Hawke Elected, 5 March 1983: 30 Years Ago Today

SPARE a thought: it’s 30 years since Bob Hawke led the ALP into office, just seven and a half years after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government and the shattering electoral defeat of 1975; 1983 heralded change in Australia, and its impact on politics could never have been foreseen.

It was the election Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser should never have called; popular mythology had it that Fraser was simply too slow off the mark on the morning of 3 February, when Labor leader Bill Hayden resigned in favour of former ACTU president Bob Hawke a couple of hours before Fraser was granted his double dissolution election.

But the truth is that Fraser had wanted to go to the polls in December 1982 and was talked out of it by his cabinet colleagues. Had he done so, he would likely have been re-elected.

The Liberal Party retained a key marginal seat  (Flinders) in a difficult by-election that was held the day Fraser had wanted to go to an election.

This imbued Fraser and the Liberals with false confidence, as the result in Flinders also made certain a leadership change in the ALP; its unpopular leader Bill Hayden had already survived, narrowly, one leadership challenge from Hawke.

The Flinders by-election virtually guaranteed any subsequent challenge would succeed.

So Fraser — thinking he was locking Hayden in — called an election, and was soundly beaten by Hawke; it was the beginning of 13 years of Labor government, and Hawke’s would be just the second Labor government (after Whitlam’s) to see a Labor Prime Minister elected twice to office.

Labor bequeathed Australia a clutch of enduring reforms, such as the floating currency, financial deregulation and the dismantling of tariff barriers; it is questionable whether their primary architect — Treasurer Paul Keating — fully understood the far-reaching nature of these reforms, but this was lasting legacy of the Hawke government, and remains today.

These reforms, of course, were consolidated and built upon by the Howard government, in areas such as industrial relations, taxation, and prudential regulation.

It is reasonable to assert the Hawke/Keating years represent a zenith for the ALP which it will never revisit: the government’s reforms, so diametrically opposed to traditional Labor policy, have fundamentally changed the politics of the Left in this country.

We can see the results of this change today: the splintering of the ALP Left, which has sustained and grown first the Australian Democrats, and lately the Communist Party Greens; Labor has returned to its interventionist, tax-and-spend past, untroubled by economic rigour, and a preference for “social justice” at the cost of fiscal responsibility.

The Liberal Party, too, was changed by the 1983 result: descending first into a protracted period marked by leadership ructions and coalition infighting as it grappled with the reformulation of its economic policies, it emerged — finally — in 1996 to reclaim government a stronger, more resilient and arguably more durable entity than it had been since the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies 30 years earlier.

(If anyone doubts this, compare the 1974 and 1984 election results to that of 2010: nobody could seriously argue that the Liberals of 1974 or 1984 had commenced an inexorable march toward regaining government, whereas in 2010 I believe they did; indeed, had the Senate numbers in 1974 not been so favourable to Fraser, history may have played out very differently indeed).

As I said at the outset, I believe Fraser would have won an election in December 1982 against the hapless Hayden; but by the same token, just three months later I think Hayden would have beaten Fraser — he was probably right when he memorably proclaimed, after his resignation, that a “drover’s dog” could have won office against Fraser by that time.

The campaign is of historical note for a couple of things; the Ash Wednesday bushfires in the country’s south that wrought such destruction and misery — at the midpoint of the campaign — did nothing whatsoever to augment the fortunes of the Fraser government; indeed, the disaster probably hardened the resolve of voters in these areas against it.

But with unemployment, interest rates and inflation all rising as Australia was hit by the world recession of 1982-83, the final blow to Fraser’s credibility was self-inflicted; his remark that voters would be best served hiding their money under the bed if Labor won was devastatingly answered by Hawke, who simply quipped that people couldn’t hide their money under the bed — because that’s where the “Commies” (Reds, or Communists) were.

Subsequent events showed Fraser’s claim mightn’t have been as ridiculous as it seemed, given the assortment of state Labor governments that presided over the catastrophic collapses of financial institutions toward the end of the 1980s, John Cain’s in Victoria and John Bannon’s in South Australia especially. But at the time, the damage was done.

Victoria and South Australia were, ironically, the best-performed states for Labor in 1983, providing almost half of Labor’s 75 lower house seats between them.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, Tasmania not only stood by Fraser, but swung heavily to the Liberals as popular sentiment favouring Liberal Premier Robin Gray’s plan to dam the Franklin River saw Fraser government MPs widen their margins over Labor in all five Tasmanian electorates.

Malcolm Fraser today is a virtual pariah within the Liberal Party, roundly (and I believe correctly) dismissed as a left-wing bleeding heart whose views are totally out of touch with modern mainstream sentiment in Australia.

Hawke is a revered elder statesman in the Labor Party; his Treasurer and one-time friend, one-time foe Paul Keating succeeded him as Prime Minister and stayed there for five years before losing in a landslide in 1996.

Of course, Fraser’s Treasurer, John Howard — sarcastically dubbed “Honest John” by Keating — ultimately became PM too, but it took two attempts and more than ten years.

After a decade of rivalry with Andrew Peacock that culminated in him losing his leadership for six years in 1989 (and the Liberal Party going through three different leaders in those six years), Howard’s return in 1995 and his triumph in 1996 surely marked the closing of a circle in conservative politics that began to be drawn in March 1983.

Readers shouldn’t interpret my remarks tonight through the paradigm of serious analysis; I simply think that 30 years on from what was unmistakably a turning point in Australian polity and society, it is fitting to mark the occasion with some recollections and thoughts.

These are mine. If anyone would like to add to them, please feel free to comment.