Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who has died aged 73 of cancer, leaves a political and personal legacy as a man of courage, conviction and congeniality.
The support that Fischer as National Party leader gave was crucial in John Howard’s success in achieving his ground-breaking gun control measure after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
While the issue tested Howard, for Fischer it was extraordinarily tough. Howard recalls: “He never tried to talk me out of it but he made it plain how difficult it was going to be in certain parts of the bush”.
Fischer remained resolute despite the fury of many among his party’s base, where hostility lingered for years.
When Fischer became leader in 1990, with the Coalition in opposition, quite a few observers doubted the party’s choice. (They included this writer; Fischer delighted in recalling that misjudgement.)
He defied the sceptics, managing his party and the Coalition relationship to the benefit of each, despite the challenges, which included not just gun control but the Wik issue, constant sniping from the Queensland part of the party, leadership rumblings, and the electoral threat posed by One Nation.
“The boy from Boree Creek” was born in the Riverina, and educated at Boree Creek Public School and then at Xavier College in Melbourne. He was conscripted in 1966 – subsequently saying his birthday being selected in the ballot proved a “great door opener” – and he served in Vietnam.
His long parliamentary career spanned state and federal politics. In 1971 he entered the NSW parliament; in 1984 he won the federal seat of Farrer.
Grahame Morris (who became Howard’s chief of staff) remembers as a young country reporter covering Fischer’s appearance at a hall in the town of Grong Grong, in his first state campaign. The speech seemed to take forever, because Fischer had a dreadful stutter – which in later years he managed to control, although it left him with an unusual speech pattern.
“That a fellow [who started] with a pronounced stutter became deputy prime minister and an effective communicator is remarkable,” says Morris, a friend of Fischer over decades.
Cabinet colleague Peter Reith said once, “You don’t so much listen to what Tim has to say as imbibe it”.
In the Howard government Fischer was trade minister, a powerful economic bastion for the National party in those days. But his time in office was limited. He stepped down from his party’s leadership (and the ministry) in 1999, largely driven by family factors – Harrison, one of his two young sons, had autism.
When he went to tell Howard of his decision, the PM tried to talk him out of it. Fischer, feeling he was losing the argument, played his winning card – revealing he had already told a journalist on a VIP flight from New Zealand earlier in the day. He left parliament in 2001.
The citation when Charles Sturt University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2001 captured much about his personality: “Tim’s life has been about dogged adherence to goals. It has also been about risk-taking, grabbing opportunities and perseverance.”
The highlight of a busy post-politics career was serving as Australia’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See, a post to which he was appointed by Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Among a myriad of interests and activities, including writing several books, Fischer’s special passion was trains, which saw him leading tours at home and abroad and, while at the Vatican, organising the Caritas Express, a steam train trip from the Pope’s platform to Orvieto in Umbria .
Last month Fischer was among those aboard a one-off passenger train, raising money for the Albury Wodonga Cancer Centre trust fund, that travelled to tiny Boree Creek, where a park was named for him. “It’s nice to be going home, on a special train,” he said.
Amid the tributes to former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer and the stories of his authenticity, courage and quirky interests – like trains and military history – what has struck me most are the examples of his personal kindness.
One of those stories is how Fischer helped a desperate Laotian refugee who in 1986 pulled a gun at the Immigration office in Albury, near Fischer’s office. It turned into a siege. Fischer walked in alone and defused the situation. He then travelled to Thailand in an attempt to get the man’s family out of the refugee camp in which they were stuck.
There are many similar stories – from army mates, farmers, journalist and politicians of all parties. I experienced Fischer’s personal kindness several times.
The first was when I was appointed chief economist at Austrade in 1999. That made Fischer, who was the federal trade minister as well as deputy prime minister, my boss.
My appointment was heavily criticised in The Australian newspaper – presumably because my previous job was with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It called my appointment “payback” for Fischer’s chief of staff, Craig Symon, getting a senior executive role at Austrade.
I was a bit worried. But then I got a phone call from Fischer. “You got the job on your abilities as an economist,” he said to me. “If you get any political crap, let me know.”
Austrade staff loved working for Fischer. Every time he made a speech at a public event, he would single out an Austrade employee and recall something good they had done. It it made the person feel like a million bucks.
The second was when my book The Airport Economist was published, in 2008. Fischer took a copy to Thailand and gave it to the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, an avid reader of economic literature.
At a later APEC summit, when world leaders were asked their favourite book, Abhisit replied: “The Airport Economist.” Straight away the Bangkok Post published the book in the Thai language. We had a book launch at the Bangkok Stock Exchange with Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand and Thai TV anchor Rungthip Chotnapalai. The book became a best seller in Thailand, all thanks to Fischer.
An unsung hero of Asian engagement
Fischer is in many ways the unsung hero of Australia’s changed attitudes to Asia in the 20th century. Labor’s legends Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are all known for championing Asian economic engagement. But Fischer also played a huge role in cementing relationships. He laid his Akubra hat on negotiating tables in most of Asia’s capitals, spruiked deals and hammered out treaties.
A veteran of the Vietnam war, his army days no doubt affected how he thought Australia should view our neighbours. His passion for improved ties with Asia generally, not just in trade, was genuine and authentic. He loved Thailand and Bhutan in particular.
He was in some ways, part of a tradition of Country/National party leaders who pushed Australia towards Asia, largely for economic reasons. For example, John “Black Jack” McEwen negotiated the Commerce Agreement with Japan in 1957, just 12 years after World War II. In the 1970s, Doug Anthony also championed our interests in Asia. Fischer similarly saw Asia as “Our Near North” rather than that quaint old term “The Far East”.
Fischer had his blind spots, to be sure. He failed to appreciate the High Court’s Mabo and Wik decisions, for example. He was a sucker for conspiracy theories at times. But you can’t have everything.
His political career was long, beginning with election to the New South Wales parliament at age 24. But his ministerial career was quite short – just three years. In 1999 he quit his ministerial posts, and the leadership of the National Party, to spend more time to his family – especially his son Harrison, then aged five, who had been diagnosed with autism.
But the impression Fischer made makes it seem he spent much longer at the top. He was like cricketer Mike Whitney and rugby union player Peter Fitzsimmons. Neither played many tests for Australia but they sure leveraged that time into successful subsequent careers. Fischer did the same.
Now the train has finally left the station.
Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics and host of The Airport Economist, UNSW
Since the news broke of his passing, Bob Hawke has been feted as the “environmental prime minister”. From saving the Franklin River, to protecting Antarctica from mining, conservationists have praised his environmental legacy in the same way economists have lauded his financial reforms.
Hawke was in the Lodge during the crucial period when Australia first became aware of – and tried to grapple with – the issue of climate change. And the trajectory of his leadership, not to mention the manner and timing of his political demise, leaves behind a huge question of what might have been.
Hawke had been in the public eye since becoming head of the ACTU (a far more consequential body back then) in the late 1960s.
Famously, he took the leadership of the Australian Labor Party from Bill Hayden on the morning that then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called the 1983 election. That election had a major environmental issue: the proposed damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania.
Labor promised to halt the project if elected, and it duly did so, winning the court case later that year. But elsewhere Labor remained reluctant to use its federal environmental powers in a wholesale way. Although there was a National Conservation Strategy, Hawke and his senior ministers remained focused on transforming Australia’s economy, bringing down tariff barriers, floating the dollar, and much else.
There were specific battles over the Wet Tropics, uranium mining, and other “green” issues. But something was coming down the track that would ultimately outstrip them all.
Barry Jones, Hawke’s science minister from 1983 to 1990, tried in vain to get ministers interested in climate change. Jones mournfully noted in 2008 that he had raised the alarm in 1984, but his cabinet colleagues did not listen:
The response from my political colleagues in Canberra was distinctly underwhelming. I think some of them were persuaded by (industry) lobbyists to say sooner or later a technological fix will come up.
Political journalist Niki Savva’s memoir, So Greek (p.136), gives a clue as to the possible reasons behind this:
Bob Hawke couldn’t stand Barry. A few journos, included myself, were talking to Hawke at the back of his VIP aircraft once about his ministers, when one of my colleagues said to him: “Take Barry Jones…” Hawke interrupted and said testily, “No, you take him.”
It would take a different, more politically cunning minister in Hawke’s next cabinet (1987-90) to bend his colleagues’ ears towards the climate question. The incoming environment minister, Graham Richardson, realised the electoral importance of green issues – whether the ozone hole, deforestation or sewage – in helping Labor differentiate itself from the Liberals. Meanwhile, Hawke had other advisors who were also fighting the green fight from within, and noisy large environment groups without.
After the Commission for the Future (a Barry Jones initiative) had launched the Greenhouse Project in 1987, Hawke began to give speeches about the importance of action against the emerging threat of global warming.
In June 1989, Richardson, having proposed a greenhouse emissions target only to see the idea nixed in cabinet by treasurer Paul Keating, noted:
The environment is galloping up the hit parade, and will be top of the pops pretty soon. It’s come from nowhere as an election issue to be Number Two to interest rates.
Hawke’s 1989 statement on the environment (jokingly called the World’s Greatest Environmental Statement) contained little detail on the idea of emissions reductions. Ironically enough, the Liberals went to the March 1990 election with a more ambitious emissions target than Labor.
After winning the 1990 election with Green preferences, the Hawke government established the “Ecologically Sustainable Development” policy process. It featured nine working groups in areas including agriculture, tourism, energy use, and so on, with an overarching “greenhouse” group added later.
However, by 1991, the climate issue was slipping down the charts once more, eclipsed by concerns such as the first Gulf War and the “recession we had to have”. What’s more, Hawke’s relationship with Keating had broken down after he reneged on his promise to stand aside after a third term, and the airwaves were now dominated by political intrigue.
Meanwhile, the business community was growing more organised in its resistance to environmental regulation. After Hawke vetoed a uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in 1991, industry formed the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (see Guy Pearse’s High and Dry for the full story) to make sure climate policy didn’t follow the same path.
Hawke stuck to his guns. In October 1991, at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, he pledged to go to the following year’s Earth Summit in Rio and apply maximum pressure for global action.
Hawke’s days as prime minister, however, were numbered. In December 1991, after a lacklustre parliamentary response to John Hewson’s “Fightback!” policy launch, Keating’s forces moved in for the kill. Hawke’s time as leader had begun and ended with leadership coups – a tactic that has become an even more potent threat in recent years as the climate wars have heated up.
Keating didn’t go to Rio in 1992, making Australia the only OECD country that didn’t have its top political leader present at the landmark summit.
Australia produced an eye-wateringly weak National Greenhouse Response Strategy that was not worth the paper it was written on, and was within two years challenged by greens seeking a carbon levy.
There was an effort to get more meaningful domestic policy ahead of the first round of UN climate talks in 1995. But this was defeated by a beefed-up constellation of energy companies, academics and think-tankers, with newspapers and unions helping. Since then, Australian climate policy has been, to put it mildly, inadequate.
Could it have been different?
Hawke had a penchant for the grand gesture – from “no Australian child will be living in poverty” to “Australian servicemen not dying overseas” – and this naturally prompts us to ask “what if”?
What if he had been at Rio? What if Australia had invested properly in energy efficiency, solar and other renewables? Of course it’s entirely conceivable that the business community’s response would simply have been even more ferocious, and the environmental movement’s early-1990s malaise all the more pronounced. But it’s not impossible to imagine that Hawke’s forceful determination would have carried the day, as it did on so many others.
There’s been a lot of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since Hawke was prime minister, and plenty of hot air pumped into the climate policy debate. But although Hawke fell agonisingly short of finding out who would prevail in 2019, the next prime minister’s climate task is clearer than his, and far more difficult: preparing Australians for inevitable consequences of past policy failures.
It’s always easy to romanticise the past – in celebrating the prime ministership of Bob Hawke it is important to remember it had its peaks and troughs.
Trouble marked many years – the fall of ministers, nasty spats between the PM and his treasurer – and it ended badly. After winning four elections, Hawke was dumped by caucus.
And Hawke’s successes look easier in retrospect than they were, or appeared, at the time.
Having imposed that reality check, another reality is that without doubt, Hawke did more, and did it better, than any of the prime ministers we’ve had in the last decade, and probably any PM since he left.
Many Liberals put John Howard up there with Hawke, but the totality of his achievements doesn’t warrant that conclusion, despite his legacies of gun control and the GST.
And Paul Keating’s major contribution was as treasurer. In the top job, his most singular success was clinching the unwinnable election; he had policy victories, such as the Mabo legislation, but it was a prime ministership of unfulfilled promise. Arguably, one factor was he got the post too late.
So if Hawke was the best of our modern prime ministers, what was special about his governing?
Partly – but only partly – the times make the leader.
When Hawke won power in 1983, the Australian economy was under pressure to open itself to the world. Any government would have had to deal with that. It was a question of how to make the adjustments, which inevitably would involve some pain.
While the challenges imposed by the time put exceptional demands on Hawke and his government, they also provided opportunities to shine.
Although it’s less than four decades ago, this was a very different political environment in which to operate, one with a vigorous mainstream media but without social media or the 24-hour news cycle. Paradoxically, it was an easier time in which to have a serious policy debate.
At the heart of Hawke’s political strength was his character, and his personal story. The Australian people had a great love affair with their future PM well before he entered parliament.
They admired, albeit wondered at, his freewheeling style – the I’ll-do-it-my-way nature of the man. For many people, Hawke typified what they thought of as the true Australian, even if that was a caricature.
This was vital politically because it enabled Hawke to connect with the public. People were inclined to trust him, even when his government’s policies demanded sacrifices or involved U-turns.
Days before the 1983 election, Hawke paved the way for breaking promises if the circumstances he inherited demanded it. When things panned out that way, there was more public understanding than you’d see today.
Hawke had the temperament for governing. Before he became leader, some critics wondered about his suitability for the job. Would he be too volatile to run a team? Would he lack personal restraint?
In fact, he was adept at disciplining himself and, in general, managing his ministers. Secure in his skin – he had a large ego but not a fragile one – he usually knew how much rein to give ministers, and when to rein them in. Gareth Evans wrote: “So long as ministers weren’t screwing up, or deviating too far from the government’s collective storyline, he let us get on with the job”.
The relationship with Keating was highly productive, though progressively harder to handle. On policy, Keating was angry when Hawke overrode him to abandon the push for a broad-based consumption tax, settling for more modest reform. For Hawke, it was a matter of what the traffic would bear.
Hawke’s biggest management failure was his own exit. Having agreed on a succession plan with Keating, he went back on it and stayed too long, fracturing the government and leading to his forced departure.
He was very fortunate in those around him – his cabinets contained some quality players.
Apart from Keating, ministers such as John Button, John Dawkins, Evans, Neal Blewett, Susan Ryan, Ralph Willis, Bill Hayden, Kim Beazley, Brian Howe, and Peter Walsh were among those who were notable not just in their areas but as contributors to the collective discussions. Hawke and those around him had also learned what not to do from the Whitlam experience.
In Hawke’s day, Labor’s caucus and the ALP’s extra-parliamentary wing were noisier beasts than now. Wrangling the caucus could be testing work, for Hawke, Keating, individual ministers and factional chiefs. Party conferences still had real teeth, and they too, had to be cajoled to endorse what many in the rank and file thought “unLabor” policies.
A linchpin of the Hawke government, facilitating trade-offs between economic reform and social wage benefits for workers, was the accord with the union movement. Keating did much of the negotiating under its framework, but Hawke’s deep roots and connections in the union movement were invaluable.
So what can be taken from then and applied to now?
We can’t conjure up a Hawke-style personality. No current leader touches him for charisma, popularity or communications skills, even leaving aside the larrikin history (which some say could never pass muster in our more politically-correct era).
These are harder times in which to govern – because of the low level of public trust in politicians, the nature of the news cycle, and much else. Nor are there those compelling circumstances to help shape a government’s agenda and drive change.
But Hawke’s emphasis on bringing people together, in the community, in his party, in his cabinet, carries lessons for a contemporary prime minister. The ability he showed to look to the longer term while still balancing out the immediate politics is much needed today, as are ministers able and willing to bring intellect to arguing their cases, not just talking points.
Bob Hawke will be remembered variously as Labor’s longest and Australia’s third-longest serving prime minister, as a union leader, and a larrikin.
But most of all, he will be remembered as a reformer -— presiding over a set of economic reforms that modernised the Australian economy and set the stage for the prosperity of the last three decades.
Floating the dollar
On Sunday March 6 1983, hours after the election that swept him to victory, Hawke and his treasurer-designate Paul Keating met the head of the treasury John Stone, a contemporary of Hawke’s from Perth Modern high school, in the empty saloon bar of Canberra’s Lakeside Hotel, where Hawke had spent the night.
Stone told him the dollar was far too high and recommended a huge and immediate devaluation of 10%. Hake’s new economic advisor Ross Garnaut soon formed the view that it was crazy to manually adjust the dollar to stop too much money pouring into and out of the country. When, later in the year, Stone opposed the idea of floating the dollar and the Reserve Bank recommended only inching slowly towards a float, Hawke said words to the effect of “why not right now?”.
From Monday December 12, 1983, buyers and sellers have set the value to the dollar, allowing its price to adjust (mostly) smoothly in order to meet supply and demand. The economy has better managed itself.
In early 1985 the government injected some real competition into Australian banking, inviting applications for new banks.
Later that year it relaxed restrictions on foreign investment in Australia.
Together these reforms provided a capital-thirsty Australian economy with the much-needed fuel it needed to unlock a huge range of investment opportunities.
The wage-price spirals that bedeviled advanced economies in the 1970s continued in Australia until the prices and incomes Accord of 1983. High inflation had led to large wage claims which further fuelled inflation.
The key was to find a way to break this vicious circle of expectations. The first Accord, which guaranteed wages increases every six months indexed to the consumer price index, did just that. Once people knew that wages weren’t going to gallop ahead of prices, there was less of a reason to raise prices, which put less pressure on wages, and so on.
Hawke introduced a raft of other changes to industrial relations all the way through to the 1991 introduction of enterprise bargaining, all of which reformed an outmoded industrial relations system. But it was the Accord that was in many ways the most dramatic.
Although the Whitlam government began the removal of tariff barriers with a dramatic 25% cut in 1973, it Hawke that began a further and systematic reduction in tariffs and other trade barriers, for some products all the way down to near zero. It was also coupled with adjustment assistance for affected workers (something I have said consistently that didn’t go far enough.
A raft of government assets began to be privatised under Hawke. From the Commonwealth Bank to Qantas, these large Australian companies were lazy, slow-moving, and insulated from competition. Qantas used to fly direct to Rome several times a week. Why? Well, which politician or diplomat doesn’t like a trip to Rome and would want to change at Heathrow?
Removing political meddling and subjecting these companies to competitive pressure ensured they served their customers better, employed more people over time, and provided returns to most Australians through the shares there superannuation owned.
A philosophy, not a list of policies
This is an incomplete list of Hawke’s reforms and achievements. And his government left more than a list of accomplishments, however important.
Hawke, and the government he led was the “Third Way” before we knew what that term meant. Before Clinton was Clinton, before Blair was Blair.
It took a Labor government to make these market-oriented reforms. Matched with policies like the reintroduction of Medicare, they reflected an ideology that was pro-market, but also prosocial.
And while Paul Keating as treasurer must surely receive a good measure of credit, so too the then opposition — especially John Howard — for not mindlessly blocking many of the reforms, it was the leadership of Hawke that made it possible.
A charismatic leader, master tactician, and pathbreaking economic reformer. We will miss you, Bob Hawke.
If Bob Hawke had never become prime minister, he would still be recalled as a major figure in Australian political and industrial history. As president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Hawke was as instantly recognisable as any pop star. But it is as prime minister of Australia (1983-1991) that he made his greatest mark.
Robert James Lee Hawke was born in Bordertown, South Australia, on December 9 1929, the younger of two sons of Clem Hawke, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife Ellie. The family – minus Neil, who was at boarding school in Adelaide – moved to South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula in 1935. Clem had always doted on Bob, regarding him as “special”. But following Neil’s tragic death from meningitis, Ellie’s passionate love and missionary purpose focused with a new intensity on her remaining son.
The family moved to Perth in 1939. Hawke was educated at the selective Perth Modern School and, from 1947, the University of Western Australia, where he completed degrees in arts and law. He also threw himself into student politics, eventually being elected president of the Guild of Undergraduates.
Clem’s younger brother Albert, a Labor member of the Western Australian parliament and premier from 1953 until 1959, was in these matters his nephew’s mentor and guide.
Bob’s survival of a near-death experience in a motorcycle accident confirmed his parents’ conviction that God had spared their son for a high public purpose. Hawke would abandon Christianity after witnessing poverty in India, but never lost the zeal that dictated he must fully use his talents to make a better world.
While Hawke was at university he met the attractive and intelligent Hazel Masterson, to whom he became engaged in 1950. The following year, Hawke failed to win the Rhodes Scholarship, but was determined to make another bid. Hazel then became pregnant: if they had married – as was usual for a courting couple in such straits – Bob would have been ineligible. Instead, Hazel underwent a traumatic abortion, the first major sacrifice in a marriage that would demand much of her.
Awarded the Rhodes Scholarship in 1952, Hawke travelled to Oxford, where he completed a Bachelor of Letters thesis on Australian wage determination, learned to fly, and broke a world beer-drinking record. Hazel joined him in England.
They married in Perth in 1956 and moved to Canberra, where Hawke had a scholarship to research a doctorate in law at the Australian National University. In 1958, the offer of a position as ACTU research officer led him to abandon his studies and the Hawkes – including Susan, the first of their three children – moved to Melbourne. He proved a pugnacious, knowledgeable and persuasive advocate, becoming a hero in union circles after some notable successes in the Arbitration Commission. In 1963, he narrowly missed winning the federal seat of Corio.
In 1969, Hawke was elected ACTU president, receiving the left’s support in what turned out to be a closely fought contest. During the 1970s, he became a towering figure in national political and industrial life.
Hawke was peculiarly popular at a time when unions were not, perhaps partly on account of his reputation for having the magic touch in the resolution of industrial conflict. His arched eyebrows and dark wavy hair gave him a striking, handsome appearance seemingly made for television. His educated yet unmistakably Australian speech resonated with the era’s more assertive national identity.
Hawke was also ALP president from 1973 until 1978, and he served as a governor of the Reserve Bank from 1973 until 1980. His relationship with Gough Whitlam was fraught – there was hardly room on the national stage for two egos on this scale – but Hawke was a calming influence after the dismissal, resisting calls for a general strike.
To many, Hawke’s rise to the prime ministership appeared inexorable, yet by the late 1970s there were in place some formidable personal barriers. Hawke was a champion womaniser and boozer. He was an unpleasant drunk. And his widely admired charm and charisma came with a volcanic temper, sometimes on display in his television appearances.
Some flamboyantly boorish behaviour at the 1979 ALP National Conference in Adelaide – involving intemperate criticism of party leader Bill Hayden in the presence of journalists – briefly imperilled his career. But having decided to enter parliament, he gave up the grog. A 1982 biography written by his former lover and future wife, Blanche d’Alpuget, made a clean breast of his personal excesses and family failings. By this time Hawke was the federal member for Wills and shadow minister for industrial relations, having entered parliament at the 1980 election.
Hawke’s pursuit of the federal Labor leadership showed that he was prepared to be ruthless in dealing with an opponent when they stood in the way of what he saw as his destiny. Piece by piece, he and his allies undermined Hayden’s confidence and standing. An unsuccessful bid for the party leadership in mid-1982 was followed by elevation to the leadership in February 1983 after key party powerbrokers lost confidence in Hayden’s prospects, virtually forcing his resignation. Hawke led his party to a comfortable victory on March 5.
In government, he was fortunate to have inherited the Prices and Incomes Accord, finally agreed by the federal ALP and ACTU after Hawke assumed the leadership. The accord committed unions to wage restraint in return for benefits such as Medicare.
Hawke was also endowed with a talented frontbench. But he proved himself a skilled cabinet chair, with a flair for getting the best out of people. His popularity was a valuable asset; Hawke’s approval rating soared, giving weight to his conviction that he had a special relationship with the Australian people.
Hawke was also lucky. The drought ended. The worst of the recession would soon be over. And Australia II’s victory in the America’s Cup seemed as much Hawke’s victory as that of the successful syndicate, after a jubilant prime minister announced that any boss who sacked a worker for not turning up that day was a “bum”.
An emboldened government floated the dollar – in essence, the joint decision of a highly productive partnership with his treasurer, Paul Keating. The government, helped by a High Court decision, prevented the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania, while Hawke steered the country through a divisive debate about Asian immigration. But in the face of opposition from some states and the mining sector, the government abandoned national Aboriginal land rights legislation, and Hawke’s later commitment to a treaty, similarly abandoned, further damaged the government’s reputation in Aboriginal affairs.
In 1984, Hawke shed public tears over the heroin addiction of his daughter, Rosslyn. He was not at his best in the subsequent election campaign. Hawke won, but had lost some of his shininess.
A balance-of-payments crisis and plunge in the dollar in the mid-1980s provided the backdrop for greater financial stringency and further free-market reform. Welfare carefully targeted those most in need, university fees were reintroduced, and tariffs were lowered. Some public assets were sold.
Critics complained of the abandonment of Labor tradition and criticised Hawke’s closeness to his “rich mates”, along with his alleged subservience to the United States. Electorally, though, Hawke remained a winner, enjoying further victories in 1987 and 1990. No federal Labor leader had won three elections, let alone four.
Hawke’s prime ministership came to grief over his rivalry with Keating and the deterioration of Australia’s economy, culminating in the worst recession since the 1930s. After an unsuccessful tilt at the leadership in mid-1991, Keating defeated Hawke in a ballot shortly before Christmas. Hawke resigned from parliament.
His memoirs, published in 1994, attracted considerable interest not least for his continuing hostility to Keating who was still then prime minister. In 1995, following a divorce from Hazel, he married d’Alpuget. Hawke subsequently worked in the media, pursued a business career and served as chairman of the committee of experts of Education International, a global voice of the teaching profession.
In a 2010 survey of historians and political scientists, Hawke came second, just behind his hero, John Curtin. Hawke’s historical reputation has risen as his record has been viewed in light of the more modest achievements of every one of his successors.
He is survived by his second wife, Blanche d’Alpuget, his children by his first marriage, Susan, Stephen and Rosslyn, six grandchildren, as well as great-grandchildren.
There are some writers whose voice, by sheer accident of timing in your life, reach far deeper into your brain than the specifics of what they wrote.
For me, it was the satirist and actor John Clarke, who died suddenly on Sunday while hiking in the Grampians, aged 68. I never met Clarke. But he taught me a great deal about the English language and the Australasian voice, and what can be done with both.
Clarke was a transplanted New Zealander who became an essential Australian presence. As a young man he’d swapped the shearing shed for university without ever losing his clear affection for both worlds. That sums up the sense of duality in Clarke’s persona, firmly at home yet ever so slightly removed from the absurdity around him.
The ideal posture for the satirist, in other words. And his facility with language was wholly unrivalled in Australian satire.
One of my earliest comedy memories was my parents’ copy of The Fred Dagg Tapes. I had no idea who Whitlam or Kerr were, but I hung on every word. You have to. You cannot listen to Clarke even at his most seemingly flippant without sensing the incredible precision of the word choices and the careful elegance with which his sentences are shaped and finessed. Every flourish and detour, every wry circumlocution, is perfectly formed and placed.
In that craftsmanship lies the unnerving durability of Clarke’s work. So much of early 1980s Australia seems impossibly alien now, yet Fred Dagg’s musings on real estate could have been written yesterday:
You can’t write like that anymore. The media that services our Twitter-addled attention spans won’t reward phrases like “probably isn’t going to glisten with rectitude” or “why you would want to depart too radically from the constraints laid down for us by the conventional calibration of distance?,” or writing insider send-ups of literature (“the stark hostility of the land itself – I’m sorry, the stark hostility of the very land itself”) or entire books parodying major poets with perfect pitch.
Clarke could invite his reader into jokes about Samuel Richardson (“he’s probably dead now, he was a very old man when I knew him”) or Ibsen and Monet playing tennis
without a trace of pretension or smugness. His Commonplace pieces for Meanjin reveal a remarkable racconteur with an obvious curiosity for people and places. Above all, his work is shot through with an unflagging affection for language itself. And, in deference to the fact this is supposed to be a philosophy column, we should note his unique take on Socratic Paradox:
To call what Clarke did sarcasm seems at once too crude and too weak. It’s a dryness beyond sarcasm. To work at all, irony has to find a way to signal the speaker’s ironic distance from what they’re saying. The question is how you do it. Sarcasm screams it at you; subtler irony gives you a knowing wink. Clarke doesn’t have to wink. It’s there already, something at the top of the throat, in the posture, in something the forehead’s doing. A near-total irony perfect for dissecting the deadly serious.
Clarke’s was a voice that was Australasian in the best sense: refusing self-importance but finding a deep earnestness in taking the piss.
He didn’t do impressions or voices, he just did his voice. It didn’t matter who he was meant to be: the voice sounded right. It sounded right as any politician you care to mention, it sounded right as Wal Footrot, and it sounded right as the conniving developer in Crackerjack.
It was a finely-tuned instrument in The Games. In a country that lurches alarmingly between cultural cringe and shallow triumphalism, The Games hit the sweet spot in the national neuroses in a way that’s unlikely ever to be repeated.
And it was never better than when he and Bryan Dawe deftly unweaved the tortured logic of the week with paradoxically brutal restraint. Clarke and Dawe was a masterpiece precisely because two middle-aged men in unremarkable suits against a black background, not even attempting an impression or costume, made a space where the latest absurdity could be made to disassemble itself in front of us.
Urgency in wryness. Bemused ferocity. We so dearly need voices like that, but we’ve just lost the best we had.
It cannot be the final arkle! Surely the inventor of Dave Sorenson, greatest and most persistently injured of farnarklers, will rebuild himself for the next match. Please tell me this is only the umlaut, and John Clarke will be back for the second half. In our more than usually absurd world, we have never needed him more.
I can make no claim to personal acquaintance with Clarke – who died from natural causes while bushwalking in Victoria over the weekend – though by all accounts he was a lovely man. I do, however, feel I’ve known his work all my adult life, from Fred Dagg to last week’s Clarke and Dawe, so I write in appreciation of the work on this terrible day.
It is a magnificent achievement of focused and pitch-perfect satire. He gave voice to a brilliant antipodean acerbity that has always seemed a little old-fashioned in its moral and tonal dignity, and has been so pointedly timely because of that.
The bedrock of his genius is the craft, the total control of rhythm, syntax, and tone. Because he wrote mostly for the screen and in short forms, it is easy to underestimate this quality. He was simply unparalleled. No Australian or Kiwi writer has ever controlled the rhythms and ironies of our English as well.
Internationally, you’d have to admit that Samuel Beckett was tauter, but nowhere near as funny. Other peers are scarce in all the world, even before you take his voice as an actor into account. Go back and read the scripts of the Games, and see if you can find a slip of tone or any emotional or political sloppiness. You may be some time.
His regular mode was disdain and wonderment at the antics of the knaves and fools who run this millennial world. He was the antithesis of excess and profoundly at odds with the dominant celebrity culture. Instead, he has been a voice from the immediate past in this era of globalisation, media glut, and economic liberalism, a voice of understated but never complacent decency.
All this is clearest in the strange success of the Clarke and Dawe skits. His reverse caricature of public figures made no attempt to imitate the person he was parodying, either in appearance or in the more obvious elements of voice.
So far as I am aware, no-one anywhere else has managed to pull it off. If you listen carefully, it really is John Clarke parodying Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull, not by exaggerating the mannerisms, but by inhabiting their patterns of language and clinically exposing their vacuity or dishonesty. It’s a forensic satirical analysis at least half a world away from the swingeing condemnations of our other recent loss, Bill Leak.
Clarke was old-fashioned in manner and also in ethics. Very unfashionably, he valued facts, detachment, and restraint. This led to a deep and coherent form of political engagement that would explode foolishness wherever it appeared. He was broadly of the left, but he called out absurd politicking and the dishonest language wherever he found it.
Satirists are the permanent opposition to power in freeish societies like ours. He fought the abuses of power with wit and irony in governments of all colours, and in the corporate corruption of our national obsession with sport in the Games.
Had he stayed in New Zealand, he could well have had to take on the All Blacks for the sake of a more innocent love of the game. He ducked that fight, and Australia is the richer for it, in our usual way of Kiwi appropriation.
There was nothing soft about Clarke’s nostalgia. It remained a steady and brilliant challenge to value what is good, not just what is new. And he was fascinated by what he saw around him. His was the most generous spirited derision you could imagine.
Every time I have had to choose the tense of a verb in this article, it has been harrowing to have to use the preterite, and not the present. There were so many more knaves and fools for Clarke to excoriate as the tide of blah swirls ever around us.
I think I’ll go out and check the length of the 100 metres track at Olympic Park in memory of him. Perhaps we could go as a group.