By Situation Theatre 17/5/2019
A frank assessment of Hawke’s role in tipping the scales in favour of capital is fair enough. Ignoring his many progressive policies is not.
As Labor’s longest serving Prime Minister passes into that good night, the gross online battle for the “hottest take” on his legacy begins.
The mainstream press heaps praise on the “people’s Prime Minister”, lauding his legacy. This of course is less offensive in Bob’s case than it is in the case of politicians like John McCain and George H.W. Bush.
I’m sure we’re all looking forward to News Corp’s obituary for “Saint Rupert” when his time is up.
Some progressive voices on the other hand race to condemn Hawkie for his role as the midwife of neoliberalism in Australia.
When a national figure like Bob Hawke dies, it’s not unreasonable to offer a balanced assessment of their contribution to public life.
Sure, let’s offer some frank analysis of the flaws of his political project, but let’s not have that blind us to the man’s worthwhile achievements.
The best source for the critique is Dr Elizabeth Humphrys’ argument for “How Labour Made Neoliberalism”.
According to Dr Humphrys, the Hawke government played “an active role in constructing neoliberalism”. She refutes the argument that the 1983 Accord between the ALP and ACTU was “a more equitable alternative to the neoliberal approaches of Thatcher and Reagan” and instead contends “the Accord proved central to the extensive neoliberalisation of the Australian state and economy during the decade and a half of Labor governance”.
Humphrys case is worth quoting at length:
Shortly after the election of the ALP government the policy framework departed from that set out in the Accord. In the month after Labor’s 1983 victory it convened a national economic summit, and the resultant ‘tripartite’ communiqué moved away from the commitments between the ALP and ACTU (Stilwell, 1986: 11–15). In the same period the government also signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand, titled the Closer Economic Relations Agreement, undermining a promise to consult with Australian Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union given its impact on the sector (Carmichael, 1983). By the end of the year the government had floated the Australian Dollar, and within two years the banking sector had been deregulated. As Bowden (2011: 69) notes, ‘the new government adopted a neo-liberal agenda’. Crucially, in the second year of the Accord the Government adopted a framework it termed ‘the trilogy’. This committed the government not to increase taxation, government expenditure, or the size of the budget deficit, as a percentage of gross domestic product. The trilogy was a ‘self-imposed fiscal straightjacket’ (Stilwell, 1986: 15) and sharply moved from the expansionary commitments and social wage promises of the Accord. As the period progressed, free tertiary education was abolished and taxation, which was to be progressively reformed to ensure corporations paid a ‘fair share’, moved in the opposite direction. Other neoliberal measures implemented by Labor and often supported by the union leadership included restrictive monetary policy, extensive industry deregulation, privatisation of public assets, corporatisation of government departments, dismantling of tariff protections and promotion of ‘free trade’, tendering for previously publicly provided services, and the increased targeting of welfare assistance. Throughout this period, industrial activity declined markedly partly due to the Accord’s centralised negotiations, but also because the ACTU policed member unions to comply when attempts were made by workers to move outside the centralised wage indexation as real wages fell (McEvoy and Owens, 1990; Sheehan and Jennings, 2010: 145–194). Under the Accord the income and wealth gap between the most and least well off also widened (Frijters and Gregory, 2006). Thus, by the end of Australia’s longest ever period of social democratic governance, a radical neoliberal restructuring of the state and economy had been affected and it was at least as nationally far-reaching as the contemporaneous neoliberal changes made under Reagan and Thatcher.
While recognising the material pressures for the labour movement at the time, Humphrys overturns an image of unions at the time as passive victims and recognises their role as willing agents.
Neoliberalism in Australia was sold to the electorate as a positive consensual project of efficient economic management in the era of globalisation. Hancock’s (2014) identification of the crucial role played by the ACTU’s ‘strong leadership’ in ensuring that wage repression was achieved ‘without major resistance’ is applicable to the Accord’s role in the process of neoliberalisation more generally. It is not simply that the Accord assisted the introduction of neoliberal policies through its various effects, although it did have that result (see for example Buchanan et al., 2014: 301). Rather it is to argue that the agreement also embedded a consent for the neoliberal project to take place, with the Accord significantly weakening industrial solidarity leading to ‘not just deepening wage inequality, but the isolation of unions from a workforce increasingly subject to the vagaries of the market’) (Buchanan et al., 2014: 302). Dissent against the Accord and neoliberalism were not absent (see Strauss, 2013), rather, the ACTU’s active support for the neoliberal restructuring of the Australian state and economy, and the acquiescence of leading unions, ensured that such dissent remained marginal.
This is a serious and valid critique of the ALP and labour movement which can help us understand the challenges facing this country today. It should not be swept away by some kind of unthinking edict to only heap praise upon a public figure at the moment of their passing.
Nor should we forget Hawke’s role in what academic, activist, writer, actor, and co-founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, Dr Gary Foley, described in 2013 as “the greatest sell-out of Aboriginal peoples in my lifetime”. Foley was referring to the years from 1983-1996 when the “Hawke-Keating Labor Government killed off the movement for land rights”
The impulse to identify the flaws of Bob Hawke’s legacy is understandable and the decree to ignore them at this moment in political history is infuriating.
But at the hour of the man’s death, it is also important to appropriately recognise his achievements.
Greenpeace Australia notes he was the Prime Minister who protected the Franklin from dams and created the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. He saved the Daintree from extractive forestry and created the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. He led international rejection of mining in Antarctica and promoted it as a natural reserve for peace and science. He also stopped uranium mining in Kakadu to protect a sacred site for Traditional Owners and announced his government wanted the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2005.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre remembers how he gave permanent asylum to 42,000 Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, doubled childcare and public housing places, increased the aged pension, played an important role in ending Apartheid, and ushered in the Sex Discrimination Act.
Barrie Cassidy recalls that he also helped increase high school retention rates from 30% to 70% during his leadership.
Bob Hawke’s legacy is complex, but his contribution to this country is worth remembering.