Secret Hawke era cabinet papers released

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Previously classified cabinet documents from the third and fourth years of the Hawke government show that while many things change, some things stay the same.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Previously classified cabinet documents from the third and fourth years of the Hawke government show that while many things change, some things stay the same.

The papers show an economy in trouble, a difficult relationship with Indonesia and the seeds of a future Labor leadership row.

Previously it was 30 years before the behind-the-scenes papers could be released but, under changes to the Archives Act in 2012, that period is being reduced to just 20 years by 2022.

Thea Cowie has been trawling through the 1986 and 1987 cabinet documents.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

It's 1986 and mullets are big but John Farnham's "You're the Voice" is bigger.

Paul Hogan stars in the classic Aussie film, Crocodile Dundee, and in cricket Australia ties with India in only the second tied test in history.

The following year Australia's first mobile phone call is made, the Victorian Football League welcomes two new teams - the Brisbane Bears and the West Coast Eagles - and the final episode of Countdown goes to air.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Bob Hawke is presiding over one of the most successful Australian governments of all time, according to later Abbott Government Attorney General, George Brandis.

"Governments are of varying variable quality - some are better than others. But certainly those on my side of politics do regard the (Hawke) government as the most brilliant government provided by our political opponents, certainly in our lifetime."

In 1986 it's the Coalition, not Labor, which is deeply divided and plagued by questions of leadership, says National Archives historical consultant Dr Jim Stokes.

"John Howard had replaced Andrew Peacock as leader in 1985, but the Liberal party remained deeply divided between 'wets' and 'dries' and between Howard and Peacock supporters. Despite the economic problems confronting the government, the Opposition struggled to market a coherent alternative. This left a vacuum into which the 'Joh for Canberra' crusade rode headlong."

The Joh he's referring to is Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Queensland's longest-serving premier.

Sir Joh never made it to Canberra, but 1987 saw Bob Hawke lead his party to a third term of government, increasing Labor's majority in the House of Representatives to 24 seats despite a swing against the party.

Cabinet minister Gareth Evans says in 1986 and '87 there were few serious signs of the later infamous split between the Prime Minister and his successor, then Treasurer Paul Keating.

"I can't recall any serious tension. I mean, it was starting to bubble away, there were lots and lots of private conversations I can recall during that period which clearly show the tensions that were at work. But there were other tensions. There were old bulls and young bulls all over the place. There was the old bull/young bull Hawke/Keating thing that was emerging. There was the old bull/young bull thing with me and Bill Hayden. The really interesting thing and the important thing about this period - for all the gossip and all the huge interest that these personal things always generate - it really was a very functioning, united team."

That team passes a raft of legislation including the Australia Act, signed by the visiting Queen Elizabeth the Second, asserting the independence of Australian law and recognising Australia as a "sovereign, independent and federal nation".

Cabinet decisions taken during the period also see smoking banned on domestic flights and amendments to the War Crimes Act designed to enable the prosecution of Nazi war criminals who have migrated to Australia.

Cabinet ideas which don't come off include an Australian Bill of Rights and a Japanese proposal to build in Australia a "City of the Future": a truly international city involving Europe and all Pacific Rim countries.

In the mid 1980s, the unemployment rate is more than eight per cent and treasurer Paul Keating is predicting an account deficit of around 5.8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, much greater than the nation's historic average of two to three per cent.

Economic policy dominates the news with a balance of payments crisis, intensified by the collapse in the value of the dollar.

"It's been a traumatic and topsy-turvy day for both the Australian dollar and the Australian economy. This morning the dollar went on one of its most damaging dives, down to just 75 US cents."

In May 1986, with the Prime Minister out of the country, Treasurer Paul Keating tells breakfast radio Australia is basically "done for", comparing the nation's economy to that of countries dependent on the export of a single raw material.

"We'll just end up being a third-rate economy, you know, a banana republic."

The comment infuriates Bob Hawke.

Much later Mr Keating defends the comments, speaking here on the ABC.

"I did it because you can't bottle up stuff like this. You can't on the one hand say 'look I'm having a new relationship with the public, we're going to give them something better than the dross they've been fed for forty years but by the way we're not going to tell them about the massive decline in our national income.' In the end you've got to spit it out. Now okay it might have been embarrassing for the government and put a monkey on my back, but it was a monkey I was prepared to wear."

In the face of increasing foreign debt in 1986 and '87, the cabinet agrees to a range of new revenue measures including a sales tax on luxury vehicles, an increased sales tax on wine and cider, tightened rules around unemployment benefits and family allowance payments, and a substantially reduced aid budget.

In foreign affairs, Australia's relationship with Indonesia is frosty, with strains over media reporting, East Timor, Irian Jaya - now known as Indonesia's West Papua province - and human rights.

Historian Dr Jim Stokes says documents show cabinet agrees in 1987 that Australia should seek a sound working relationship with Indonesia at all levels, with a business-like and non-inflammatory approach.

"Cabinet agreed that Australia should seek a sound working relationship with Indonesia at all levels, but avoid making such a disproportionate effort that Indonesia assumed that the onus for successful management of the relationship rested mainly on Australia. Nor should the government appear too eager to make allowances for Indonesia, especially when Indonesian actions cut across our own interests. The government would also emphasise to Australians that our capacity to influence Indonesia was limited and that Indonesian standards, values and perceptions differed in important respects from our own.

According to Hawke government cabinet minister Gareth Evans, Labor manages to drastically improve the relationship with Indonesia, taking a tack the Abbott government may wish to take note of, some 27 years later.

"It was a very difficult sort of period. But we decided, and we said this publically, let's stop taking the temperature of this relationship, treating it as a sick patient, in and off the deathbed, the sick bed. Let's just concentrate on building enough ballast into the relationship that we won't be thrown off course by the kind of squalls which are inevitably going to arise in the future. Let's build the ballast in terms of the commercial trade, the economic relationship, the person-to-person relationship and work together in some regional foreign affairs things."

At the same time Australia leads the way for harsher international sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime.

In 1985 Prime Minister Bob Hawke played a key role in getting Commonwealth leaders to agree to implement investment sanctions on top of the existing trade sanctions.

The following year cabinet agrees to pass legislation banning new investment in South Africa and resolves to end air links, government contracts, tourism promotion and consular activities in the country.

That's despite cabinet documents showing the sanctions were likely to hurt Australians materially, and have more symbolic significance than actual impact.

But Bob Hawke later tells the ABC Nelson Mandela personally thanked him for taking the initiative.

"Australia is the first country outside of Africa that he visited and he came to thank us for what we'd done to help to bring about the end of apartheid. The investment sanction worked. The last finance minister for the apartheid government - Barend du Plessis - said it was the investment sanctions which brought an end to apartheid."

Cabinet documents also show the Hawke government considers setting up a humanitarian assistance program for black South African refugees at a cost of $5 million over five years.

In 1987 Midnight Oil releases its pro-land rights worldwide hit "Beds are Burning" while behind closed doors Cabinet considers Indigenous policy on a number of fronts.

Cabinet laments Land Rights policy inconsistencies across Australian jurisdictions while the outlook for First Australians is bleak.

Historian Dr Stokes:

"The government was also concerned that the parlous state of the Aboriginal community might become an embarrassment during the 1988 bicentennial celebrations. A report on Aboriginal employment and education described the situation as 'appalling'. A third of working-age Aboriginal people were unemployed and even those who did have work were often in low-paid and seasonal jobs. Cabinet decided that money paid in unemployment benefits should be redirected to work on community and municipal projects."

Cabinet documents also reveal the government considered compensating Aboriginal victims of British nuclear tests conducted in South Australia during the 1950s and '60s.

Cabinet looked at making $2.5 million dollars in compensation available for the loss of use and enjoyment of Aboriginal traditional lands.

The Archives' Dr Stokes says cabinet ministers were balancing what they thought they could extract from the British government with strong views Australia should make amends for earlier immoral actions.

"Aboriginal affairs minister Clyde Holding told cabinet that the removal of traditional owners from the test sites had been appallingly executed and the disruption of Aboriginal life catastrophic."

But it's another eight years before Maralinga people receive any compensation, although the $13.5 million available was much more than the Hawke government was considering.

As 1987 comes to an end, Australia suspends all aid to Fiji following two military coups and the declaration of a Fijian republic.

Australian is preparing for a big year of bi-centennial celebrations, Brisbane is gearing up for Expo '88, and the nation is about to get its first taste of Home and Away and one-hit-wonder Rick Astley.

And behind closed doors at Kirribilli house, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating will soon have an infamous and much-disputed conversation about the future leadership of the Labor party.

 

 

Source World News Australia

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