TRANSCRIPT: Condolence Motion, The Hon Robert James Lee Hawke AC, Canberra ACT, 3 July 2019
I ACKNOWLEDGE the gracious words of both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader this morning as we rightly and appropriately honour the Labor Party's longest-serving Prime Minister.
The Hon. Robert James Lee Hawke, AC, joined the Labor Party in 1947 at the age of just 18. His early interest in working conditions can be seen in his choice of thesis, on wage fixing in Australia, an interest that in fact drew him away from his doctoral studies to take up a research job with the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1957. Barely a decade later, Bob Hawke was elected president of the same ACTU in 1969. No-one could question his empathy for his fellow people, his fellow Australians, as we heard from both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. Our memories range from his pursuit of wage increases to that grand image of the celebrations of Australia's breaking of the America's Cup drought.
And, speaking of breaking the drought, Bob Hawke ascended to the high office of Prime Minister in March 1983, when one of our worst droughts on record was into its fourth year. And the rain began to fall, first over his birth state of South Australia, torrential thunderstorms over country that had been drought stricken just two weeks earlier. A powerful monsoon moved into the west and south coast of New South Wales, then western Victoria, Gippsland and eastern Tasmania. March 1983 was the wettest that the Mallee and Wimmera regions had experienced since 1910. Eastern Queensland missed out, but not for long. The autumn of 1983 drenched the whole Queensland state. By May, much of the Darling Downs was flooded. Spirits were lifted. Farm industries began their long recovery. Australia's economy displayed new green shoots of growth.
Bob Hawke is rightly seen as an economic reformer, floating the Australian dollar, allowing in foreign banks, founding APEC, the Asia-Pacific cooperation forum, to promote growth in the region. Indeed, Prime Minister Hawke and Treasurer Keating produced a budget surplus. Sadly, other factors proved this period to be a precursor to a recession. But it's true that one of the great legacies given to Australia by Prime Minister Hawke was Labor's most recent budget surplus.
It's a particular measure of the man that, in the early times after he was elected, Bob Hawke was fair dinkum with the Australian people in acknowledging that the breaking of what was said to be the worst drought since 1904 had helped build a platform for the economic reforms of the 1980s. In an interview with John Laws on 5 March 1984, the Prime Minister spoke of 140,000 jobs created. He said unemployment, interest rates and inflation were all trending down. Laws asked, 'Do you think the breaking of the drought had an effect?' and, to his great credit, Bob did not try to argue the point. 'Yes, obviously the breaking of the drought has helped,' he said. 'I've made it clear all the way along the line that the breaking of the drought and the United States's recovery have been pluses.' These times were an opportunity to take big steps impacting trade returns—floating the Australian dollar, as the member for Grayndler has pointed out—and Bob Hawke was bold and strong enough to do just that.
Today we're continuing to build crucial trade openings, not least through major free trade agreements in recent years, to build on the economic reform steps taken forward by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating, and I certainly acknowledge that. But there wasn't universal agreement on economic policy.
A rally of farmers outside Parliament House in 1985 was the largest and most vocal ever seen. The front page of my local newspaper, The Daily Advertiser at Wagga Wagga, on 2 July 1985—I was working at the paper back then—had a single photograph. It was an aerial shot, from a plane well up in the sky, with farmer protestors stretching as far as the eye can see. There were an estimated 45,000 in angry protest over the crippling weight of one new tax after another. A full eight pages of coverage quoted farmer after farmer, and those associated with these industries, from across the Riverina.
I can well remember my mother, Eileen, in her later years saying that that was the only time my late father, Lance, ever protested. Dad wasn't the sort of person to protest. He was the captain of the Brucedale fire brigade and he got involved in the community. He did not believe in protesting, but, indeed, he did that day. He came to Canberra. It was the first time he'd ever attended a rally of that kind or any kind. But do you know what Bob Hawke did? He did what a good Prime Minister should do. He left the confines of this building, the safety and security of Parliament House, and went out to face the music. He fronted up. He addressed the crowd, and good on him for doing so. He probably didn't win the day, but he earned a lot of respect. He earned those farmers' respect. I can well remember dad saying just that: 'At least he showed up; at least he fronted up.' Well done, Bob.
It was the same Prime Minister Hawke in the firing line who backed our wheat growers. He did. It was in their time of need, just a year later, as America moved to boost its taxpayer subsidies to its own wheat farmers and undercut us in the Soviet market. This was also one of Bob's greatest legacies, certainly for rural and regional Australia. There was a massive threat to our wheat growers, along with the Canadians and Argentinians. To his great credit, Bob Hawke saw the threat and acted.
Records from the time show PM Hawke protesting directly to President Reagan. In personal talks with US Secretary of State George Shultz, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Argentinian President Raul Alfonsin all backed up Australia's concerns with President Ronald Reagan. This was, I think, certainly for rural and regional Australia, Bob Hawke at his best. It was a particular measure of the man that Bob Hawke agreed to an all-party delegation from Australia to Washington. The threat was real. It was very direct. Bob Hawke had absolutely no hesitation in endorsing the idea of a cross-party lobby, working the halls of Washington.
He saw it not only as a signal that his own efforts were not enough but also as a strong effort to further demonstrate Australia's concerns, and if it meant something to the farmers it meant a lot to Prime Minister Hawke. The Australian delegation won an amendment to the legislation about to enter Congress. It stipulated that any subsidised sale of wheat to the Soviets would be on the proviso that Australia maintained its traditional share of the Soviet market. The amendment was driven by Democrat congressman Stephen Solarz from New York State. There are not too many American wheat farmers there but it was readily agreed to by the bill's proponent, Thomas Daschle, who was from one of the key US wheat-growing regions. Prime Minister Hawke, along with the primary industry minister and delegation leader John Kerin, were big enough to welcome additional help to get the job done. And the job they did get done.
Bob Hawke was an advocate for the unions but it was not a blind loyalty. He took a stand on principle where he believed it right to do so. In one of the deepest controversies of the 1980s, the Builders Labourers Federation did engage in guerrilla tactics, like walking off halfway through a concrete pour. It resulted in the immediate loss of millions of dollars to developers and the halting of progress. This sort of action was un-Australian. Bob Hawke knew it, and he wasn't frightened to say it. There were a lot of factors at play—not least was the future of the accord—but action had to be taken. Bob Hawke took that action. In 1986, the BLF was permanently deregistered, in various Australian states, by the federal Labor government. Bob Hawke led the way. It came in the wake of a royal commission into corruption by the union.
We do honour today, and we do it rightly, Robert James Lee Hawke AC, a leader of great courage and great vision. We honour the longest serving Labor Prime Minister—eight years and 284 days—for his contribution to the lives of Australians across our land mass. I well remember being at the Sydney Cricket Ground not that long ago. It seems just like yesterday. It doesn't matter what sporting event it is, they will always cheer the actors in the arena, the great sporting athletes. But as soon as they mention a politician generally, these days, they'll get hisses and jeers and boos.
Not Bob Hawke—he got the beer, he sculled it, and the crowd just went off. They rose as one: 'Good on ya, Bob!' Everybody around me cheered and clapped. They thought it was just wonderful. But, even when he was Prime Minister, he still received that sort of adulation and those sorts of cheers.
He was the son of a school teacher and a congregational church minister. Bob Hawke sensed the need to contribute to the lives of others, to make others' lives better—to contribute to the broader community. He was a larrikin, we all know that, but we has also a Rhodes Scholar. He was the leader who sought to unite the people around him, even the farmers out there on that day in 1985. As a headline in a special supplement of The Australian on 18 May read, 'In his prime, and at the end, Hawke held his head high.' Indeed he did, and rightly so. Vale Bob Hawke.