Monday, 20 July 2009

Book Review: The End of Certainty


The End of Certainty is Paul Kelly’s follow up to The Hawke Ascendancy and chronicles an eight year period under the Hawke Government between Bob Hawke’s elevation to the Prime Ministership in 1983, and Paul Keating securing the Prime Ministership from his leader in 1991. In short, this is a 700 page masterpiece, which highlights many of the important factors that shaped this period, as well as the decades that followed.

The most important thing to understand is that the book is not just about the ALP alone, but rather how the political climate was transformed by a reformist government (sometimes by intent, sometimes by accident, and sometimes even a mixture of both) as well as an incompetent Coalition opposition (made up of the Liberal and National Parties) too concerned with its own power struggles to contest the government’s policies.

The central thesis of Kelly’s book is that the Hawke Government discarded the Australian Settlement comprised of White Australia, Protection, Arbitration and State Paternalism to pursue a policy of economic rationalism, with Keating as the architect of many of these policies in his role as Treasurer. Such policies were in fact the domain of the Liberal Party before this period and betrayed many of the policies that the ALP held dear. The Hawke Government achieved this economic reform through various methods of deregulation including floating the Australian dollar and deregulating the labour market through a process known as the Accord. The Accord was an alliance with the trade unions designed in order to prevent a wage explosion that crippled the two previous governments by ensuring that wages were stablised and unemployment was kept under control.

The Opposition did little to quell these reforms as they were going through a series of ideological crises. The Liberal Party of the 1980s was divided into two distinct camps. The Drys, led by John Howard, favoured conservative social values and adhered to free market economic principles. The Wets, led by Andrew Peacock, were more socially conscious and supported minimal intervention within the economy. These two figureheads would compete for the leadership of the party throughout the decade, and would destabilise the Liberal Party in the process.

The narrative however really changed tack during the 1987 election campaign. The Hawke Government sought to be re-elected for a third term, whilst the Liberal Party appeared to be finally settled on John Howard. Only not. Along came Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson with the most grand delusion in Australian political history. Not only would the National Party be able to govern in their own right, but also draft him to be Prime Minister. The most important feature of this push was nobody understood quite how absurd this notion was. With the Opposition Coalition fractured, nobody was really able to hold The Hawke Government to account in what would have been the greatest opportunity during their four election losses.

It is easy to say this in retrospect of course, but this point was essentially where everything went wrong for Labor too. Keating no longer saw his job as managing economic policy for the Government, but rather through a series protracted leadership struggles with Hawke that would dominate the government’s third and fourth terms. After working together for four years to restore Labor’s economic credibility both Hawke and Keating’s egos got in the way in the quest for the top job and the ALP’s reputation as solid economic managers was tattered.

The Liberals though weren’t any better. In one of the most fanciful leadership challenges in history most of the Wets exposed themselves as utter twits on national TV by detailing in depth how they betrayed Howard and installed Peacock as leader once again. This showed once more what political novices the Party truly were. As a consequence Peacock with his vacuous political abilities lost the 1990 election, and the nation was caught between a Government who had leadership, but could not govern effectively and an Opposition who had neither leadership skills, nor policy acumen.

The final part of the book details how the ALP’s most successful leader also became its only Prime Minister to be disposed in a party room ballot. In a repeat of events eight years earlier, Hawke was ousted in a bloody and gruesome fashion with help from factional heavyweights just as he had done to Bill Hayden. One has to ask though; when did the Prime Ministership become a prize at the end of a gladiatorial battle?

That’s where the book ends, but the rest is known. The Liberals try out Hewson, a champion of dry economics who takes on Keating in the 1993 election and loses the ‘unlosable election’. Keating having captured the Prime Ministership is ultimately wounded by his battle with Hawke and never really lived up to his potential. Howard returns, then vanquishes Keating in the 1996 election emerging as the greatest victor of all the 1980s players, eventually becoming the second longest serving Prime Minister in Australian history.

Born in the year of Hawke’s first electoral victory I’m left with the impression that although the ALP achieved a series of great reforms, this was also a period of missed opportunities. If the leadership transition between Hawke and Keating was handled in an orderly fashion, the harsh economic climate might have been handled better and the ALP’s greatest era of governing dominance would be looked upon as one of the great political eras. Instead, it’s a source of partisan politicking, much of which proves that both major political parties have not learnt from the great political lessons of the era. Be bold, govern with a purpose, and most of all demonstrate leadership which the country’s constituents can be proud of.

The last word goes of course to Kelly who in the book’s conclusion poses a problem that the ALP have failed to answer nearly twenty years after it was written.

The Hawke-Keating Governments will occupy a unique place in Australian history because it launched the country into a great transition which sought to recognise the arrival of the global free market economy…The question for Labor’s future is whether it launched in the 1980s a revolution tantamount to its own death warrant… the 1980s has left two great legacies for the ALP crises of both structure and ideology.

The Labor Party rose in tandem with the unions, White Australia, Protection, Arbitration and State Paternalism, riding to success on the back of popular democracy and the industrial state… As a structural edifice that sustained ALP power is dismantled, the ALP will be required to modify its political structure and reassess its links with the wider community.

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