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Condolence Motion: Death of former Prime Minister the Hon Bob Hawke AC
It is a pleasure to rise to contribute to this condolence motion in relation to the late Bob Hawke. The memorial service at the Sydney Opera House was a remarkable event, and it was a great privilege to be able to attend it. The array of people who were assembled there from so many walks of life was powerful evidence of Hawke's extraordinary impact on our nation. Listening to Paul Keating, Ross Garnaut, Bill Kelty, Kim Beazley and Craig Emerson, amongst others, was in some ways like attending a seminar on the 1980s economic reform process. To touch on why I found that significant, I want to refer to something that I said in my first speech in this place.
Unusually for a student politician, I also went to lectures. Studying economics in the mid-eighties, my political views were further developed. I saw that Australia had an outdated economic model, with rigid labour markets, high tariff walls and heavy government ownership and control of many areas of the economy. But I also learned about the changes being made—floating the dollar, opening up the banking sector to foreign competitors and reducing tariffs.
Of course, in my first speech in this place I chose not to emphasise that those reforms were led by Bob Hawke. But today, as I rise to join other parliamentarians to pay tribute to Bob Hawke, it is absolutely the central point that must be emphasised. While reflecting on being thrust back in memory to the 1980s, I should add a personal reflection, which I think is somewhat appropriate, that at the time I lived in a student share house in Glebe. We had in that house a very useful household item, which was then quite widely available in the shops. It was a hollow plastic bust of Bob Hawke with a screw top, a wine tap at the bottom and a large printed label, 'take the piss out of Bob'. In our student household we did that frequently, pouring in the contents of the those four-litre wine casks which were a common feature of student consumption in the 1980s and may well still be so today. I think, by the way, that that is an indicator of Bob Hawke's place in Australian popular culture.
I do want to make three points in my brief contribution today. Over his term as Prime Minister Bob Hawke led an economic reform process that was vitally important to Australia. A critical way that he did that was by working with other Australians. The impact of that was felt right across our economy, as many other speakers have observed. I want to touch briefly on the impact he had on the telecommunications sector. The reform process that Bob Hawke left was quite remarkable, and the list of reforms is an extraordinarily long one. Floating the dollar; opening up the banking sector to allow the entry of foreign banks; deregulating interest rates; a range of tax reforms, including the introduction of the capital gains tax; opening up a whole series of markets to competition in transport, banking, telecommunications and other markets; privatising, in whole or in part, government business enterprises like Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. Many of these have gone on to become highly successful, wealth-generating companies, expanding their operations around the world. There was the introduction of HECS and, of course, the tariff reform and reduction process.
In retrospect, when we touch on it and when it's described, it all seems and looks so smooth and easy. But of course it was a highly challenging process and required great political skill. Hawke was prepared to take on some very tough fights as part of the reform process. Not every one of them was successful, like the attempted introduction of a national identity card, the Australia Card, in the late 1980s, or the attempt to introduce a consumption tax as part of the 1985 tax reform process—the famous Option C, which was abandoned when Hawke got off the cart. I say this not to be critical at all, but to make the observation that to achieve the extraordinary range of reforms that he did he had to be prepared to take on a great many issues. While he had success on many if not most of them, he didn't have success on all of them. But he would not have achieved the success that he did on those where reform was achieved had he not been prepared to take on those, including the few, where success was not achieved.
One of Hawke's great strengths, which I would argue that he deployed to its greatest effect in his time as Prime Minister and which was a feature of his career, was his ability to work with others. Of course, he had extraordinary intellectual capacities and he had the benefit of a tertiary education of great breadth both in Australia and internationally. His knowledge about industrial and economic policy was very deep at a time when tertiary education was not as common and widely available as it is today. But as well as his deep subject matter expertise, what he also had was enormous interpersonal skills and a great capacity to persuade others to follow the course that he advocated.
He came into this place with an incredibly rich set of personal connections. He had worked for decades at the very apex of the industrial relations establishment. He had very strong networks not just amongst union leaders but amongst business leaders. His use of national summits as a way to build support for reforms was masterful. I do want to acknowledge his readiness to work with political opponents to achieve policy ends. As many speakers from this side of the House have observed, a number of his achievements as Prime Minister depended upon, or were facilitated by, his readiness to work with this side of the chamber to achieve his policy ends.
One of his other very significant achievements was working with Nick Greiner, the then Premier of New South Wales, in relation to national competition policy. One of the realities of Australian politics and policy is that if you want to achieve outcomes as a federal government then you need to be ready to work constructively with state governments. Certainly, when it comes to national competition policy, that partnership between Hawke and Greiner was enormously important in achieving a series of reforms that were given effect to at both federal and state government levels.
Let me finally touch, briefly, on the impact that Hawke had on the telecommunications sector. Others have spoken about his impact on a whole range of sectors. Certainly, his impact on the telecommunications sector was profound and long lasting. I think Australians today take it for granted that we have a telecommunications industry which is vigorously competitive and where there is relentless technological innovation. We now see the mobile operators introducing a 5G networks, and we see the NBN rollout of fixed broadband approaching competition. When Hawke came to power in 1983, it was very different. There were two government-owned monopolies, Telecom Australia and OTC, and they had firm control of all aspects of telecommunications services.
There was a series of significant reforms under the Hawke government. The first geostationary communication satellite was launched by AUSSAT in 1985, although I would make the point that AUSSAT was established in 1981 under the Fraser government. The reform progress continued. There was a considerable reform of the market structure. There was a new telecommunications act passed in 1989. This was followed by an even more significant reform, which was unveiled in 1990. Kim Beazley, as the then minister, brought forward a proposal to combine Telecom Australia and OTC; to issue a second fixed telecommunications licence; to issue—almost as an afterthought at the time—three mobile licences to use this newfangled technology called GSM; and to lay the groundwork for the full deregulation of telecommunications in a few years subsequently. After 1996, when the Howard government came to power, that deregulation process was continued with the Telecommunications Act 1997. The features of the telecommunications sector that we take for granted today are, in many ways, a reflection of policy decisions taken under Bob Hawke's leadership. That really is one of many sectors where his leadership has had profound and lasting impacts.
Others can speak of their personal experience of Bob Hawke. From a different side of politics and from a different generation, I never met him, although, like all Australians, I feel that I know him. Also, like all Australians, I have benefited from the remarkable program of economic reform that he led. I express my condolences to Bob Hawke's family.
I say thank you, Bob Hawke, for your service to Australia.
Video of speech available here: https://youtu.be/nGx798Ykj44