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Prime Minister interviews

Southeast Asia

 

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Prime Minister interviews

 

Bob Hawke, 60th birthday interview

9 December 1989

Published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Courier Mail, Advertiser, West Australian, Mercury, NT News, Canberra Times and Courier-Mail


IN JANUARY 1971 a group of international travellers was camped on a sheltered Darwin beach, recovering from travel, Afghani hashish and culture shock. Presently a motor boat rounded the point, and headed straight for shore. On board were an Aboriginal, who was steering, and a white man standing on the prow. Between them on the floor were piled several cases of beer.


The white man put a case of beer under one arm, leapt onto the sand, and strode toward the now-wary travellers. "Gudday fellas! How's the revolution going?" he shouted - before handing round the beer, and settling in for an afternoon of drink and conversation. The Australians informed their disbelieving companions that their unexpected guest was the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Bob Hawke.


The Hawke of that period was like Australia's Superman: he materialised everywhere to hose down trouble, and befriend the common man. (His relationship with the common woman was more complex.) The brilliant young lawyer-economist who became the best industrial advocate in our history was still regarded as very left-wing in the 1960s. Many believed he was a Communist. He associated himself with many of the Left's causes: unity tickets between ALP and Communist candidates for union office; vitriolic anti-Americanism; a deep suspicion of ASIO and the CIA. As recently as 1969 he was locked in the back room of [Melbourne's] Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar by the proprietor, for singing revolutionary songs with a little too much enthusiasm.


Today, on his sixtieth birthday, the startling, bald statements, and the hell-raising exploits, exist only in biographies and newspaper libraries. Hawke is still undeniably sharp as a tack - and, from what I saw in Parliament before our interview - is able to effortlessly demolish Peacock on the floor of the House. Yet in private he is a studied, often formal man, who doesn't doesn't laugh much.


Up close, some of Hawke's words seem to come from genuine feeling, and some - judging by the body language and the eyes - are the rote pronouncements of one who has interests to balance, secrets to protect, and a fickle public which must not on any account be offended. Australia has lost a frewheeling larrikin, and gained a Prime Minister.


But Hawke's Australian patriotism has never been in question. In 1982 I heard him privately tell the actor Jack Thompson that the film Breaker Morant had made him "proud to be an Australian" - the only time I have heard the phrase used outside an election speech. Hawke has a passable knowledge of every aspect of national life, from literature to the export figures. In his long run-up to the Prime Ministership, he visited Aboriginal settlements, hippie communes, race meetings and boardrooms - relentlessly spreading himself out over Australia, as if in an attempt to absorb, then embody, the national psyche.


For me, it only remained to be seen whether Hawke the individual still has a life separate from that of the nation.


 


IN A GENERALLY solemn discussion, lasting nearly an hour and a half, it transpired that a little of Hawke's old humour had survived - albeit in politicised form. A question about Peacock - was he still committed to a TV debate with the Opposition leader? - brought a ready smirk.


"If he's still the leader, yeah. And if he's not - with whoever is. There's a fair bit of unhappiness around the place, I understand, with Andrew. And John - John Howard - to his great credit, has said that the ambition to lead is still there." He smiled sanctimoniously. "But I don't want to be mischievous."


The smile didn't remain long: I broached an issue over which the second Hawke Government attracted wide criticism - its decision to allow News Ltd to purchase the Herald and Weekly Times empire. Was Hawke now comfortable with the fact that one man - a foreigner - owned most of Australia's print media?


"I think the figure that's used is about 57 percent..." (The figure I had seen - which excluded the Adelaide News and the Brisbane Sun, which were bought out by former Murdoch employees - was 62 percent.) "Was it? Well, let me give the background to that. We have broken down what was really the most objectionable feature of the media in Australia - that one person in a particular area could have a monopoly of print, radio and television... Now - in this world, you've either got to say that you're going to allow the market to operate, or you aren't. If you're talking about an absolutely ideal world, you might like to see some greater diffusion of ownership. But I accept that we are a market economy. I will have my arguments - and have had - with some of the positions adopted in the Murdoch media. But I don't see evidence of any abuse of that power which is peculiar to Murdoch."


Critics of the Herald and Weekly Times takeover suspect that Treasury's Foreign Investment Review Board recommended against allowing it to go ahead. (And that the Government rejected this recommendation.) I asked Hawke if the FIRB did so recommend?


"There was no adverse recommendation."


This is the first time a member of the Government has made public that crucial FIRB recommendation. Attempts have been made to obtain it through the Freedom of Information Act for two years. Hawke's reply goes against the tide of rumours, and flatly contradicts those who claim inside knowledge to the effect that there was an adverse recommendation.


I asked Hawke if our press was more conservative after the Murdoch takeovers?


"No, I don't think so. If you look at the media vis a vis the Labor Party, my God - we get an infinitely better go - an infinitely better go - than the Labor Party used to."


Was there an element of fear of Murdoch, which led to the Government's decision to allow him to take over the HWT?


"No, no. No. Absolutely no relevance to it at all."


How did Hawke get on with Rupert personally?


"I see him very, very rarely - very rarely. But when I do I find I'm able to have very interesting conversation with him. He is very much a world citizen. His acquisition of media in Hungary for instance..." He chuckled briefly. "He really does span the world."


Would it be better if most of Australia's print media were owned by an Australian citizen?


"I don't think the fact that he [Murdoch] has taken out American citizenship, for reasons of media acquisition in the US, has diminished his love of this country. I think he still regards himself as a... I think he regards himself as a dual citizen. I think he's proud of the relationship he has with both countries."


What if Murdoch went further, and made a move on the Fairfax press in, say, three or four years? (Some analysts believe this is Murdoch's eventual intention.) If Hawke were still Prime Minister, how would he feel about an attempt to purchase - for example - The Age?


Hawke considered this carefully. "Well, let me say this. I think Rupert Murdoch himself would have a sense that to - for instance - acquire Fairfax in Melbourne - and he had all the papers there - and in Sydney, if he got the Sydney Morning Herald, and had all the papers there - I think he would have a sense that that would not be wise."


Would Hawke also have that sense?


"He would have that sense, I think. And I would have that sense."


Would the Government stop him?


"That is a real hypothetical. I truly believe that Rupert Murdoch would have a sufficient sense of the lack of wisdom in that - that it would remain a hypothetical question."



AS FOR TURNING 60, Hawke says he "feels nothing" about it. "These things are not really important to me. I guess the feeling I have is one of gratitude that I am reaching my sixtieth birthday in what I think is very good physical and mental shape."


Will he ever take a drink again - after retirement perhaps?


"I wouldn't think so. I've been nine and half years without a drop. I just don't see any need for it."


The last time I had seen Hawke - a year before he became Prime Minister - was at a private home in Brunswick Heads, on NSW's north coast. It was a hot, cloudy day, and Hawke had played cricket exuberantly for two hours - while Hazel stripped down to a bikini on the lawn, and daughter Ros ferried between the home and the local TAB with her father's bets. It was the quintessence of Australian informality.


Hawke was delighted to be reminded of the day, but regretted that there was little time for that kind of relaxtion now.


"But I don't say that with any sense of complaint." He lit up a cigar (a very large Schimmelpenninck) and ordered a coffee (black). "This job is pretty much an all-consuming one. The last three years the real joy has been to go up to the North-west of Western Australia, and go fishing for three days - right up there off the North-West Cape. And it is just fantastic. I really turn off there. But, you know, I have other forms of relaxation. And I'm very fortunate: I can turn off, just like that. When I go to bed at night, my head hits the pillow and I'm asleep."


 


AUSTRALIA UNDER HAWKE is undoubtedly more united than it was under Fraser - though the concept of "consensus" is worth examining in detail. Consensus has been achieved to some extent by marginalising "backward-looking" and "irrelevant" critics from both the right and the left. And to set consensus in concrete, Hawke's Government has succumbed - more easily than any in living memory - to the temptation to sack umpires and shoot messengers. As well as the Moodys decision, we have the now-toothless Australian Broadcasting Tribunal; the emasculated Foreign Investment Review Board; the sometimes-muzzled, "mate"-run ABC; the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, which reincarnated as the Industrial Relations Commission minus the "troublesome" Justice Staples - and the royal commissions (like Costigan's) and all-party committees (like that on the Australia Card) - whose recommendations are routinely ignored.


The Government benches themselves are held in a state of "consensus" by a pervasive system of threats and rewards. Much of this power again derives from Hawke: Cabinet will not thwart the Prime Minister, and Caucus virtually never overturns a Cabinet decision. Thus Hawke's power is very real, and serves as a kind of binding agent.


In recent months, the only crack in the Ministrial cement has been the agonising of Health and Community Services Minister Neal Blewett - who has talked at length with his senior advisors as to whether he should resign his portfolio. (A major impetus being scurrilous personal attacks from senior medical figures.) Probably the most successful Health Minister since Federation, Blewett has just now decided to stay on, at least for the moment.


That the internal ALP drama of Blewett's near-resignation has, till now, received not a line of media coverage indicates that the Hawke Cabinet's stability extends beyond substance, into image: its secrets tend to stay secrets, and its media handling is in general superb.


Thus the most withering recent critique of the Hawke Government comes not from the mainstream media, but in John Pilger's new book, A Secret Country. I began to tell Hawke I had just read the book...


"I can assure you that's something I would never do," he cut in. "My own experience with Pilger is that he is not an honest man, and so I won't read him. I'm not being flippant. We've had personal experience with the man in which he's been dishonest."


When?


"Oh, I'm not going to go into the details of that. Just accept it from me. We had a personal experience of his dishonesty and misrepresentation."


Hawke's choice of words suggest he is referring to his celebrated interview by Pilger on the ABC's 7.30 Report in 1987. Hawke's office subsequently claimed the interview had been edited in a slanted way. An internal ABC enquiry found the complaint had no substance.


I conceded that Pilger's A Secret Country has its faults. The chapters dealing with the Hawke Government fail to mention a single positive - dwelling solely on its errors - and they also throw some personal mud around. However on the question of the demise of the Whitlam Government, Pilger has garnered evidence from numerous CIA officers, serving and retired, named and unnamed, and up to the rank of Deputy Director, who have stated that the Agency played a major, direct role in Whitlam's downfall. Whilst much of the information is not new, in toto it has serious implications for Australia's national sovereignty - past, present and future.


"Well, as far as the central character himself is concerned - Gough Whitlam - he doesn't accept the arguments... When I see the sources of these claims - people whom I know from my personal experience are dishonest - what am I going to do? When you have a Pilger regurgitating these things..."


I pointed out that Pilger was largely quoting other sources.


"Oh yeah - selectively. Let me put it this way: if Mr Whitlam doesn't accept the arguments, I have no reason to."


Whitlam believes the CIA was active in Australia in 1975, if not involved in his sacking: Hawke's denials of the latter rest chiefly on John Pilger's alleged "dishonesty". Pilger has twice been named Britain's Journalist of the Year, once the International Reporter of the Year, and has won the United Nations Media Peace Prize. He may be polemical, political and brash - but he does not have a reputation for inaccuracy.


I recited more of Pilger's quite extensive evidence - including that of President Carter's emissary promising Whitlam in 1977 that the US would "never again" interfere in Australian politics; and CIA renegade Christopher Boyce's revelations (Boyce's CIA superior had referred to Australia's Governor-General as "our man Kerr"). I concluded with 1977 newspaper reports in which Hawke himself stated his suspicions of CIA involvement in the Whitlam coup.


"I was never so reported. If I was, it was inaccurate."


The Australian of April 9, 1977 ran a story titled HAWKE'S CIA CHARGE - INQUIRY DEMAND AS LABOR ANGER RISES. The story said, in part: "Hawke said last night it was a plausible theory that the CIA had a hand in the downfall of the Whitlam Government. He said it was well-known that Sir John Kerr had been briefed on CIA communications on November 8, 1975."


Additionally, the Sydney Sun of May 3, 1977 ran a front page headline: HAWKE SUSPECTS CIA ON SACKING, beneath which Hawke is quoted: "Circumstantial evidence leads you as a matter of logic to say that it could have happened. But you can't as a matter of logic say it did... As a detached matter of logic, this was a possibility."


The reporter who wrote the Sun story, Bill D'Arcy, told me that because of the sensitivity of the CIA question he kept verbatim transcripts of every word spoken by those he quoted. He therefore stands by his story. "Never at any stage were we asked to withdraw those words, nor were we accused by Hawke of quoting him out of context. The Prime Minister is suffering from selective amnesia on this, in part because of the realpolitik of his Government's foreign and defence policies  - and his closeness, thesedays, to the US administration.


 


LAST MONTH FINANCE Minister Peter Walsh stated - apparently unconscious of the irony - that Hawke's was the "best Government Australia has had since the 1950s". (The only Government Australia knew in the 1950s was that of Robert Menzies.) Though Labor under Hawke has certainly scaled down its role as Australian society's great vehicle for social change, it would be simplistic to regard Hawke as an opportunist, or conservative, on a par with Menzies.


However the two Bobs - both of whom were briefly known as "Uranium Bob" - are similar in some ways. Both learned from their party's years in opposition - eight in each case - that principles can be electorally troublesome. Once elected, both borrowed heavily from opponents' policies. Both presided over Ministries of great talent which, in the end, achieved rather less than they could have. And both Hawke and Menzies were kept in power, to a significant extent, by a divided and rudderless Opposition. Lastly, each man identified himself with his era's prevailing cultural motif: royalty in Menzies' case; sport in Hawke's.


In doing all this - and in eventually destroying all his rivals for the leadership - Menzies bequeathed a Liberal Party whose ideology was so uncertain, and whose personnel so mediocre, that it has barely found its feet 23 years after his retirement.


No-one could accuse Hawke of going this far. His front-bench has been encouraged to remain for the long haul. (Blewett's decision to stay followed much pleading from above.) Hawke even has an heir apparent.


And the achievements are undoubtedly there. They include the second-highest economic growth among OECD countries; three whopping Budget surpluses; the creation of 1.5 million new jobs since 1983 (unemployment has fallen in that period from over 10 percent to around 6 percent); Keating's tax reforms of 1984; the "Family Package" of 1987; 59 percent less days lost through strikes than under Fraser; a program to plant one billion trees; Medicare, which nearly three-quarters of Australians now support; and the Home and Community Care Program, which will - silly old buggers notwithstanding - get an extra $245 million this year.


For all this, Labor traditionalists claim Hawke has betrayed them. They believe the Government's attitude to the US alliance - which Gough Whitlam had wanted to reform - is obsequious. (In 1983 US Secretary of State George Shultz sent Australia's Foreign Minister, via the US Embassy, a draft press release containing the wording of "the Australian Government's" announcement on the nuclear ships agreement.) Others point to the fact that there has been no federal attempt to generate debate on corruption in the NSW and Queensland; nor, for that matter, on the fact that Australia - 88 years after Federation - retains a foreigner as Head of State.


Given such a mixed record, what could Australians expect from a fourth Hawke Government? For one thing, there may be an attempt to revive the Left. The strongest sign of this comes from the ALP's internal Uranium Policy Review Committee. The Committee's best-kept secret at the moment is that it intends to come down against extending the current "two mines" policy, and will recommend outright reversal of the decision to sell uranium to France. The Committee firmly believes it will have the numbers at the 1991 ALP Conference to get these recommendations enshrined in policy - policy the Government would this time be hard-put to ignore.


The Committee has kept its views secret to avoid alerting both mining interests and Cabinet's "bastards": the economic pragmatists, whom it relishes rolling for a change. Its attitude indicates some groundswell against the Hawke Government's elitism, and pragmatism - which may see the release of some long-suppressed left-right tensions during the early nineties.
Hawke's view of a fourth term is understandably more benign:


"The fourth Hawke Labor Government will pursue the goals that have been there since the beginning. Firstly, there will be a continued commitment to create a more effective, more competitive, more diversified economy. This is the foundation for all that you can do in all other areas. Secondly, we will continue to ensure that Australia becomes more enmeshed in our region. Thirdly, we will continue to work for a fairer, more equitable society - and a society which will be environmentally safe. And fourthly, we will continue to make Australia a proud and respected member of the international community."


Then came the fine print.


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