Honouring the greatest architect of consensus
I think that we in the ALP are better than our opponents in celebrating our history and honouring our own.
Whereas Malcolm Fraser is reviled by modern Liberals and the Democrats cannibalise their leadership, we revere our former Prime Ministers.
Past differences, old feuds and factional rivalries are forgotten as we celebrate success, and forget failures. I’ve seen, for instance, left-wing delegates cheer and give standing ovations to Paul Keating, their former nemesis. For us, Labor’s history is part of our present, and our future.
It’s the platform upon which we stand, giving a sense of purpose and continuum for the Party members who do the hard yards on polling booths, handing our how-to-vote cards.
At our last National Conference we conferred the ALP’s highest honour – honourary life membership – on Gough Whitlam.
Now in his 93rd year, Gough has become the kindly Olympian deity young Laborites would most love to befriend.
Gough and, at the State level, Don Dunstan were champions of change, maestros of the possible; leaders who incessantly summoned their Party and the Australian people to move forward.
They wanted to win because they were driven to do, and were not content just to be.
Together, Gough and Don were the Washington and Jefferson of Labor’s reform and renewal.
The ending of the White Australia Policy, conscription and our involvement in the Vietnam War.
The beginning of universal health insurance, Aboriginal land rights, the recognition of China, free university education.
A reinvigoration of national pride, and a broadening of our cultural horizons.
Tomorrow, at the ALP National Conference, life membership will be bestowed on Bob Hawke.
He was Labor’s most successful Prime Minister, winning four consecutive elections.
Instead of crash through or crash, Bob Hawke was Australia’s greatest architect of consensus.
He was also the best communicator, delegator and chooser of talent.
Bob’s period as Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991 fused a commitment to financial responsibility, economic growth and reform together with major social and environmental initiatives.
Until Hawke, these causes were seen to be mutually exclusive.
Hawke’s actions honoured his creed that “economic reform was not the enemy of social progress, but the necessary condition for it”.
From day one of his Prime Ministership, he vigorously attacked the blight of unemployment to the extent that - by 1990 - his Government had created 1.6 million extra jobs.
Indeed, Australia’s employment growth in the 1980s was more than double the OECD average for that period.
Firmly establishing the concept of the “social wage” through the Accord, the Hawke Government instigated new child-care programs.
It embraced multiculturalism and equality of opportunity.
It provided home care for older and disabled people, and boosted funding for public housing and disadvantaged students.
It increased income support for hundreds of thousands of low-income families.
It oversaw the widespread introduction of compulsory superannuation.
Best of all, it established Medicare, which remains one of the great and enduring monuments of his time in office.
Bob’s efforts in the area of school retention were also exceptional.
When his Government came to office, Australia had one of the worst rates of retention in the developed world, with only one-third of students completing Year 12.
By the early 1990s, that figure had risen to 75 per cent.
Bob was no less active on the international stage.
Under his stewardship, for example, we saw Australia, lead Commonwealth efforts to stare down apartheid, and help set up a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.
Our nation led the influential Cairns Group of nations in global trade talks, and secured a settlement in Cambodia.
It fought against mining in the Antarctic, and embarked on what Bob called Australia’s “enmeshment” with Asia, including the establishment of APEC.
For Labor, these great initiatives and successes made us feel proud to be Australians, especially when we travelled overseas.
It is for all these achievements, and for many, many others, that ordinary Australians still gather round Bob excitedly in the street and call out “Good on you Hawkey”.
He was the great uniter, and is still doing it through the Hawke Centre in Adelaide and, most recently, through the Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia.
He was the great embracer of all the multiple varieties of the Australian spirit.
And for decades, Bob Hawke has been that spirit’s most eloquent voice.
Follow Mike on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/PremierMikeRann
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