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A tale of two Hawkes

11 June 2022

9:00 AM

11 June 2022

9:00 AM

Hawke; it’s a name causing problems for the leaders of Australia’s two main political parties, but for very different reasons. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s self-imposed impossible task of replicating Labor’s (flawed) hero Bob Hawke is an attempt to make himself acceptable to an unimpressed public after barely winning last month’s federal election on preferences. His win was despite a further fall in Labor support as fewer than one in three Australians voted for him.

And Liberal opposition leader Peter Dutton has wisely excluded from his shadow ministry the senior Morrison government minister Alex Hawke whose totally improper rule-breaking manipulations, with Morrison’s connivance, ‘parachuted’ factional allies as ‘endorsed Liberal’ candidates and helped the Coalition to lose ‘safe’ seats in NSW. Dutton’s necessary rejection of Hawke was needed to restore the faith of a Liberal base whose disenchantment saw the Coalition’s primary vote slumping a further three percent to a record low of barely more than one third – a result helped, at least in NSW, by the worst-ever roll-out of loyal booth-workers handing out how-to-votes on election day.

So what are the chances of either Albanese or Dutton succeeding in their Hawke projects? Both have an uphill battle, and until Queenslander Dutton can clean out the factional cabal that is the NSW Liberal party and revive the recumbent WA division, the word ‘shadow’ will remain prefixed to his Cabinet. But at least Dutton now has a more amenable parliamentary party and if he can find the backbone to stand up for major issues that differentiate the Coalition from Labor (like nuclear power), then he may avert the continuing slide into irrelevance that faces both major political parties.

While it would be foolish to underestimate Albanese’s skill at herding the cats that make up the philosophically diverse parliamentary Labor party (he’s done well so far in keeping the left and the right off each other’s throats), his extraordinary pretence of being capable of providing a Bob Hawke-style government has simply created an unachievable goal against which he will be measured – particularly as he faces worldwide economic, security and energy dramas.

The problem is not only that Albo is not Hawkey, ‘in any way, shape or form’, said the Australian’s Paul Kelly, and  never can be. ‘It is just not who he is,’ wrote Hawke’s biographer Troy Bramston. ‘He says he wants to lead the party in the Hawke tradition with pro-growth policies based on consensus between business and unions while bringing the country together…. The problem is that at Labor party conferences through the 1980s and ‘90s, Albanese and his left faction opposed many of the Hawke government’s economic reforms’. And Bramston dismissed as incredible Albanese’s promise to end class-war politics; ‘Albanese has always embraced the politics of envy and class-war rhetoric – these are the watchwords of Labor’s hard left faction which he led’.

Heaped on top of Albanese’s own limitations, Hawke also had a crucial collection of very close friends and advisers, like the ACTU’s Bill Kelty and buccaneering businessman Sir Peter Abeles, the like of which Albo could never replicate. Wikipedia lists Abeles not only as a close friend but also as a de facto adviser on economic matters. These two provided policy input for the consensus across the board of business, unions, Parliament and the people that Hawke later acknowledged was essential for successfully undertaking economic reform. Their key role in the early years of the Hawke government was while the naturally confrontational Paul Keating was still on his training wheels as Treasurer and before he tried to assert himself with his ‘broad-based indirect tax cart’, whose wheels fell of when Hawke disagreed.

But Albo’s left faction not only bitterly opposed Hawke’s policy thrust but also the close link with Abeles that was central to the Hawke government’s success, particularly with the Prices and Incomes Accord that Abeles strongly supported after attending the 1983 economic summit. The Left objected to the accord’s embrace by unions of wage restraint as part of an ongoing collaboration with employers and the state; in her 2018 book How Labor Built Neoliberalism, leftist academic Elizabeth Humphrys argues that Hawke’s accord – with its commitment to market principles, privatisations and user-pay mechanisms – brought into Australia the neoliberal strategies that were elsewhere implemented by the parties of the right.

Bramston’s recent biography of Hawke outlines how close the Abeles personal link was from its beginning in the 1970s when Hawke was president of the ACTU, to developing, according to Hawke’s second wife Blanche d’Alpuget, to Hawke regarding Abeles as a father figure. But Bramston fails to join the dots in terms of the political policy influence Abeles had on Hawke. ‘Hawke was especially close to Peter Abeles …[who] provided him with financial support, paid his hotel bills, picked up the tab at the Boulevard Hotel, provided him with chauffeur-driven cars and plied him with drinks, cigars and women. Hawke relied on Abeles to employ several former girlfriends at his transport company, TNT. Abeles also paid Hawke’s mortgage and his children’s private school fees. Abeles also bailed Hawke out of several gambling debts over the years’.

But Abeles being such a close confidant of Hawke aroused suspicion, particularly during the 1989 airline strike when Hawke’s strike-breaking action against the pilots’ union benefitted Abeles’ Ansett, adding to the criticism and unsubstantiated allegations of unscrupulous business tactics – and buying his knighthood from NSW Premier Askin.

But if Abeles played an important role in Hawke becoming a successful prime minister, their friendship was a key factor in  his losing the top job in 1991 – and with nothing to do with Abeles’ role as witness to the aborted Kirribilli House agreement for Keating to succeed Hawke. Refusing, on the word of Abeles, to offer his supporter and numbers man Graham  Richardson his desired portfolio of Transport and Communications in the reshuffle after the 1990 election, Hawke lost an ally and created an enraged revenge-seeking pro-Keating adversary who organised the necessary numbers.

Bramston reveals that Hawke claimed Richardson had a meeting with Peter Abeles, owner of transport giant TNT, before the election and made a request which stretched the limits of propriety. ‘Peter Abeles told me something concerning Graham in my judgement precluded him from properly being in that position,’ Hawke claimed. He implied it was a shakedown, says Bramston and that appointing Richardson would risk the government’s reputation. Richardson later ‘utterly and totally’ rejected the allegation, but he accepted that Abeles had it in for him. ‘Abeles hated me, so who knows what Abeles said.’ But it signalled the beginning of the end of the Hawke years. Albanese has no hope of resurrecting them.

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