Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke died on May 16. All sorts of people have paid tribute to the man, with many looking back fondly to a time when the country was run by a sort of larrikin who spoke with a working class accent.
In many ways Hawke was charismatic and stood in contrast to the stale types who pass for politicians today. To lots of people he was almost seen as a sort of anti-politician politician, an ordinary person who rose through the ranks and did his best to represent the interests of workers.
But if you look behind the beer swilling and the slang, Hawke sat firmly with the establishment. The policies he pursued were supported by the big business elite, so much so that the main boss’s paper, the Australian Financial Review, endorsed him at the 1983 election.
Hawke was a pioneer of neoliberalism, not just in Australia but around the world. Figures such as Reagan and Thatcher followed Hawke’s career with great interest. Tony Blair’s right wing ‘New Labour’ in Britain was very much modelled on what Hawke was able to achieve in Australia.
For bosses, he pushed through a raft of economic ‘reforms’, each one helping to facilitate increased profits. For workers, his time in power marks a turning point where the union movement began a historic decline and the Labor Party was ended as a party for working-class people.
Despite all this some working people still remember Hawke with fondness, largely because Medicare was introduced under his government. But Medicare wasn’t just handed over by Hawke, it was fought for by ordinary people. The scheme, known as Medibank, was first introduced under the Whitlam government, who were reflecting the mood in society.
When the Fraser government went on the attack against public healthcare a few years later, workers responded with a massive 24-hour general strike: the Medibank Strike of July 12th 1976. Hundreds of thousands took part, and even the pubs closed on that day.
Hawke was the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) at the time. He had actually condemned some unions that had pushed for strike action, but the groundswell was too great. Workers were demanding a real fightback against Fraser, and the ACTU were forced to play a part.
But rather than using the power of the organized working class to push through a resounding victory, he tried to channel workers’ anger into a deal with the Fraser government. He called an end to strike action as soon as he could.
Fraser instead waited the unions out and undermined Medibank over time, eventually ending universal healthcare. As ACTU president Hawke could have led the union movement in a campaign to stop Fraser, but he had his eye on another prize.
Hawke was bumped into parliament in 1980 and was made opposition leader in 1983. He led Labor to power later that year. Once in office Labor reintroduced universal healthcare as Medicare, as it was part of their platform. It had been adopted as a priority policy because of the mass struggles of the previous years.
At the time, Labor was a different kind of party to what it is today. Working people were more involved in shaping policy. Labor leaders had to navigate the strength of the union movement and pressure from ordinary people. A significant section of the party identified themselves as socialists.
Once in power Bob Hawke began to change all this. He oversaw the transformation of Labor into an out-and-out capitalist party. Alongside Paul Keating, Hawke introduced key right-wing policies – the privatization of Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, deregulation of the banking sector, and perhaps most important of all: the Prices and Incomes Accord.
The Accord was a series of agreements between the ACTU and the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. It was a pledge by union leaders to limit strike action, essentially capping worker’s wages while allowing profits to soar.
It was a way to force workers to pay for the economic crisis that had unfolded in the early 1980s. It was successful – real wages declined by 20% by the end of Labor’s term in office.
The Accord replaced industry-wide bargaining with enterprise bargaining. Under industry-wide or “pattern” bargaining, unions would strike across an entire industry, raising wages even for workers in poorly organized workplaces. Now, under the enterprise bargaining set up that exists today, strikes are more limited.
In fact it is illegal to strike outside of a bargaining period, meaning that Australia now has some of the most draconian anti-strike laws in the world!
The Accords were an expression of the Labor Party and trade union leaders’ abandonment of class struggle. They openly embraced capitalism as the only way to run society, fully accepting the idea that bosses deserve to take a profit at the expense of worker’s wages and conditions.
With the worker’s movement now led by people who are committed to capitalism, the capitalist class has been able to steadily erode public services such as welfare, education and healthcare.
Since the Accord the trade union leaders have overseen stagnating wages, casualization and the steady loss of our rights at work. As a result, union membership and active participation in the union movement has declined significantly. Some of the very rules we are now trying to change can actually be traced back to Hawke’s time in office.
Despite this it’s no real surprise to see the trade union leaders of today praising Hawke on his death. Like Hawke, they too are committed to the profit-driven system. Like Hawke, many of them see themselves as part of the establishment, doing whatever it takes to ensure that the boat is not rocked.
This was the role Hawke played when the Whitlam government was undemocratically sacked in 1975. At the time he said that “what has happened could unleash forces in Australia which we have never seen before.”
The ‘forces’ he meant were the forces of ordinary people stepping onto the stage of history. Hawke used his position as head of the ACTU to call off the spontaneous strikes and protests that had broken out. Hawke allowed the Whitlam government to be removed, and a right-wing government to come to power.
His life was dedicated to the preservation of capitalism. He paid lip service to action on Aboriginal land rights, but sold out the movement at the request of the West Australian mining industry. In 1986, his government deregistered the militant Builder’s Labourer’s Federation. In 1989, he used the Royal Australian Air Force to scab on striking pilots, smashing the Australian Federation of Air Pilots. During his entire career he was a staunch supporter of US imperialism.
When people say that Hawke changed the nation, in many ways, they are right. He ushered in an unusual period of Australian history – a period in which class struggle was abandoned by the labour movement and the basis was laid for the record levels of wealth inequality that we see today.
The years since Hawke have been a setback for working people. This period is now ending in chaos as we face a looming economic crisis. Working people will once again discover struggle, and with it will set their sights much higher than a few crumbs.
By David Elliott