Hawke’s cabinets were among the best run in the last 35 years.
In part that was fortuitous. When he was elected leader, he wanted an immediate impact. The one policy document ready for release was the report of a taskforce, Labor and the Quality of Government, prepared primarily by Gareth Evans and Neal Blewett. Among other issues it described how a Labor cabinet would work. It proposed an inner cabinet and outer ministry, breaking the assumption of the Whitlam government that all ministers should be part of cabinet. It re-asserted that collective responsibility should apply within the party as well as in public.
These changes added discipline that was to be a hall mark of the early Hawke governments, in contrast to the experiences of its giddy predecessor. Every new minister was committed to the process. In the first five years that commitment meant the rules and procedures, requiring due process and proper negotiation, were almost self-enforcing. Ministers would ask if a new proposal had followed the rules, making the chairing of cabinet easier for a new prime minister.
Hawke was in any case an excellent chair. His experience at the ACTU was as a negotiator, bringing different sides together to find some common solution. In cabinet he was prepared to give a largely talented group of ministers their head, entering the debate only where he was needed to find a compromise. He had a general desire to identify the points of difference. In a few areas, relating to the Summits, he had strong views and would give a lead; more often he was concerned that predictable processes allowed adequate negotiation and led to a sensible and practical conclusion.
At times he was prepared to work outside cabinet. The decision to float the dollar was a surprise even to some of his most senior ministers, but that was necessary. More often, his unilateral decisions (on MX missiles, the Combe-Ivanov inquiry, convening the tax summit) were less successful and might have been moderated had they gone to cabinet for discussion. On balance his ministers were more impressed by his skills as chair of cabinet and head of government than they were by his political judgement.
The early Hawke cabinets were a constitutionalist’s dream: collective, consultative, united and well-led.
Later when factions, ambitions and the inevitable tiredness brought dissension and rancour to the scene, that image was tarnished. By the end many of the senior ministers were backing Keating. Hawke had stayed too long. That should not be allowed to detract from the skill with which he had led a cabinet of talents more successfully, more cohesively and for longer than any other Labor prime minster.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Weller is Emeritus Professor at Griffith University, where he has been Professor of Politics since 1984.
He is, inter alia, author of Malcolm Fraser PM (1989), Australia’s Mandarins (2001), Cabinet Government in Australia (2007) and Kevin Rudd, Twice Prime Minister (2014), and co-author of The Engine Room of Government: the Queensland Premier’s Department 1859–2001(2001), Westminster compared(2009) and Learning to be a Minister (2010).