President Harry Truman attracted much enmity in the post-Roosevelt era of the 1940s.
Sometimes it was based on little more than snobbery about his humble origins. More substantively, programs such as health-care reform incited the hostility of entrenched interests.
Decades later, President Bill Clinton liked to say of his now-lionised predecessor: ‘My family supported Truman when he was actually president.’
The memorial service for Bob Hawke last Friday was a similar mix of reality, misremembrance and romanticism. The ingredients of political success remain both obvious and mysterious.
It is now broadly acknowledged that Hawke led a highly competent government of considerable achievement. As Kim Beazley has said, the Hawke government made modern Australia. Tariff protection was reduced, and the financial system deregulated. Major and painful changes took place in many industry sectors. All this occurred in the context of an evolving Accord with the union movement and a consensus approach with employers.
If the government was economically dry, it was also, in Gareth Evans’ phrase, socially moist. Medicare was born, environmental protections put in place, a sex discrimination act was born, and major electoral reform enacted.
But you don’t have to be all that old to remember the campaigns against the assets test for pensioners, the capital gains tax, or the fringe benefits tax. The imagery of little old ladies burying their jewellery in the back garden vied with confident predictions of the death of not just the long lunch but the hospitality sector itself.
The media wars against the Hawke government were every bit as vigorous as those we’ve seen in more recent times.
The consensus that consensus prevailed back then is over-blown, although the belief that the Hawke years consisted of serious people doing serious things is not.
In the Labor Party, many people have lost themselves inside that box Therese Rein referred to as the Rudd family’s ‘forgettery’. They forget the hostility many in the party had for Hawke in the 1980s. He was, to borrow a Shortenism, too close to ‘the top end of town’. He was too friendly towards ‘big business’. He was in favour of selling uranium. And why are they letting in all those big foreign banks?
The neo-liberal tag applied to Hawke and Keating today is as simplistic, cheap and misleading as its companions in the 1980s when Hawke and Keating were derisively known as ‘economic rationalists’. The criticism of privatisation and corporatisation began then. The politics academic Dean Jaensch saw the ALP as a party in transition and described the period as ‘the Hawke-Keating hijack’.
Like Truman, many may now support Hawke, but it was often selective and lukewarm, if not downright hostile, at the time.
The electorate exhibited similar scepticism. Elected on 49.48% of the primary vote in 1983, the ALP saw that number drop to 47.55% in 1984, 45.90% in 1987, and 39.44% in 1990. The decline of traditionally labour-intensive industries bit hard. The political fragmentation we see today began back then.
From a high of 53.23%, the ALP’s two-party-preferred vote also fell, through 51.77% in 1984 and 50.83% in 1987, until it hit 49.90% in 1990, Hawke’s last election. By then, a narrow majority of the population preferred the coalition, but the ALP won the vote in the seats that counted.
The political skill of Hawke and Keating can be seen in the increased majority Hawke gained in 1987, on the back of the Queensland-based ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign and an obligingly disunited opposition. It can be seen in Keating’s successful campaign against the Goods and Services Tax in 1993, which drove the ALP’s primary vote back up to 44.92% and the two-party vote to 51.44%.
It is this political skill that was rightly remembered at the memorial service. The Labor faithful hearkened back to a time when they could out-gun the coalition.
The memorial speeches by Kim Beazley, Ross Garnaut, Bill Kelty and Paul Keating spoke of Hawke’s political skill and leadership as head of Cabinet. Beazley, now Governor of Western Australia, could almost have been giving an introductory lecture on cabinet government. The others extended the theme.
Beazley highlighted Hawke’s skill in striking the delicate balance between control of cabinet and maintenance of individual ministerial autonomy. Former senator and Finance minister Peter Walsh, no real fan, said only two ministers read every cabinet submission: him and Hawke.
Garnaut simply described Hawke as Australia’s greatest prime minister, capable of ensuring the national interest prevailed over vested interests.
The richness of Hawke’s constructive, explosive and tender moments explains much about him. So does Kelty’s insight that the essence of power is an awareness of its effect on people. The ‘captain of consensus’ was also the fulcrum of bitter disputes over economic competition and social justice. But Hawke’s talent for the orderliness and ordinariness of government is equally important.
Maybe all that is for the political insiders. What did the electors see? Charisma? Charm? Simon Jenkins recently wrote that charm is politics’ deadliest weapon, ‘the authority to lead through an electrifying presence’. He thinks Boris Johnson has charm. Not everyone is heartened by this.
Was it Hawke’s intellect? For all the talk of Hawke the common man, he was nothing like most of us.
Much is made of Hawke’s larrikinism and all that beer drinking. Perhaps abstemiousness in government mattered more. When the time came, the teetotaller had to prevail.
The memorial speeches led inexorably to the claim that erudition and skilled use of language is lost to modern politics. Yet the erudite Beazley couldn’t win, and the erudite Keating was ‘carried out’ after just one election victory. John Howard’s longevity suggests erudition takes many forms. Command of detail and crafting a winning message matter also.
The romanticising of these qualities brings to mind Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. In his attempt to succeed Truman, he never stood a chance against the war hero general, but his gracious concessions and analytical argument burnished his reputation.
‘Long live love,’ said Blanche D’Alpuget at the conclusion of the service. Like political success, love, too, takes many forms. It is the ultimate inexplicable component of the human experience.
The memorial for Hawke was pitch perfect. Even if we cannot properly explain it, we recognise quality when we see it. But nostalgia and apprehension for the future should not blind us to the imperfect possibilities of the present.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com