Inaugural Annual Hawke Lecture

A Confident Australia

With The Hon Bob Hawke AC

Tuesday 12 May 1998

Published copies of the Annual Hawke Lecture series are available from the Hawke Centre.

Bob Hawke delivering the 2000 Annual Hawke LectureThe Hon Bob Hawke ACAt the very beginning I wish to place on record my deep gratitude to the University of South Australia for their decision to establish the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. The most brilliant decision of my career was to choose as my parents two South Australians, Emily Lee and Clem Hawke, who believed profoundly in the importance of developing one's talents through education. Whatever success I have enjoyed in life I owe to them and to this commitment which they expressed in practical terms by supporting me through many years in school and university. It is my hope that this Centre in the State of their birth and mine, will help to stimulate, in young people particularly, the joy of learning and intellectual pursuits and that the Research Institute will, in some small way, foster a better understanding of issues that are important for our society and the region in which we live.

I accepted the Chancellor's suggestion that a part of the Centre's activities should be an annual Hawke Lecture and was hardly in a position to decline when, with that innocent smile of his, he then proposed that I should be the first cab off the rank.

My feelings tonight as I address you are therefore dominated by two thoughts. First, and obvious, is a sense of the honour, you Chancellor and your colleagues have done me and which I accept with what, I hope, is an appropriate mix of pride and humility. Second, and less obvious, is a sense of foreboding. I have entitled this Lecture "A Confident Australia" for that is what we can and should be.

However, I fear for what is happening in, and to, our country. As in any democracy the vigorous pursuit of divergent policies has been and should remain the hallmark of Australian politics. But what we are now seeing on issues that are fundamental to a confident and cohesive Australia are bridgeable differences being made into the great divides. Where compassion for the underprivileged demands equality of opportunity we are hearing spurious calls in the debate on Aboriginal land rights for equality of treatment between groups whose needs and capacities, according to any criteria, are not equal. Australians are being set against Australians. What we had regarded as our distinguishing national characteristic - the "fair-go" - is fading in the emerging politics of polarisation. In all of this I find myself asking with W.B. Yeats, that haunting question with which he concluded "The Second Coming":

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

For make no mistake: If we allow these tendencies to become entrenched in our national life we will not merely tarnish, but destroy, the image of ourselves we have built over more than two hundred years - an image of Australia we have been proud to project to the rest of the world. I ask you to reflect with me on where we have come in that relatively brief period - just three lifetimes - of European settlement in this country.

No nation has had more unpropitious origins. Except in this State, the colonies were predominantly dumping grounds for poor wretches adjudged as criminals by the British judicial system - a sprinkling of condemned political activists, but mainly the desperate poor and rootless of a rapidly industrialising society.

The appalling conditions of their transportation in overcrowded sailing ships to the other end of the earth - ships' masters received a per capita payment for their human cargo - was matched by the harsh and often brutal environment of their penal servitude. Fear, despair and hopelessness were the prevailing sentiments among the convicts. Their plight engendered a move in more enlightened quarters to end the system; this was supported on pragmatic grounds by the increasing numbers of free settlers who saw cheap convict labour as a threat to their livelihoods. The squatters who benefited directly from such cheap labour, under the assignment system, opposed the moves but the system was doomed when it became clear that its continuation was incompatible with the burgeoning demand for self-government. Transportation to the eastern colonies ended in 1852 and to Western Australia in 1868. By that date some 165,000 men and women had been transported as convicts from Britain and Ireland.

Coinciding almost exactly with the end of transportation to the eastern colonies, the discovery of gold in 1851 brought an exciting new rush of migrants into this feisty mix of convicts and free settlers. These were the times, following the French Revolution and the onset of industrialisation, which were described by the eminent Australian historian W K Hancock as "a period filled with a deafening clamour for rights and a few shrill protests about duties." The diggers arrived in their tens of thousands, the independent men, the assisted immigrants, the disillusioned Chartists, the revolutionaries of Europe. In a decade, the population of the colonies was trebled by this influx impatient for gold and just as impatient of anything which denied the equal rights of men. The circumstances of the colonies were making the protests of the old world the common starting point of the new. The ideas these individuals brought with them confirmed existing democratic elements and became reflected in the general attitudes and assumptions of the Australian people.

These attitudes and assumptions went further than merely asserting the rights of the individual in matters of the franchise - important as that was. Indeed by 1859 property qualifications had been abolished in the four major colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia with all adult males having the right to vote. And by 1890 all members of Parliament, except in Western Australia, were paid.

But the impetus for change went deeper. There was a conviction that this land was new, not only in terms of settlement but in relation to the power structures of Europe. Australian nationalism was more than empty words for it involved the dynamic assumption that the social hierarchies and political and economic inequalities of the old world were not sacrosanct.

After the alluvial gold had been worked out men had to seek their livelihood in other ways. As distinct from the United States, it was not easy to acquire land because of restrictive legislation, and those who could not turned to the new secondary industries for employment. The capitalist organisation of industry was accepted but it was not an acceptance which precluded the possibility of modification or regulation in the interests of those who were employed.

Workers were not alone in pressing their cause. In fact the very concept of a "fair and reasonable" wage which has ever since dominated industrial relations in this country found an equal place in the propaganda of employers in Victoria. They wanted protection by tariffs from overseas competition and solicited the support of Labor by arguing that a fair and reasonable wage could only be paid if local enterprise was protected from foreign competition which had the advantage of an exploited labour force.

This uneasy marriage of convenience survived the period of prosperity and expansion that lasted till the latter part of the 1880s. Organised labour followed a traditional policy of direct negotiation and industrial action. The principle of unionism did not go unchallenged but, in general, employers were in a position to grant concessions and industrial relations, if not entirely harmonious, were at least not marked by widespread conflict.

The marriage dissolved with the onset of the deep economic depression beginning at the end of the 1880s. The colonies were racked by bitter and often violent industrial confrontation in the period 1890-94, particularly in the maritime and shearing industries. In terms that now, a century later, have a familiar resonance the employers' clarion call was "freedom of contract" and denial of the right of unions to bargain collectively on behalf of workers. With the help of sympathetic colonial governments, the use of military and police forces and the use of non-union labour the unions were comprehensively defeated.

But these events had two outcomes of enduring significance for the soon-to-emerge Australian nation. First, the move to establish a system of conciliation and arbitration developed out of a widespread conviction that recourse to force for the settlement of disputes in industry should not be tolerated again - that freedom should not be euphemistically equated with licence for either side to impose its will upon the other without regard to the public interest. Second, labour was equally convinced that the time had come to abandon its traditional reliance on industrial action alone. It had thrown its weight behind the campaign to secure the vote for all men and had seen the authority of Parliament invoked against it. The unions concluded that the vote must be used to return representatives of labour who would have a direct voice in how that authority was exercised. The Australian Labor Party was born.

For South Australians it is well to remember that the man recognised as the father of conciliation and arbitration - and a prime mover in the Convention debates to include such a power in the Constitution of the new Australian nation - was the Premier of South Australia, Charles Cameron Kingston.

As we meet here in his State I digress for just a moment to speak of this remarkable man, truly a giant of his era. He was indeed, physically, a big man, over six feet tall and said to be possessed of tremendous strength. His reputation for lecherous behaviour was legendary and in fact his admission to the Bar in 1873 at the age of twenty-three was granted despite the objection of the elder brother of one Lucy May McCarthy, on the alleged ground that Kingston had seduced Lucy. His manner with political opponents was less than gentle. His response to an attack by a conservative member of the Legislative Council, Sir Richard Baker was to describe Baker: "false as a friend, treacherous as a colleague, mendacious as a man, and utterly untrustworthy in every relationship of public life." Not content with these genialities he challenged Baker to a duel and was arrested by police when he turned up - Baker had informed the police - at Victoria Square, Adelaide, with a loaded revolver to deal with his opponent, who did not put in an appearance . Kingston was tried and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months and the sentence was still in force when he became Premier in June 1893, a position he held until December 1899, making him the longest serving incumbent of that office in the colony's history.

For those whose devious minds may be conjuring up some vague similarities between Kingston and the inaugural Hawke Lecturer I hesitate to mention that Kingston had a passionate love of sport - he was President of the South Adelaide Football Club between 1880 - 1908, had a connection with Oxford University from which he received an Honorary D.C.L., and declined an imperial honour.

Such thoughts aside, Kingston was a great son of South Australia and, without question, one of the pre-eminent architects of the new Australian nation, both in concept and form. Sir George Reid, the irascible New South Welshman not known for his generosity of spirit, publicly acknowledged Kingston as the best parliamentary draftsman he ever knew.

And certainly Kingston and those close to him were entitled to be proud as they contemplated this new Australia which they had fashioned from just over a century of settlement in the Great South Land. Distance had been not only a tyranny but a blessing. In this remote continent, recently acquired ownership or control of land had not had time to entrench the privileges and respect that centuries of power had created in the old country. Released convicts and the new arrivals shared a healthy scepticism about any attempt to transport a hierarchy of status or rights. This scepticism, melded with the radicalism of the Kingstons and their ilk, had produced a climate of pragmatic egalitarianism but not social revolution. A Frenchman, Albert Metin writing in 1901 (Le Socialisme Sans Doctrines) observed acutely: "Australasia has not contributed much to social philosophy, but she has gone infinitely further than any other country in the practical field."

Kingston, who topped the polls in 1901 for the election of South Australian members to the House of Representatives, went therefore to the first Parliament of a new nation of 3.8 million people who already had substantial reason for pride and confidence in themselves. A vast continent had been explored, the foundations of a great primary industry had been laid, substantial infrastructures in communications and other public services established and the statute books contained a range of legislation which, as Metin observed, led the world by the social standards of the time. The Australian character had by now come to be associated with the concepts of mateship and the "fair go."

But there was a certain ambivalence in the confidence of this new Australia. We suffered from a cultural cringe which only started to really dissipate under the Prime Ministerships of John Gorton and Gough Whitlam. For a great proportion of Australians the ties to the United Kingdom remained strong. And its wars were our wars. Six hundred and six Australians died in the Boer War but this was as nothing compared with the carnage of World War I. Of the 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that conflict 61,919, or almost one in five, were killed. This horrendous loss of so many of our finest young men was a tragedy for the country - you may get some idea of the impact by realising that it is equivalent today to Australia losing a quarter of a million men - but it was also a defining moment for our young nation. And more than anything, it was Gallipoli that forged a sense of nationhood. Churchill's grandiose strategy was fatally flawed but our soldiers, in their mateship and courage against impossible odds, created a sense of proud Australian identity that has lasted to this day.

The most moving experience of my Prime Ministership was the visit to Gallipoli in 1990 to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of that heroic defeat. As the sun came up over Anzac Cove the old veterans whom we had flown across, all of them in their nineties, walked towards the clearing where the memorial service was to be held. As they approached they were embraced by, and in turn embraced, the scores of young Australian backpackers who lined the route. This emotional bonding conveyed, more eloquently than any words, what Australia owed to those men, and their fallen comrades, who had done so much to shape the image of their nation.

The Second World War, in a different sense, was a turning point in Australia's history. Like the First, it started as the United Kingdom's war, but with the entry of Japan on the side of the Axis powers in December 1941 it became a matter of Australia's national survival. And that survival was ensured when my great Labor predecessor, John Curtin, in January 1942, uttered perhaps the most memorable words to come from any Australian Prime Minister: "Without any inhibition of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links and kinship with the United Kingdom." Curtin repudiated Churchill's absurd proposal to retain on the other side of the world the Australian troops who had established a magnificent fighting reputation in the Western theatre and brought them back to fight alongside the Americans against the Japanese. When victory was finally achieved on the 15th August 1945, Australia and its international relationships were never going to be the same again.

In the darkest days of war Curtin assembled some of the finest minds in the country under the guidance of another great servant of the Australian people, Nugget Coombs, to plan for a better and different post-war nation. Within a previously unheard of commitment to full employment, Australia embarked upon one of the most massive official immigration programs in history. Under this program, modified but maintained ever since, some five and a half million people from more than 140 countries have come here to make Australia their home. The overwhelming preponderance of pre-war stock from the United Kingdom and Ireland has been infused by immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Asia and, lately, southern Africa. Despite the casuistry and the misgivings of some who yearn for days beyond recall, we are, if language means anything at all, a truly multi-cultural nation - a nation enriched not only by the cultures but by the values, the habits and the disciplines of peoples from around the globe.

It would be idle to pretend that this fundamental transformation of our society has been achieved without pain. I can still recall with embarrassment those epithets of "wogs" and "dagos" directed mindlessly at the early immigrants from southern Europe. But, wonderfully, the "fair go" has prevailed and a people who have drawn so much strength from the great British traditions of parliamentary representation and the rule of law have absorbed and benefited from the traditions of our new citizens.

And demography had been reinforced by economic realities. The gradual dilution of the UK/Irish preponderance in the origins of our people coincided with the end of the Commonwealth preference in trade as Britain joined the Common Market in the 1960s and with Asia's emergence as a new, dynamic centre of economic growth and a force in international trade. Just as intelligent self-interest led Britain to loosen her economic ties with us, so did Australia come to understand that past emotional attachments could not stand in the way of relations with our more immediate, and increasingly dynamic, region.

Our capacity to do this at that time was facilitated by one of the most enlightened acts of bi-partisan political co-operation in our history - the abolition of the White Australia policy. Australia had both the confidence and the good sense to abandon a racially discriminatory immigration policy which was morally repugnant and economically insane. Within my Party no-one did more to create that further building block of a confident Australia than another great Premier and son of South Australia - Don Dunstan.

For thirty years from the end of the Second World War, Australia in so many ways, therefore, was in a real sense the Lucky Country. Initially the world had paid us well for our primary exports and thereafter for the output of our burgeoning minerals industry. We had built a significant manufacturing sector behind high tariff walls and this together with our housing and service industries, both private and public, had provided full employment for a population growing rapidly and peaceably integrated.

But by the end of the 70s and early 80s the mood of our country had changed. Politically, the atmosphere had been poisoned by the constitutional events of November 1975. Economically, confidence had evaporated with the global dislocation triggered by the oil crises of the 1970s. Australia was paying a high price in rising unemployment and inflation which by the beginning of 1983 were running at ten and eleven percent respectively.

In part these figures reflected a break-down in the industrial relations system. As President of the ACTU I pleaded with the Fraser government for a more co-operative approach within which both employers' pricing processes and workers' claims on wages and conditions were made more subject to the test of public interest. But this was rejected in favour of tougher legislation against the unions in the private and public sectors. In the event the economy was inflicted with avoidably high increases in money wages and prices. Confrontation was the order of the day, and Australians, set one against the other, had lost their way.

I had a profound belief that there was a better way and it was to be found in the historic record of the capacity of Australians to rise to a challenge as they had both in war and peace. I was soon given the opportunity to test that belief. Elected to the position on 3 February 1983 I went into the election in less than five weeks as Leader of the Australian Labor Party.

My approach to the Australian people was based on a simple, personally crafted, platform - reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction. Reconciliation was first and it was fundamental. I wanted Australians to rediscover their confidence in themselves and their confidence in, and respect for, one another. Some of my colleagues were sceptical. In a memorable phrase at a meeting early in the campaign, New South Wales Labor Premier Neville Wran observed: "If the greedy bastards wanted spiritualism they'd join the f…..g Hare Krishnas!"

Memorable but wrong. We won not only a handsome electoral victory but, more importantly, we won the co-operation of Australians across the board. Believing that shared knowledge is the basis of shared endeavour I called a National Summit within a month of forming government. In an event unique in the history of this nation, representatives from Federal, State and municipal governments, business and trade unions, farmers, social welfare organisations and the churches met in the House of Representatives chamber of Parliament House, Canberra. All the information available to us about the economy was made available to the participants who themselves presented their own papers and opinions. At the conclusion of the Summit the ninety-eight delegates and nineteen observers rose unanimously - with the exception of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen - to applaud the final communique pledging all organisations to work together for the recovery and reconstruction of Australia.

This is not the occasion to speak at any length about the achievements, and the mistakes, of those nearly nine years in office between early 1983 and December 1991. But for the purposes of my theme tonight - A Confident Australia - I do want to emphasise a few points. Australians did live up to the commitment they made at the Summit. They accepted, in practical terms, the truth that every section of the community - workers, business, genuine welfare recipients - had a legitimate claim upon the economic development of the nation's resources; and that the best way of optimising that development was through co-operation, and, as far a possible, consensus rather than confrontation. They recognised that some unions had acted unreasonably, some employers had behaved rapaciously and that some people made unjustifiable demands on the welfare system. But, in general, the demonisation of group by group was out, replaced by a sense of mutual legitimacy.

This new attitude produced remarkable results. Industrial disputes were dramatically reduced to below the OECD average and real wage improvements were restrained as workers accepted improvements to the social wage - particularly in education and hospital and health care - as a substitute for higher increases in money wages. Unemployment came down as more than half a million new jobs were created in the first three years. Work practices improved, competitiveness increased and exports of manufactured goods increased by 16% a year over the period.

And this renewed confidence in, and between, ourselves at home was reflected in Australia's external policies. In the early years of government, the Soviet threat was still real and our alliance relationship with the United States remained fundamentally important. But it no longer had any element of subservience and we took a number of initiatives - particularly in the areas of disarmament, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and relations with Vietnam - which our American friends acknowledged with something considerably less than enthusiasm. We led the international fight against apartheid, stopped the move to allow mining in the Antarctic, established the Cairns Group as a major force in the arena of international trade negotiations, created APEC in particular, and in general, accelerated Australia's enmeshment with Asia - filling an historical gap in our confidence where Australians had tended to think of Asia as a source of military threat or a place for exotic holidays.

Australia, confident in itself at home and respecting the rights and aspirations of its own constituencies was, in a way far beyond its numbers, a force for good governance in the wider international community.

And so my friends, I trust you will understand that while I am conscious of the errors of judgement, of what was left undone that should have been done, I look back upon that period in office with some pride. I knew that I stood on the shoulders of giants from the past and, more than anything, I wanted to draw strength, as I had perceived them to do, from the basic decency of the Australian people.

The standards of these men were progressive but constrained by the circumstances of their time - and nowhere was this more evident than on questions of race, the status of our Aboriginal people and the rights of women. But they had shown that Australians, as irreverent as they are towards ostentatious authority, would respond to positive leadership that sought to bring Australia together in the face of evolving challenges to our nation.

Whatever personal pride I felt therefore as I left office in December 1991 was secondary to the pride I felt in my fellow Australians. Personally, and through their representative organisations, they had co-operated with Government and with each other, often in the implementation of tough decisions. While there was genuine and healthy debate on matters of policy there was, in general, a respect for the rights and views of others. In colloquial terms the spirit of mateship and the "fair go" was alive and well in the community at large. There were, of course, many who were doing it hard, but I believed that we had entered the last decade of the twentieth century a confident Australia.

My successor as Prime Minister, Paul Keating was also committed to making Australia even more confident in itself as evidenced especially by his ardent advocacy of the republican cause and his boosting of support for the Australian arts. He was a man of considerable talents and achievements - particularly in the area of the rights of Aboriginal people - but he did not pretend to embrace either the processes or the language of consensus. Nor did his opponents, and his period in office developed into a protracted pattern of acrimonious confrontation between them. This was a time of rough, hard, street-fighting parliamentary politics but I believe the basic mould of confidence remained intact. I fear, deeply, that it is now in danger of fracturing.

In sharing my reasons for this apprehension I do not insult your intelligence by attempting to disguise my continuing commitment to Labor and its return to government. The exposition of my fears may well therefore be seen as partisan but I assure you that these fears transcend considerations of Party. I will put them directly and forcefully to you but this is not done for the purpose of political point scoring. Indeed my purpose, and my plea, is that there should be a change of direction on a number of basic issues by this government. The reality is that were this to happen it would not be electorally advantageous to my Party - but it would certainly benefit Australia.

I go first to the question of race. Australia will never be a confident nation - nor will it deserve to be a respected one - if we tolerate within this country any lapse into our past with discrimination based on race being accepted as a legitimate attitude or basis of policy. Let me put the moral position unequivocally as I did in the letter I drafted and signed with my colleagues Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating on the subject of Pauline Hanson: in the eyes of the Gods of the world's great religions there is no prejudice of colour or race nor should there be in the eyes of men or women. No person on this earth is intrinsically of greater or lesser merit because of their colour, race or creed.

The Liberal Party acted honourably by disendorsing Pauline Hanson when she made offensive remarks during the 1996 federal election campaign. It could not, as a matter of law, endorse another candidate and so, by this accident of politics, Hanson now has a national platform. Unfortunately honour has deserted the Liberal Party and their National Party colleagues as they refuse to place her Party unequivocally at the bottom of their how-to-vote cards for the upcoming State election. A Queensland State Liberal Minister has gone so far as to say that he would "always" direct preferences to a Nazi party candidate before the ALP. This is sick politics and it is a sickness which will hurt the body politic unless checked immediately.

I do not call John Howard a racist for I do not believe he is. However, he has never been fully at ease with all the implications of this issue. But the time has come for the Prime Minister of Australia to speak up and to be counted with his predecessor as Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser - who has a consistently impeccable record on matters of race - and with Jeff Kennett and Peter Collins, the Leaders of his Party in Victoria and NSW, all of whom have repudiated their Queensland colleagues.

They understand the truth that if, as a result of the prejudice engendered by Hanson and her kind, one child of Asian parents who have chosen to make Australia their home, suffers humiliation in school or at play this is not only tragic for these good citizens - all Australians are diminished. John Howard must use the weight of his high office to affirm that no aid or comfort will be given to any group which seeks to divide this country on the grounds of race. He must put Australia first by putting Hanson last.

As potentially corrosive as the issue of race is to our cohesion and confidence as a nation, at least as significant is the issue of our Aboriginal people and their rights to land. And on this issue I want to reaffirm today, with all the strength at my command what I have had to say in recent times. One does not have to be emotional with guilt to accept that by any relevant social and economic criterion the Aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in our community who, far from being responsible for the problems of our society, or a threat to it, are most deserving of its compassion and special effort.

If we are to begin to deal decently with the question of Aboriginal land rights we must understand the intrinsic significance of the land to traditional Aboriginal people. We white Australians who have been nurtured in a Christian civilisation should have no difficulties in acknowledging the innate mysteries of religious belief. As one brought up from my earliest days in a religious household I still find perplexing many of the central tenets of the Christian dogma - the virgin birth, the Holy Trinity to name but two - but this does not diminish my readiness to respect the beliefs of so many others in our society who hold them as the foundation of their way of life. For our traditional Aboriginal communities their beliefs, their gods, are inseparable from the land. We may not ourselves be able to comprehend their beliefs but we should respect them. We must understand, in other words, that Aboriginal commitment to ownership of, or access to, land is based not only on a perception of prior rights but on a spiritual bond with the land.

It does no justice therefore to Aborigines, and little to the rest of us, to wage campaigns calculated to have non-Aboriginal Australians believe that their homes everywhere are under threat from some open-ended land grab by Aborigines. One of the sadder spectacles in recent political history has been the television image of the Prime Minister dolefully displaying maps of Australia insinuating and supporting such divisive nonsense. This is not leadership, it is scare-mongering. It is not the politics of confidence but the politics of fear.

Australia's pastoral and mining industries have made a magnificent contribution to Australia's economic development and will continue to be important sectors in providing growth in our national output and living standards. And they can do this without politicians creating images in the public mind which pit the interests of those industries against the aspirations of the Aboriginal people. We don't have to do this, for the Aborigines themselves do not. A former Executive Director of the National Farmers' Federation, Rick Farley, who now works closely with Aboriginal leaders, made an important statement to that effect on the 7th May 1997: "The Aboriginal people….have said that they would concede the validation of all rights necessary to operate a modern pastoral property." And that concession extends to the concept of diversified activities on pastoral properties beyond traditional concentration on cattle raising. Individual pastoralists have established precisely such a modus vivendi which allows Aborigines reasonable opportunities for traditional hunting and fishing and access to sites of spiritual significance.

Similarly, with the mining industry, it is inaccurate to draw a picture of incompatibility of interests between miners and Aborigines. In every major mining State, and the Northern Territory, there are agreements arising out of negotiations in good faith between mining companies and Aboriginal representatives which allow exploration and development of vast mineral sources - including in this State the "Gawler Craton" agreement. These are the realities which allowed Galarrwuy Yunupingu to make this profoundly important statement in June of last year: "The Northern Territory experience gives us confidence that we can connect the symbols and the substance to deliver the practical outcomes."

This, my friends, goes to the very heart of this issue. A confident Australia can reconcile the symbols and the substance. I know from personal discussions with Aboriginal leaders and individuals within the pastoral and mining industries that there is sufficient goodwill, and good sense, in all quarters to believe that a negotiated settlement is possible - an honourable settlement that does justice to the legitimate interests of all parties directly concerned and in accordance with the best traditions of this country. I repeat a suggestion I made some weeks ago that the Prime Minister - perhaps with an invitation to the Leader of the Opposition - should bring the leaders of the Aboriginal people, pastoralists and the mining industry to Canberra and lead them in seeking such a negotiated settlement. This would be a courageous and perhaps difficult move for the Prime Minister but the stakes are high. The alternative is an election, at least in part based on race, and this would wound and divide Australia for generations to come.

As I said when first making this suggestion, my faith in the process of bringing conflicting parties together and locking them into negotiation stems from a long experience in Australian industrial relations. And it is this area, currently, more than any other, which threatens to polarise our society. The government certainly can claim a mandate from the last election to make legislative changes in this field. But it can claim no mandate from the Australian people, or the traditional values of this nation, deliberately to demonise one group of Australians and set them against other Australians.

Let me make quite clear that I do not believe the trade union movement in general or the Maritime Union of Australia (or its predecessor on the wharves, the Waterside Workers' Federation) have been without blemish in the conduct of their affairs. Nor, for that matter have employers generally and, in particular, employers on the waterfront.

But I put this simple question - does anyone believe that, if an impartial test was run on how they balance considerations of personal aggrandisement and the national interest, the MUA, would emerge in a worse light than the individuals behind Patricks including the shadowy but substantial Mr Peter Scanlon? I ask that question not to denigrate Mr Scanlon or his colleagues, for that, would serve as little purpose as Mr Reith's constant denigration of the MUA. Rather it is by way of a plea for fairness and sanity in dealing with the legitimate issue of achieving better industrial relations and improved productivity on the Australian waterfront. The simple and indisputable truth is that there is considerable room for improvement in their practices by both management and union.

The inadequacy of Patrick management has been identified, impeccably, by one of their Melbourne Shift Supervisors. Mr Allan Knight, on his resignation from the company at the end of 1997 received a letter expressing the appreciation of the company for "…the 110% effort you have put into your job as a supervisor and the excellent results you have always managed to achieve." On 23rd February Mr Knight publicly cited the reason for his resignation as the continual confrontations instigated by the company with the workforce. He said: "I was fed up with senior management failing to act upon fundamental operational and maintenance matters which caused lengthy delays and reduced productivity. My experience over recent times was that senior management were incapable or unwilling to fix operational problems …it's easier to blame others."

Look at the alternative experience here in Adelaide. Sealand Australia which operates in eighty-six countries is, along with Patricks and P & O, one of the three major stevedoring companies in Australia. Sealand's general manger, Captain Andy Andrew, interviewed on the 30th January of this year was asked whether "it is possible to run an efficient waterfront business in Australia using MUA labour?" He answered: "Without a doubt, yes." When asked the secret he replied: "…we communicate, we build an environment that is conducive to productivity, where people are listened to. And it worked. It didn't happen in the very beginning but it has worked. It has worked over the period of the last three to four years." In a letter to John Coombs on the 21st February, 1998, Captain Andrews confirmed the "marked improvement in the work environment, which has a direct, positive impact on our productivity levels, that have been of great benefit to our customers." He reported this publicly (The Australian, 21st March) saying that the company had not found the MUA a barrier to reforms: "they're very receptive to change."

And consider these comments in regard to Western Australia. On 20th March 1998, Co-operative Bulk Handling Limited's Chairman of Directors, Allan Watson, in publicly welcoming a new agreement negotiated with the MUA said "it will further enhance productivity and efficiency measures for the grain industry in Western Australia." He concluded: "The finalisation of this Agreement recognises that there are benefits in collectively bargaining with the MUA when all parties work towards achieving productivity, efficiency and customer focussed outcomes in the workplace."

These sentiments were confirmed at the same time in a joint statement issued by MUA Branch Secretary, Terry Buck, and Barry Court, President of the WA Pastoralist's and Grazier's Association. Acknowledging significant improvements in container throughput at P & O, and world's best practice at grain terminals, the joint statement asserted: "Past experience had clearly shown that the introduction of companies or organisations based on confrontation and not co-operation were not in the best interest of either (the) maritime community or the farming community."

All of these statements confirm my knowledge from my experience as Prime Minister that Mr Reith's numerous allegations that the process of negotiation in the past had produced nothing of substance are simply false. I had left these processes to my relevant Ministers but when discussions become bogged-down in 1991 I brought all the parties together in Sydney and chaired a session which went through the afternoon and the whole night of May 1st until 7 o'clock the next morning. We secured an agreement of which the P & O representative said: "it was a win for the economy and for the international competitiveness of Australia."

But, most particularly, I ask you to listen carefully to what the former Chief Executive Officer of P & O Containers, David Baker, had to say about that 1989-1992 period of negotiated reform, in the paper he delivered on June 28th 1996: "Just let's pause…and take account of a few facts. Let us acknowledge some of the three year achievements of the waterfront reform processes which were achieved, inter-alia, through the positive approach and co-operation of the unions." He then listed those achievements including "a reduction in the workforce from 8,872 in 1989 to 3,816 in 1992" - ie a reduction of 57% - and "a reduction in industrial disputes, leading to increased productivity and improved ship turnaround times." He then observed : "Some remarkable achievements and changes to a deeply entrenched culture of industry employment."

Then Mr Baker - remember the Chief Executive of P & O Containers - made a declaration that I would like to see put up in bold print in the offices of Peter Reith, the Prime Minister and on the wall of the Cabinet Room. Referring to the possibility of further reform this man spoke in the language of a confident Australia: "I would like to think this can be achieved without conflict. Idealistic this may be, I don't see a lasting solution through Armageddon. This business is all about living and working in a community and as a community to work together as Australians can, so that Australia will deliver to world's best practice. Any conflict, whether of Armageddon or less proportions, will result in a winner and a loser and therefore may be at risk in providing a lasting solution."

David Baker was right. While Peter Reith has demonised I do not seek to sanctify the wharfies for I think they would readily concede they are not sainthood material. But I do guarantee they will react positively to responsible leadership from government that asks for their co-operation in bringing the Australian waterfront generally, as close as is practicable, to world's best practice. As with the issue of Aboriginal land rights, I make the plea that the government accept this responsibility for I am certain that, with such an approach, this outcome can be achieved.

My friends, as we reflect therefore on our past, on where and how together as Australians we have come in such a short time, I hope you can share my pride and understand my apprehension. As we fast approach the end of our first century as a nation we can but marvel at the fortitude and imagination of our forebears who so quickly transformed a place of penal servitude into this single nation of free men, if not yet entirely liberated women. They developed a system which recognised and rewarded enterprise but saw a benign role for the State in giving some protection to the most needy and in protecting the community from the unfettered use of power by parties to the industrial relationship. And in all of this they led the world, sustained not by some straightjacket philosophy but by a pragmatic commitment to the "fair go" syndrome.

Their successors, just as they showed a remarkable courage and confidence in war, demonstrated the same characteristics in changing the face of Australia after the Second World War. In addition to those five and a half million immigrants, we opened our doors generally to more than half-a-million refugees and other arrivals under humanitarian programs, a combined number almost equivalent to the total population of Australia in 1945. No other country on earth, in such a short period, has with the same mixture of self-interest and compassion, so changed its complexion. We have been able to do this with minimal social dislocation because we had confidence in ourselves and because those who came to join us admired that confidence and wanted for themselves and for their children , the opportunity to become part of that confident Australia.

And it should be remembered that this vast enlargement and enrichment of our population would not have been possible without the full support and involvement of the trade union movement of this country, support which began under my predecessor at the ACTU, Albert Monk, and was continued under governments from both sides of politics - a fact generously acknowledged by Chifley, Menzies and Holt.

I repeat that the Australian trade union movement has made its share of mistakes but it has been an integral part of the shaping of Australia, its character and the standards of living enjoyed by everyone in this country - unionist and non-unionist alike. It displays both an ignorance of history and an ungenerosity of spirit to elevate an attack upon this movement or its constituents into a policy of government.

There is no intrinsic reason why Australians should now lose confidence in Australia or in one another. We do live in a world of rapid change unparalleled in history and this has inevitably produced in our country, as in others, feelings of insecurity. Throughout history, communities which have been frightened and perplexed by a changing environment have created scapegoats and have been tempted to listen to false prophets who offer superficial analyses and glib solutions. This is not the way for Australia.

A nation, which has peaceably become as multi-racial as any on earth, should not allow issues of race to be a divisive influence in our political life. A nation, which by referendum has accepted Aboriginal affairs as a federal responsibility and by the decision of the highest court in the land has recognised the concept of prior ownership, should not allow itself to be diverted by grotesque misrepresentations from negotiating an honourable settlement of the legitimate aspirations of our Aboriginal people. And a nation which honestly recognises the positive contribution of organised Australian workers to the betterment of this country and its citizens should not feel at ease with images of men on the wharves in black balaclavas, guard dogs and mercenaries training in a foreign port to take the jobs of Australian unionists.

This is not the Australian way, it is not the way of confidence - it is the dark way to a paranoid Australia. I trust that all of you, irrespective of political persuasion, will join me in calling upon our leaders to end these policies of divisiveness. Those leaders can themselves be confident that if they do this the Australian people will return their confidence.

This generation of Australians will be prepared, as preceding ones have been in peace and in war, to respond to the challenge and to co-operate in advancing the real interests of the nation. This will be a confident Australia true to its own best traditions, a safe cohesive sanctuary for its own citizens and a credible, respected force for good in the region and the world.

Hawke Logo

 

While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy - valuing our diversity - and building our future.

The copying and reproduction of any transcripts within the Hawke Centre public program is strictly forbidden without prior arrangements.


Areas of study and research

+ Click to minimise