Thursday, 9 July 2009

Book Review: The Hawke Ascendancy

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Academics and historians for a variety of reasons often neglect the period of the Fraser Government between 1975 and 1983. This is largely because nothing could possibly match the drama of the Whitlam Government’s dismissal from office, which immediately proceeded this era. Furthermore, the Fraser Government is largely seen as a non event retrospectively, given that his government had control of both houses of parliament for two electoral terms and then failed to use them to their advantage (Unlike his Treasurer and future Prime Minister John Howard did in his fourth term in office some two decades later). Lastly, this period is neglected because Labor partisans fail to understand the legacy of Labor’s forgotten leader Bill Hayden, particularly because he is wedged chronologically between two of the Labor Party’s most mythical figures in Whitlam and Hawke.

The Hawke Ascendancy is somewhat of a misleading title as author Paul Kelly spends as much time assessing Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Party as he does with the reconstruction of the ALP. This is because you cannot look at one series of events without examining the other. The downfall of the ALP during the 1975 constitutional crisis was largely due to the tactical brilliance and the political instincts of Fraser. In 1983, the direct opposite proved to be the case when the Labor Party showed tactical superiority by changing leaders from Hayden to Hawke on the very day that Fraser called the 1983 election, thus sealing their party's victory.

Kelly’s book is largely a journalistic work and commences immediately after the 1975 election where Fraser achieved the largest electoral majority in Australian history. The ALP was at its lowest ebb after its crushing defeat and so demoralised that it could not even bring itself to change leaders. Hayden, then Shadow Treasurer refused to challenge Whitlam for the leadership in what Kelly regards as a sign of Hayden’s lack of self confidence. Hawke not even in parliament at that stage was the ALP President, and the head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), was seen as a future leader and even anointed as Whitlam’s likely successor by the man himself. Alas, none of this began to materialise until the ALP suffered yet another catastrophic defeat during the 1977 election. From this point on Whitlam left parliament and Hayden took over as leader.

However, it wasn’t until the next election in 1980 that events began to gain a sense of momentum. Hayden reduced the wide electoral margin the Fraser had held to a workable size, ready to strike at the next election. However, this joy was short lived as Hawke entered the parliamentary fray at the same election, and was immediately seen both within the ALP caucus and by outside observers as directly undermining Hayden’s authority as leader. The 1980 election would also prove to be a turning point for the Fraser Government as the result damaged the government’s air of invincibility after two enormous victories. The crux of the book deals with the ensuing parliamentary term as both Hayden and Hawke strive to take command of the Labor Party whilst Fraser tries to maintain a grip on the Prime Ministership, constantly worried that the spectre of Hawke becoming Labor leader would emerge as an increasing possibility.

Thus the book, and more broadly this period in Australian politics became a tripartite quest for power. Hayden was striving to fight off both Fraser and Hawke, whilst Fraser was fighting to hold onto power against the two Labor challengers, and Hawke needed to depose Hayden as ALP leader before he could wrest the Prime Ministership from Fraser. It is in describing the inner workings these power struggles where the book excells, detailing internal party machinations and policy tactics. The climax as you might expect is thrilling as things come to a head for both sides on February 3rd, 1983

It is particularly valuable to view these events with hindsight given the way that the party dealt with Hawke in 1991, in exactly the same fashion that he deposed of his predecessor just short of nine years earlier. It suggests a historical karma working against Hawke’s marvellously Machiavellian exploits. The power dynamics of the ALP are fickle. The Hawke Ascendancy proves that maxim, something that Hawke seemed to forget as he approached the end of his leadership tenure.

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