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Vale Bob Hawke: a tribute to Australia’s 23rd prime minister

By Gursewak Singh 

A man who cast a shadow above all those around him and has forever left a mark on Australia—our country would not be the same without his immense contribution. 

As the 23rd and the longest serving Labor Prime Minister, from 1983 to 1991, Bob Hawke pioneered the more than 30 years without a recession, modernised and opened up Australia’s economy to the rest of the world, championed Medicare, placed environmental issues within the realm of federal government, and christened ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as our national anthem. 

Bob Hawke began his public career through the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) as the prominent advocate for higher wages, and in nearly a decade Hawke was elected as president of the ACTU. 

Anti-racism campaigns marked the early presidency of Hawke, holding no tolerance for racism or bigotry. As apartheid politics in South Africa was in full swing, Hawke stood his ground demanding that the South African rugby union team touring Australia in 1971 not be racially biased and committed the unions to not serving them if they landed in Australia. Airline workers across the country banned the Springboks from their services, forcing them to fly around the country in a chartered RAAF jet. Hawke’s commitment against apartheid continued until the final years of a segregated South Africa. 

In 1973, Bob Hawke was elected as the National President of the Australian Labor Party, his first foray into Australian politics, as speculation arose on when he would inevitably enter the Commonwealth Parliament and rise to the Labor party leadership. Having failed his first attempt to get elected in the Geelong seat of Corio in 1963, Hawke stood and won in the northern Melbourne seat of Wills at the 1980 election. Upon entering Parliament, opinion polls immediately showed the popularity of Hawke eclipsed that of the sitting Labor leader Bill Hayden—Hawke was seen as “a certain election winner”. 

Hawke’s ambition manifested in two challenges against Hayden for the leadership. His first attempt in July 1982 failed by five votes, so close that Hayden’s tenure remained tenuous. A by-election loss and declining support in the parliamentary caucus led Hayden to resign as the leader and Hawke was elected unopposed as the leader of the national Labor party in December 1983. On the same day Hawke assumed leadership, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap election, only for Bob Hawke and Labor to win the election and inflict the worst loss on the Liberal Party at a federal election. 

Bob Hawke went on to win the 1984, 1987, and 1990 elections. Through his premiership, he cultivated the Australia we live in today and we continue to enjoy his landmark achievements. 

As prime minister, Hawke negotiated the Prices and Incomes Accord between the ACTU and the Australian Labor Party, an agreement that the unions would restrict wage demands in exchange for the implementation of a social wage. A pioneering concept which gave an Australian flavour to the modernising of the economy. As Reagan and Thatcher forced through deregulation and market-centric economies by disenfranchising the labour movement and workers, Hawke valued negotiations and consensual decision-making by bringing along the union movement through his economic reform program. 

Damping of the wages was a key domestic component in this program, pressing down on wages in exchange for things we take for granted today like compulsory superannuation and Medicare—the country’s treasured universal healthcare system. This combination of industrial relations and social policy reform ensured that Australian workers were well placed and protected from the tide of approaching neoliberalism. 

On top of all that, Hawke and his treasurer and successor, Paul Keating, pushed for instrumental reforms such as the floating of the Australian dollar, opening up the Australian banking landscape to the international banks, shifting away from protectionist trade policies, and setting up Australia for the Asian era that was soon to dominate the next century. This vision led Hawke to lay the foundations for more dynamic Asia-Pacific relations and found the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989, with the first meeting being hosted in Canberra itself. 

Beyond the economic policies, environmental reforms were championed by Prime Minister Hawke and his government. Promising to prevent the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania in his election campaign, the first thing Hawke did in his premiership was to expand the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Government through its international obligations to conserve World Heritage sites. These immediately gave the Franklin the protection needed to prevent the construction of a hydroelectric project and empowered Hawke and his government to pursue other environmental reforms such as listing the beautiful Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory as a World Heritage site and banning uranium mining in Arnhem Land. 

Australia, under Hawke, also led the international effort to protect Antarctica from mining and resource exploitation. Upon discovering international efforts to open up the continent to mining, Hawke said “no bloody way”. He used the full power of the Australian diplomatic corps in changing opinions around the world and building a coalition of nations in the pursuit of the preservation of Antarctica. This culminated in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty—hailed as an immense success around the world and the reason for which we take the pristine beauty of the Antarctic for granted. 

Reading over all that, we can truly say that the debt Australia owes to Bob Hawke is tremendous. With his passing we remember everything he did to push Australia forward with bold action and a fierce determination to equip the nation for the 21st century. 

Vale Bob Hawke. 

This article was produced by Pivot – A MIAS Publication. 

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