I worked for the early Hawke government in 1983 and 1984 when I worked for Senator John Button. Hawke barely knew me then or later, but in 2003, I attended a dinner at Moonee Valley Racecourse in honour of the 20th anniversary of his election. Anyway, I happened to be at his table and made a point at the end of the dinner of going up to him, shaking his hand and saying “Thanks for being the only really good prime minister of my lifetime,” an assessment which I hold to this day.
Hawke and Keating, both at the time of their 13 years in office and ever since, have enjoyed a relative status surprisingly like Paul McCartney and John Lennon, respectively. Paul, like Hawke, was the babyface, the one more liked by your average Joe but John, like Keating, was the one with intimations of depth and drama. We look down upon those who seem to want us to like them – like Paul and Bob. They can’t be a Cool Kid – like Paul and John. In any event, it’s been becoming clearer that Paul was the greater talent in the Beatles, though they were both giants. And I’d say the same of Hawke versus Keating. Labor supporters are also always a sucker for a martyr, and Keating managed to measure up – along with Whitlam and Gillard.
Such fond thoughts are all very well, but in politics, you sign up to a struggle on behalf of those you claim to represent. You owe them everything you can manage to stitch together to achieve victory. If you want to be a grand failure, better to pick religion. Not politics.
In any event, to mark his passing I’m hoisting an essay I wrote in late 2007 trying to crystallise what seemed to me the lessons from the Hawke and Howard years with an obvious eye to the new Rudd government. What I’ve never told anyone before is that on publication, the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rang me and offered to create a post of Australian Strategist Laureate for me if I’d accept it. (I haven’t told anyone this before because I only just made it up.)
Compare and Contrast
Just as Marshall McLuhan argued that, in media, the medium was the message, one can say something similar about style and substance in politics. The style is the substance or at least comes to determine it. The political history of the last generation particularly the contrast between Bob Hawke’s and John Howard’s styles illustrates my point.
Their rhetoric notwithstanding, Hawke’s and Howard’s economic ideologies weren’t far apart. Each sought prosperity through a vigorous market, and each supported substantial income redistribution. But the quality of governance differed considerably in ways that suggest lessons for the future. Continue reading