Bob Hawke was a popular and iconic Prime Minister and leader of the Australian Labor Party throughout the 1980s, during which he won four elections in a row. In his early years, Hawke had the highest popularity rating of any Prime Minister since the introduction of public opinion polls. Prior to becoming Prime Minister Hawke was a trade union leader and he managed to establish agreement between business and the trade unions in the pursuit of economic growth. He became the only Labor Prime Minister to have been removed by his own party while still in office, when he was successfully challenged by Paul Keating in December 1991.
Hawke was born in South Australia in 1929, the son of a Congregational minister and a school teacher. After studying law at the University of Western Australia he won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied economics at Oxford University, where he wrote a thesis on wage fixation. He returned to Australia in 1956 and took up a job with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). He rose through the ranks of the ACTU and became President of the Council in 1970. In this position he gained a high public profile and was involved in many national industrial disputes and in other issues to do with wage, employment and labour.
Hawke was a member of many federal government bodies during the 1970s, including the Reserve Bank Board and the Australian Refugee Advisory Council and was national president of the Labor Party from 1973 to 1978. Hawke was elected to parliament at the 1980 federal election as the ALP candidate for the seat of Wills, Victoria, which he held through the next four general elections. He immediately became a Shadow Minister under Bill Hayden, the then Leader of the Opposition.
In July of 1982 Hawke challenged Hayden for the leadership spot. Hayden contested the challenge and retained the position in a close vote. Hawke's supporters continued to push for him to take over as leader. When Malcolm Fraser called an election in early 1983, Hayden stepped down so as to allow Hawke to contest the election.
Hawke led the Labor party to victory at the election of March 1983, gaining a 15-seat majority in the House of Representatives and 30 Senate seats. Fraser announced his resignation from parliament after conceding defeat and Andrew Peacock was named Leader of the Opposition with John Howard as deputy leader.
Hawke's first major step as Prime Minister was to conduct an 'Economic Summit' meeting in Canberra in April of 1983. This summit brought together political parties, union leadership and business organisations with the goal of reaching a national consensus on economic policy. The 'Wages Accord' which came out of the summit became a central foundation of Hawke government policy. See animation
The Hawke government was criticised from outside and from within the ALP for its willingness to do deals with business interests. Hawke also reversed ALP policy on uranium mining to allow existing uranium mining projects to continue. In one victory for the environmental cause, the Hawke government was able to block construction of the Franklin Dam in Tasmania by appealing to the High Court for its right to legislate to overrule the State of Tasmania. The government used the 'external affairs' power set out in the Commonwealth Constitution to implement World Heritage legislation to prevent the Tasmanian government from building the dam. See image 1
Other key developments in the Hawke years included allowing the operation of foreign banks on Australian soil and the floating of the Australian dollar on international money markets. This was one of the most significant economic policy decisions of the era, if not in Australian history all together, as it overturned the protectionist regulatory financial approach established in the early years of Australia's existence as an independent nation. Many felt that an overly regulated and inward-looking economy was responsible for the decline in Australia's economic performance and the standard of living relative to other countries over the decades after World War II.
As a result of the float and economic deregulation in general, the value of the Australian dollar relative to other currencies became determined by Australian and overseas investors rather than by the government. This opened up the Australian economy to world markets and was a key step in Australia's emergence into a globalised world.
Under Hawke, Australia saw further social reforms and programs implemented. The public Medicare health scheme was introduced in 1984, and throughout the 1980s the Hawke government pursued further initiatives such as the creation of new universities; the setting of national curriculum standards for schools; and the establishment of national training and qualification standards.
As part of its legislative program, the government enacted new versions of older, outdated laws. Most significant were the Industrial Relations Act 1988 (Cth), which replaced the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 (Cth); and the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) which replaced the Social Security Act 1947 (Cth). Other important legislation enacted during the Hawke era included:
The Hawke government also made an important contribution to Australia's Indigenous communities by establishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to act as the peak national policy and administrative agency for Indigenous people in Australia.
Hawke continued to gain re-election throughout the 1980s. Disunity in the Liberal-National Party Opposition was a key factor in his government's success. Hawke's popularity declined throughout the decade, particularly in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash. This rapidly ended the precarious economic boom of the 1980s and led to the spectacular collapse of the business empires of high profile entrepreneurs who had emerged in the early 1980s along with economic losses and anxiety for ordinary Australians.
Both Hawke and his high-profile treasurer Paul Keating received much criticism for moving the Labor Party away from its traditional working-class support base and from its historically socialist outlook. However, it has also been seen that the continued electoral success of the ALP was due to this movement of the party toward the 'middle ground', attracting voters from the support base of the Liberal-National Party coalition.
In his later terms, Hawke oversaw the celebrations of the Bicentenary of the First Fleet and European settlement in Australia (which also saw a protest march through Sydney on Australia Day, the largest protest demonstration ever held by Aboriginal people). The opening of the new Parliament House by the Queen on 9 May 1988 was another celebration during Hawke's leadership.
By 1990 the Australian economy had slid into recession and unemployment figures would go on to reach 11 per cent by 1992, the highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although Hawke had taken the Labor Party to a record fourth term in office at the federal election held in March 1990, the poor state of the economy and the length of Hawke's time in office meant that many of his colleagues felt he was unable to lead the party to further victories. This led to his removal as leader in December 1991, when Keating made a second and successful challenge to Hawke's leadership.
Hawke resigned from parliament soon after being deposed as Prime Minister. He entered TV journalism, and pursued business interests. Throughout the 1990s he was not publicly supportive of the Keating Labor government, but has since supported the Labor leadership of Kim Beazley, his former defence minister.