15 July 2010

It was with much disappointment that I opened the weekend Australian

The story here is not the Hawke-Keating spat, or even the latest development within it - a story with which most Australians are entitled to be bored.

Let's assume that Keating dashed this letter off and sent it in haste. I was surprised by how illiterate it is - see the second sentence and the second-last sentence in the second paragraph on page two, as examples of stumbly-bumbly prose: reading much of this together with the more lucid bits is a bit like the difference between being hit in the mouth with a champagne cork and gently sipping the wine poured from the bottle. That said, this letter is not so wacky that we can dismiss the writer entirely.

However subjective it is, it's unlikely Keating made up the "malaise", which is of real and enduring significance. There are two stories that need to be told here, both of significant import to Australian history and politics, arising from this quote (also on page 2):

[following Hawke's] breakdown in 1984 ... [his] emotional and intellectual malaise lasted for years. All through the Tax Summit year of 1985, through to your lacklustre performance through the 1987 election, to the point when in 1988, four years later, Dawkins had to front you, asking you to leave. It was only after that that you approached me; at your initiative, to enter into an agreement with me to succeed you following the 1990 election. An agreement you subsequently broke. [sic]

Firstly, where was the journosphere in all this?

Where were those press gallery doyen(ne)s, Oakes and Kelly and Grattan and all those other legends in their own happy hour? It's one thing to look the other way while Hawke had his mistresses, but to fail to piece together that behaviour and point out the fact that the Australian government effectively had a vacuum at its peak. All those years of attending press conferences and jabbering on about "streaker's defence" and "banana republic" and "silly old bastards" and the like - pretty much everything and everyone that came out of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in the 1980s is completely discredited at having missed that story.

Hawke's then press secretary secretaries, Kerry O'Brien Peter Barron and Barrie Cassidy, must be the most brilliant spin doctors this country has seen. He makes They make Graeme Morris look like Lachlan Harris. No wonder O'Brien has fobbed off all suggestions by the ABC that he make way for younger talent. The man is a master manipulator to beat them all. Anyone who covets hosting The 7.30 Report or devoting that timeslot to something else had better wait until O'Brien is dead, for such a man is truly invincible.

Even if Keating does overstate his role in affairs of that time, the fact remains that the then Prime Minister did not and could not run the government of which he was nominally head. This so-called democracy with its so-called fourth estate was maintaining homes and offices for a leader behaving much the same way as Charles II, but without the legacy of infrastructure.

Secondly, where were the Liberals?

They were looking across that chamber at the whites of Labor eyes, and in that poky old Parliament House they would have heard the whispers and seen what the butler saw. Andrew Peacock did well to win so many seats from Labor in 1984: how many could he have won if he had pushed Hawke that little bit harder, maybe forced him back onto the grog and/or dangled a comely Young Liberal before him at a public function? Peacock and the moderates could have fobbed off John Howard if they'd had a sniff of victory, if they had exposed Hawke as a hollow shell with Keating snarling up front and the rest of the Labor ministry at the time basically doing their own thing.

Imagine if Hawke had lost the 1984 election:

  • Labor would have lanced the boil of floating the currency, and pretty much nothing else. No Medicare;

  • Hawke would have been seen as an utter failure, similar to Jim Cairns, a broken-down drunk with a dolly-bird and a nice line in "bringing Australia together";

  • Labor's economic credibility would be non-existent. After the Whitlam government, the rise and fall of the Hawke government would be the death-knell for any idea that Labor understands economic issues: just Hayden and Keating, wittering Labor into irrelevance until the rise of a vapid Labor leader like Clinton or Blair;

  • At a time when union membership was declining, there would be no Accord, no superannuation industry as we know it today, no arresting the freefall of the labour movement in this country;

  • Prime Minister Peacock, a product of the Melbourne establishment while also part of the Thatcher-Reagan conservative/neo-liberal axis, would have been responsible for moving Australia toward a low-tariff economy;

  • Treasurer Howard, returning to office after 19 months away, would have been confronted with policies diametrically opposite to those he had dealt with earlier, nailing his reputation as some sort of political weather-vane; and

  • Fraser-era policies on Aborigines and sea-borne refugees would probably have been re-established. A massive shift like Mabo and Aboriginal welfare would have been handled a bit more smoothly.

Isn't it funny how things turn out?


  1. John Bignucolo15/7/10 8:04 pm

    Andrew, Kerry O'Brien was never Hawke's press secretary. Barrie Cassidy is who you're thinking of.

    You then compound the damage by using your error as the basis for slagging off Kerry in the remainder of the paragraph. You should correct your posting.

  2. Thank you John.

    Not sure I was having a go at O'Brien, though one of my grounds for admiration was misplaced.

  3. derrida derider16/7/10 3:19 pm

    And yet most old public servants will tell you the country was never so well run as during the Hawke Despondency (which was more like two than four years, IIRC). Because Hawke had a very capable ministry that rose to the challenge and thrived on the enforced devolution.

    Micromanagers like Rudd don't understand that their sort of excessive "discipline" is actually really, really bad management.

  4. Macromanagement and micromanagement are not the issue: the issue is flaky and arbitrary intervention followed by long periods of inactivity and all cloaked in silence and half-arsed positioning, bad management and bad government.