Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP
Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP
I rise to extend my condolences to Bob Hawke's wife, Blanche, and his children, extended family and friends. I'd also like to make reference to Craig Emerson, a long-time friend of Bob's and someone who really was very supportive of Bob and Blanche through a very difficult period in recent years.
You could spend so much time talking about Bob Hawke. We've only got limited time, of course, and everyone wants to contribute in this place, but I can't recall a time in my life when I don't remember Bob Hawke. As a child, I could remember him on television as the larrikin union leader—well before he was Prime Minister. I can vividly remember him on television: often on the news, often being involved in national disputes and, most usually, looking to reconcile those great disputes. He was a person and a public figure already, well before he had entered this place. It was a very unusual thing to think that someone could have such a fully formed public presence before entering this place, but Bob Hawke had that.
What has been touched upon but not enough so far in this important motion is the importance of his role as a union leader before he became a member of parliament and, of course, the Prime Minister of this great nation. He was at first a researcher, a forensic researcher, at the age of 29, in 1958, at the ACTU. And he of course was someone of a different nature, of a different calibre perhaps but certainly of a different time to many of the people he was surrounded by at the ACTU. He was a Rhodes scholar, university educated and surrounded by men—and, indeed, it was men then, in 1958—that were self-educated. They'd been deprived of the opportunities of education, they had come from the wrong side of the tracks and working-class families, and of course did not have the same opportunities as others back then. But he was always of the view that these self-educated union officials helped inform his world view well before he came to this place.
You think about it in these terms: he spent just over 11 years in parliament; he spent 22 years in the union movement as a researcher and then as a brilliant, compelling and persuasive advocate on behalf of the union movement, and then finally, for 11 years, as the leader of the ACTU. And I think that was very much an important part of his experience that provided him the ability to be such a great Prime Minister, to be such a great chair of a Westminster cabinet and, indeed, to fulfil a remarkable legacy. And you could spend all of your contribution to this motion discussing one reform of the Hawke government, because there were so many.
The fact is I believe the Hawke government still stands as the best government we've seen in this nation's history.
We can argue whether indeed wartime prime ministers were under more pressure, endured more challenge, suffered through the pressures and therefore deserve to be seen as the greatest prime ministers, particularly in the case of John Curtin. But I don't think anyone can argue that the breadth and depth of reform of the Hawke government does not stand as the exemplar of government in this nation since Federation. And that's why we see contributions in this place that are generous and that acknowledge the extent of the reforms of the Hawke government from this side of the chamber and indeed from the other side.
There are so many things you could touch upon. I just want to repeat some and others I may want to touch upon that haven't been emphasised: opening up our economy to the world, floating the dollar and establishing the accord, which was absolutely instrumental to the reforms of the Hawke government. Without the accord, the social wage could not have happened. Without the consensus with the union movement and the business community, we could not have seen these fundamental reforms happen in this nation. It was Bob Hawke, of course relying upon his friends in the union movement, reaching across to the business community and saying: 'You have a national obligation to help restructure our economy so we can modernise this nation in the nation's interest.' And it was that leadership that was so outstanding that allowed many of these reforms.
I go on: the creation of Medicare—remember, that's the return of universal health care after the abolition of Medibank by the previous conservative government and we should not forget that; recognising Uluru; saving the Daintree; ensuring the Franklin flows; protecting the Antarctic; and improving the retention rates of year 12 students from 30 to 80 per cent. That transformed the opportunities for young people in tertiary education, opening up universities so that people could become better skilled, better educated—indeed for themselves an important thing, but of course important for this nation to have a knowledgeable and skilled workforce. These things happened under the Hawke government, and they were not things that necessarily would have happened if there'd been another government of another hue.
I respect and acknowledge the sincere condolences that have been expressed by the Prime Minister and other government members today. I believe they're sincere, and I appreciate the contributions being made today. But I think it's important to note that we should not allow history to be revised to the point where we would assume that what happened under the Hawke era would have happened if there had been a conservative government in its stead. That is not the case. As the member for Hindmarsh mentioned, we were in the world of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. We had trickle-down economics. We had the radicalism of the right. We had Milton Friedman, the economist, who became the orthodox view of those governments. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating did not ascribe to that view, and nor of course did the Labor Party. We took a different path. We included people in the process. We wanted to make sure that everybody gained. That was not indeed the approach taken by conservative governments around the world at that time.
And of course there were differences. They may have changed over time, but the floating of the dollar was not supported by Bob Hawke's predecessor, Malcolm Fraser. And the floating of the dollar was not supported by the first opposition leader of the then conservative opposition, Mr Peacock, at the time. The floating of the dollar happened under the Hawke government with the Treasurer, Paul Keating, at a time which was not agreed to by the then opposition. Nor was the creation of Medicare supported by the opposition of the time. In fact it was vehemently opposed, as were of course many of the Indigenous reforms that the government sought to or indeed managed to achieve.
So, whilst we very much appreciate the genuine, sincere comments by the Prime Minister and other members of the government, I think it's fair to say this country would be of a different nature and have taken a different path if we had not seen the election of the Hawke government in 1983 and the ability to stay in government for four elections with Bob Hawke as Prime Minister and then subsequently Paul Keating in the fifth election win of that era. That was critical.
And there's no doubt that Hawke had learnt from the Whitlam era. He learnt two things.
He learnt you could do so much in so little time, because the remarkable efforts of the Whitlam government led to major, much-needed reform of this nation, but of course the breakneck speed of that reform was in part a reason for the downfall of that Whitlam government. That's the first thing that Bob Hawke learnt. He learnt that you could bring about reform but that you needed to be fiscally responsible, you needed to have a collegiate, disciplined Westminster cabinet and, even if you were bringing about that reform, you needed to do so in a way that was economically responsible. That was the difference. But it certainly was something that was undertaken by a remarkable set of people.
We have mentioned many of the cabinet ministers that comprised the Hawke cabinet over those four terms—remarkable individuals who worked as a team, led by a remarkable leader, Bob Hawke. But it's important to note that there were very significant differences and, indeed, Bob Hawke learnt from the last Labor government, which had its failings and had its flaws but certainly, at its heart, had the focus to make sure that we saw Labor values inform policy.
As I said at the outset, I don't remember a time when Bob Hawke was not in my consciousness—as a union leader, then as a Prime Minister and then, after that, as the nation's elder, always present and always part of our lives. That's why it was such a personal shock, I think, to each of us when he passed. Even though it was inevitable, it was still a shock and it was a loss that we feel deeply. I think that's true.
It's fair to say that I could mention many other policy achievements of that government, but one of the things I'd like to turn to is that, for someone who was so much against being a moraliser, Bob Hawke had such a remarkable moral compass. The moral compass needle of Bob Hawke always pointed to the right thing, often by reflex. Think about his decision to give 30,000 Chinese students a home in Australia because of what we saw in Tiananmen Square and the massacre of Chinese citizens in China. In responding against the advice of his own department and others about the particular diplomatic challenges he would confront in doing so, he chose to support those students by reflex, as a matter of conviction, informed by his view that it was the right thing to do.
He took the same sorts of values to his position with respect to Nelson Mandela. Before he was Prime Minister, as ACTU president he was very much a supporter of imposing bans on the apartheid state. Then, as Prime Minister, knowing that the bans themselves were not achieving results, he led the Commonwealth and other Commonwealth countries to put investment bans on that country until we saw the end of apartheid. My colleagues have already mentioned the great appreciation that Nelson Mandela expressed to Bob Hawke, after his release. We were the first non-African country that Nelson Mandela visited after his release. Indeed, the ACTU was one of the first places he went, because the unions and Bob Hawke were very much instrumental in putting pressure on that regime in order to see the release of that remarkable historical figure and humanitarian, Nelson Mandela. These are the achievements of a great, great leader, and Bob Hawke should be remembered in that manner.
I want to finish on one final thing. We've heard about the way he touched everybody's hearts. He always gave you the impression that you were a close friend. Even though I'm not going to for a moment pretend that he was a close friend of mine—although I knew him for a long time—he always gave the impression when we met that there was some sort of intimate relationship. I think that was his remarkable skill: the way he dealt with people.
There was one occasion, if I may finish on this note, that just really sums up the man himself. I was in Darwin with my wife, Jodi Dack, and daughter, Una Rose. We were in Darwin; we had had a holiday. I noticed Bob Hawke coming into the Qantas lounge. It was packed. That lounge was absolutely packed that day. There were no seats anywhere. As soon as I saw him coming, I grabbed the Qantas staff and said, 'We have to find some chairs. Bob Hawke has turned up.' He wasn't as young as he once was, and I wanted to make sure he was comfortable as we waited for our respective planes. We sorted that out. I ushered Bob over. He was accompanied by his great support. I said, 'I have some seats for you, Bob.' He said, 'Thank you.'
I remembered that I had never had a photo with him and my daughter. I asked him if he wouldn't mind me just taking a photo. Of course, he immediately said that was a great idea. This is why I remember the date well—it was 4 August—because it was the birthday of Jodi's mother, Kay. Jodi's mother, Kay, loved Bob Hawke. She was living in Adelaide at the time. Jodi said, 'Is it all right, Bob, if I ring my mum? You could just say happy birthday to my mother.' Bob said, 'Say happy birthday to her? I'm going to sing her "Happy Birthday".' We had to find him some space in the Qantas lounge. We rang up the number. He didn't even introduce himself; he just started a rendition of 'Happy Birthday' on the phone to a bewildered Kay, who was listening to this person, who seems like they're impersonating Bob Hawke, singing 'Happy Birthday'. He just sings the song, as he always did, completely loud and bold. He really did believe he had a magnificent voice. It wasn't just 'Solidarity Forever'. He sang 'Happy Birthday' as if he had known Kay forever. After he finished, Jodi took the phone and Kay said, 'Who's that impersonating Bob Hawke?' Jodi said, 'No, that was Bob Hawke.' Instead of just saying, 'I'm happy to say happy birthday,' he had to do the whole bells and whistles.
That was what he was like. It didn't matter who it was. It didn't matter how significant the person may have been in the public eye. He treated everybody with great warmth and great passion. He always seemed to be interested in other people. For someone who certainly wasn't shy in thinking of how good he was himself, it was remarkable how much he thought about other people as well. He listened to them and listened to their ideas. Perhaps one of the reasons why he was seen as such a great Prime Minister was that he listened to his colleagues and allowed his colleagues to run their portfolios and run debates in a way that really brought the best out of people. He was a remarkable leader. We will miss him. This nation owes a great debt of gratitude to him and to his family. We have broken the mould. There will be no other Bob Hawke, but what a remarkable thing for this country to have such a great Prime Minister for such an important period in our history.