, the Coalition government changed direction, attempting to abolish the federal layer of arbitration. In 1929, Bruce introduced the Maritime Industries Bill, a law taking the Commonwealth out of arbitration for most industries, leaving just the state courts.

The bill did not pass. Six MPs, led by former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, dramatically crossed the floor to add an amendment requiring a popular mandate for the law, either through a referendum or a general election. Bruce told the house he considered the bill a matter of confidence and called an early election.




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The state of the union(s): how a perfect storm weakened the workers’ voices


(This “hair trigger” approach to confidence has since fallen out of vogue. Losing on any old bill – or indeed, even a very important one – is no longer treated as a proxy confidence vote. See, for instance, the case of the Medevac Bill passed against the wishes of the Coalition government last year. The government continued in office.)

What happened on election day and why it still resonates today

In the 1929 election, both sides of politics insisted that arbitration was the question being answered by the electorate. Labor, under James Scullin, clearly tapped into the public mood with his argument that arbitration, though imperfect, was the best hope for progress in Australia. The Coalition lost 18 seats and with them, their majority. Scullin took Labor into government for the first time since 1917.

James Scullin (right), standing outside Sydney’s Central Station after becoming prime minister in 1929.
National Library of Australia

To add insult to injury, Bruce lost his own blue-ribbon seat of Flinders – the first time a sitting Australian prime minister lost his seat.

It would prove a rare event, not occurring again until 2007, when John Howard lost Bennelong. Funnily enough, that election, like 1929, was also largely focused on a conservative government’s fundamental reforms to the industrial relations system.

Only twice in the past century have Australians seen fit to throw a prime minister out of parliament, and both times, it was over proposed reforms to industrial relations. It’s a striking fact — one that might tempt us to question whether there is some deep continuity here. It could speak to the legacy of trade unions, which have made industrial relations a fraught area for governments, even well after the heyday of union power and organisation.

For my money, I’d say this speaks more to the basic attitude to government in Australia — what Laura Tingle, borrowing from linguist Afferbeck Lauder, dubbed “aorta politics” (as in, “they oughta fix x”; “they” being the authorities).




Read more:
Cabinet papers 1992-93: the rise and fall of enterprise bargaining agreements


Very much unlike our more libertarian cousins in the US and UK, Australians have historically wanted the state to solve many of their problems. Whether or not it is a good idea, we’ve had the state irrigate farmland, deliver the mail, provide electricity, pay for our health insurance and help us buy our first home. Nowadays, Australians seem to expect it to tackle things like domestic violence and climate change.

And even today, as in 1929, we expect the state to keep the industrial peace – to prevent bosses or unions from going too far in their quest for economic power, to keep things civil.

The point here is not that arbitration or even industrial relations shall forever be a sacred cow in Australian politics. What we learn from 1929 is simply that the Australian voter does not take kindly to our governments trying to drop an issue because it is too hard. We are, it seems, a demanding lot.The Conversation

James C. Murphy, PhD Student in Politics & History, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


2001 polls in review: September 11 influenced election outcome far more than Tampa incident



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John Howard’s Coalition won the November 2001 election, but the September 11 attacks had more impact on that outcome than the Tampa crisis.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

Many commentators have compared Labor’s support for the Medevac legislation with the Tampa incident in late August 2001. The implication is that Labor lost the 2001 election due to Tampa, and could lose this year’s election due to Medevac.

Political commentator Katharine Murphy has said she was certain at the time Labor leader Kim Beazley “had just lost the election” after announcing Labor would vote against retrospective legislation giving the Coalition government the power to forcibly remove the Tampa from Australian territorial waters.




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Australian politics explainer: the MV Tampa and the transformation of asylum-seeker policy


But are the claims that Labor lost the 2001 election due to the Tampa true? The Poll Bludger, William Bowe, kindly sent me the polling data for the 1998-2001 term, on which the historical BludgerTrack is based. BludgerTrack is a bias-adjusted poll aggregate.

I have used this data to create the graph below of the Coalition vs Labor two party preferred vote during 2001. The election was on November 10.

BludgerTrack two party preferred vote during 2001.

The graph shows that Labor had a massive lead in March 2001 of about 57-43, but it gradually narrowed to about 52-48 by the time Australian government involvement in the Tampa incident began on August 26. The Tampa was denied permission to dock at Christmas Island and deliver asylum seekers who had been rescued.

The Coalition received about a two-point boost from the Tampa affair to draw level with Labor. However, it had a much bigger lift from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which lifted the Coalition’s vote five points to about a 55-45 lead. As the shock of the attacks wore off, the Coalition’s vote fell back to a 51.0-49.0 victory on election day (November 10).

If the Tampa had occurred in 2001, but not September 11, other issues, such as the economy, health and education, would probably have appealed to people in the lead-up to the election more than boats. Labor could have recovered to an election-winning position. September 11 made national security a huge asset for the Coalition government at the 2001 election.

If not for September 11, Labor may have won the 2001 election. The Tampa put the Coalition into a tie with Labor, not a lead.

Analyst Peter Brent in Inside Story thinks that, given economic factors, the Coalition would probably have won the election by 51-49 without either the Tampa or September 11. You can achieve this result by drawing a line from the Coalition’s nadir in March to the election, with the assumption that the slow improvement in the polls had continued.




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If Beazley had become prime minister instead of Rudd, might we have had more stable government?


However, the graph shows the Coalition’s recovery had stalled for over a month before the Tampa. Even though the September 11 shock had faded by the election, the boost it gave to the importance of the Coalition strength of national security assisted the Coalition at the election.

Labor did not lose the 2001 election because of the Tampa, and they are unlikely to lose the 2019 election because of their support for the Medevac bill. I believe the shock factor of terrorist incidents has been reduced by their frequency. There were two terrorist atrocities shortly before the 2017 UK general election, yet UK Labour performed much better than expected at that election.

Eight UK Labour and three Conservatives MPs form new Independent Group

On Monday, seven UK Labour MPs resigned from their party to form The Independent Group. In the next two days, another Labour MP and three Conservative MPs also resigned to join The Independent Group.

While other causes, such as alleged antisemitism within Labour, have been cited, the reason these defections have happened now is Brexit. The defecting MPs are strongly opposed to their former party’s handling of Brexit, and all want a second referendum on Brexit – currently opposed by both major parties.

The Independent Group MPs have consistently voted in favour of proposals to avoid a “no deal” Brexit when the UK leaves the European Union on March 29. However, these MPs votes will not change. To avoid a no deal, either other MPs votes must change, or the major parties need to reach a compromise. The next important Brexit votes will be on February 27. The article I wrote on my personal website in January about why a no deal Brexit is a plausible scenario is still relevant.The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


1996-1997 cabinet papers show how Howard and Costello faced a budget black hole


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The newly sworn-in Howard ministry in March 1996.
National Archives of Australia

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

On the morning of Monday, March 4 1996, the young treasurer in the Howard government, Peter Costello, and his press secretary, Tony Smith – now the speaker of the House of Representatives – took an Ansett flight from Melbourne to Sydney for their first departmental briefing. The treasury secretary, Ted Evans, who had initially asked to see Costello privately, offered his resignation in light of the change of government. Costello assured Evans he wanted him to stay on.

Once the meeting began, Evans had some startling news for his new boss. The budget had an underlying deficit of about A$9 billion. “Costello appeared genuinely shocked”, his biographer, Shaun Carney, has reported. The size of the deficit probably did take him by surprise, even if the existence of a deficit of some kind did not. John Howard recalls that he had wind of it before his March 2 election victory.

A submission released today by the National Archives of Australia in its 1996-1997 cabinet records sets out the nature and scale of the problem that the new government saw as its most serious during its first term. But problem would become opportunity. In his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, Howard would call the 1996 budget “the most important of all budgets” delivered during his almost 12 years in government, as well as “the best and bravest in 25 years”.




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Howard is hardly a disinterested party. Nonetheless, there is a persuasive strand of opinion among commentators that the fiscal decisions taken in 1996, while creating political pain for the government and economic pain for voters, were foundational for Howard and Costello.

Some have credited this early decision-making for Australia’s economic resilience in the face of turbulent global winds: the Asian financial crisis, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, even the global financial crisis.

The cabinet submission of March 18 1996 predicted economic growth of 3.75% for 1995-96 and 1996-97, on the back of improved performance from the farm sector as the drought ended. Weak demand was likely cyclical, a “temporary slowdown of the type which often occurs at this stage of the business cycle and that growth should strengthen in subsequent quarters”, as business investment again took off.

Howard’s quip from opposition in 1995 – that the recovering economy was “five minutes of economic sunlight” – was effective politics. But it was not supported by the new government’s own records, which referred to a “generally favourable outlook”.

Compared with the skyrocketing interest rates and then the recession the Hawke and Keating governments faced in the early 1990s (or the recession the Hawke government inherited in 1983), these were happy days.

However, unemployment remained high at well over 8% and was projected to stay there in the following year.

The government was also concerned about the drag on economic performance of continuing budget deficits and rising government debt. This was running down national savings, undermining investment and worsening Australia’s current account deficit – the difference between the value of imports and exports of goods, services and capital.

Costello committed the government to reducing the underlying deficit of 3.5% of gross domestic product to 0.5% over three years, thereby reducing public sector lending, relieving pressure on the current account deficit, and returning the budget to a structural surplus. The government rejected the idea of a single massive cut of A$8 billion in the 1996 budget as running the risk “of knocking the economy off course”. It therefore committed to cuts of A$4 billion in each of the budgets of 1996 and 1997, with an eye to less pain in the 1998 budget leading up to an election.

With defence spending quarantined from the cuts, the August 1996 budget was indeed a tough one. The usual suspects – health, welfare, the public service and tertiary education – bore much of the load. Nonetheless, the government’s own polling suggested most voters thought its measures “tough but fair”, dispensing necessary if bitter medicine.

Howard remarked at the December launch of the latest cabinet records release that the government applied to the budget a “fair go” test, although he would ultimately bear pain for his too-clever distinction between “core” and “non-core” election promises.

Tony Abbott was a young parliamentary secretary in 1996, on his way up but still some way from the real levers of power. By 2013, however, he had his own government and with his treasurer, Joe Hockey, faced the problem of framing his first budget.

The 1996 effort would have provided a strong clue for Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey to frame their first budget after their 2013 election win.
AAP/Lukas Coch

The 1996 effort would have been a powerful precedent for a new Coalition government in 2013 and, at a superficial level, the Abbott government did many similar things. As Howard and Costello had done, it established a National Commission of Audit.

Costello had complained of the “Beazley black hole” – the deficit bequeathed by Labor’s finance minister, Kim Beazley. Conveniently for the government, he was also the new opposition leader. The phrase lived on as a way of reminding electors of the Labor Party’s weaknesses in economic management and the Coalition’s achievements and strengths.

In 2014, Abbott and Hockey spoke of a “budget emergency”. But whereas the public seems to have bought the “black hole” image – although described recently by economist Warwick McKibbin as more like a temporary “pothole” – voters appear to have regarded the Abbott government’s “budget emergency” as invented.

One reason for this failure ironically lies in legislative changes that Costello announced at the very time he drew public attention to the black hole. This was the Charter of Budget Honesty, which mandated more rigorous reporting on the national finances, including the alphabet soup of MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook) and PEEFO (Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook), as well as five-yearly intergenerational reports.

These initiatives, which a Costello cabinet submission of August 2 1996 said were intended to promote “responsible fiscal management”, made it well nigh impossible to spring the surprise of a large deficit on an unsuspecting public and successor.

Unlike Hawke and Keating in 1983, and Howard and Costello in 1996, Abbott and Hockey could not stoke panic to implement unpopular measures and back out of difficult election commitments. The Charter of Budget Honesty meant they could not claim to have been blind-sided by an unanticipated budget deficit.

Howard and Costello also faced a much more helpful set of parliamentary numbers than their Coalition successor. With a massive 94 seats in a House of 148, they had political capital to burn. While few imagined the government would last almost 12 years, equally few considered it could be defeated after one term.

But it is in the Senate that the differences between 1996 and 2014 become clearer. There, the Howard government held 37 seats in a chamber of 76. After the defection of disgruntled Labor senator Mal Colston in August 1996, the government could get its legislation passed without the support of the Australian Democrats if it had Colston and the other independent senator, Brian Harradine, on side.

By way of contrast, the Abbott government faced a Senate cross bench of considerable complexity and diversity. And, as Howard has remarked, dealing with the Australian Democrats was notably easier for a Coalition government than getting Greens support.




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Grattan on Friday: Budget blues as government reels under the blows


In 1996, Howard and Costello got the politics right. They still paid a political price, but it did not prove fatal. McKibbin argues that the introduction of a GST in 2000 was made easier by the reduction of government outlays and the elimination of the budget deficit in the government’s first term.

By dealing with spending in 1996, the government was able to turn its attention to revenue and taxation in a more favourable fiscal environment for politically difficult reform.

The image remains: as they contemplated their own horror budget, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann relaxed with cigars. Trivial in itself, this clumsiness epitomised the Abbott government’s muddled budget politics.

In 2014, after decades of strong economic performance, few believed that the drastic measures the Abbott government proposed in 2014 were either necessary or fair. Hockey declared the “age of entitlement” over, but voters suspected this did not extend to politicians or their friends.

The contentious measures in the 2014 budget – such as the Medicare co-payment and the winding back of unemployment benefits – did not pass Howard’s “fair go” test.

But the tough spending cuts Costello announced in 1996, while hardly provoking an outbreak of national joy, were an early taste of the professionalism and toughness that he and Howard brought to their long years at the helm.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The larrikin as leader: how Bob Hawke came to be one of the best (and luckiest) prime ministers



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Prime Minister Bob Hawke celebrates the final cabinet meeting in Old Parliament House, 1988.
National Archives of Australia

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

The rise of Bob Hawke to the prime ministership now seems to have been so unstoppable, so inevitable, that it is hard to imagine Australian political history might have unfolded differently.

But what if, instead of entering the House of Representatives at the 1980 election, Hawke had retired from his leadership of the union movement into, say, a business career? What if he’d not had willpower to give up the booze? What if he’d lacked the inclination to tone down his image as a larrikin union leader?

In that event, we might perhaps recall Hawke as a gifted union leader – probably a bit of a “character” – but one who had lacked the personal discipline to fulfil his potential. Perhaps we would remember him as epitomising those olden days when mighty trade unions imagined they were a kind of fifth estate, and when their big bosses were giants whose power rivalled, and sometimes eclipsed, that of leading politicians and capitalists. Hawke might have justly been recalled as a symbol of the pride before the fall.

Instead, Hawke is recalled as one of our greatest prime ministers and certainly among the most influential. It is a strength of the ABC’s upcoming two-part documentary, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader, narrated by Richard Roxburgh, that it evokes the industrial world that gave Hawke both a long and rich apprenticeship in public life and a remarkable celebrity status. Some of the 1960s and 1970s footage is marvellous. You can almost smell the beer and Brylcreem.

Bob Hawke is still frequently called on to scull a beer – often at the cricket.
Reuters/David Gray

But we are also reminded of the personal transformation that was needed before Hawke could be seriously considered for national political leadership. As the pollster Rod Cameron comments in the program, the public might have been willing to tolerate, while frowning on, a womanising prime minister, but they would not take a drunkard.

The larrikin side of the Hawke personality is now a popular favourite at events, where the octogenarian acquiesces to the urgings of an adoring public by sculling a beer – a reprise of his record-breaking student effort at Oxford. But the beer-swilling larrikin, who would still be there at closing time in the bar of Melbourne’s John Curtin Hotel, had to be placed in the shade in the 1980s.

The reformed larrikin, of course, is a familiar type in Australian culture, most famously embodied in Bill, the protagonist of C.J. Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Bill gives up stoushing to become a properly domesticated husband and father, “Livin’ an’ lovin”. Hawke did a lot of both. The program’s discussion of his philandering is more coy than its handling of his drinking, but the expression on Hawke government minister Susan Ryan’s face when discussing Hawke’s relationship with women paints a thousand words.

The treatment of Hawke in this series is rather generous. Hawke was himself interviewed and all the talking heads clearly admire him to a greater or lesser extent – mainly greater. There are occasional hints of a darker side. Graham Richardson says he did some pretty appalling things under the influence of drink, but will not tell us what; only that Hawke would not have made it to the prime ministership in the age of the internet and the mobile phone.

Hawke’s 1971 Victorian Father of the Year award is treated ironically. The news footage has Hawke looking decidedly sheepish; the long-suffering Hazel privately wondered whether the judges had been on opium. Neal Blewett, a minister in Hawke’s government but a Bill Hayden supporter, thought Hawke and the party’s brutal treatment of Hayden on the eve of the 1983 election did long-term damage to the Labor Party’s morality.

The documentary does bring together many of the threads that help explain Hawke’s success as a politician. There was the sense of destiny, instilled in this Congregational minister’s son from childhood. His mother claimed that her Bible was forever marvellously opening at Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder”.

We are reminded of Hawke’s love affair with the Australian people, the “almost mystical bond” with voters. During that golden period of about 18 months after the 1983 election – as the drought broke, the recession ended and Australia II triumphed in the America’s Cup – Hawke was lucky, but he also knew how to exploit the brightening national mood to the full. Hawke did not just ride the wave of national pride and optimism during what Jim Davidson has aptly called the “Age of the Winged Keel”. He embodied it.

For a time at least. The 1984 election, in which Labor lost ground, took off much of the shine. Then there was the “banana republic” crisis of 1986, but the documentary does not pause long over economic policy. It does recognise that Hawke was immensely lucky in the depth and breadth of talent in his ministries, but that he was also skilled in bringing out the best in those he worked with. His ego was colossal, but he had the wisdom to share power.

There would be more election victories – in 1987 and 1990 – but things were never the same once his relationship with his younger treasurer and natural successor, Paul Keating, degenerated into acrimony. Yet, to the very end, as his approval rating plunged during “the recession we had to have”, Hawke clung to the idea that his relationship with voters was special. Like so many others, he failed to grasp the opportunity to leave office on his own terms.

Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader moves along rather breezily. The episodes in Hawke’s career that reveal his attachment to high moral principle, such as his hostility to racism, or those achievements that rhyme with the present preoccupations of progressive politics – environmental protection and Medicare – receive loving attention. Hawke’s failures are not ignored, but get more superficial treatment. An exception is the abandonment of national Aboriginal land rights legislation and the proposal for a treaty, which figures in a melancholy few minutes towards the end of the second episode. But Hawke always has good intentions.

This is a nostalgic program that begins by noting that Australians today “have never been so distrusting of politicians. But there was a time when things were different”. So, how did we get from there to here? On this question, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader is silent.

The ConversationBut it may be that for all of Hawke’s achievements, the era’s narrowing of political possibilities – the equation of economic efficiency with good government, and of national productivity and competitiveness with national achievement – planted the seeds of both later economic success and political decay.

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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