Remembering the Hawke Government 1983–1991

Hawke’s environmental legacy

by Dr Giorel Curran

Jun 13 · 3 min read

In a recent article commemorating Bob Hawke’s prime ministership, Bob Brown — past leader of the Australian Greens — described him as ‘our environmental prime minister’. This is quite an accolade coming from such a long standing environmental warrior. Bob Brown likely attributed this accolade both on substance and on style.

Hawke’s environmental achievements were substantive. His prime ministership led with an environmental motif when he swept into power in 1983 in part on the back of promises to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. This issue had migrated to the mainland and signalled the centrality of environmental concerns for growing numbers of electors.

Several years later, he went on to establish an important Australian marker in the global sustainable development discourse by establishing Australia’s own version of it: ecologically sustainable development or ESD. Institutionally he elevated the environment department from the stalls to a central cabinet position; undertook considerable renovation of the institutional culture to embed environmental considerations within it; and, importantly, signalled that environmental concerns were worthy of political leadership at the very top including Hawke himself and his appointment of a senior party strategist and key Cabinet actor to the environment portfolio.

Other accomplishments of the Hawke era were significant. These included the protection and heritage listing of some iconic natural assets such as the Daintree rain forests in northern Queensland and Kakadu national park in the Northern Territory, the expansion of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the establishment of the highly successful Landcare program.

Hawke’s style was equally renowned. He expanded his widely noted consensual style to include environmental actors during an era widely recognised as the most inclusive for them. Key environmental actors at the time acknowledged the inclusivity and respect with which Hawke considered their views. The ESD process too was renowned for its collaborative efforts across a wide range of industrial, political, scientific and environmental groups.

But he was also a pragmatist — a pragmatism well exemplified by the appointment of Graham Richardson as his environment minister. Both Hawke and Richardson recognised the electoral repercussions of the emergent environmentalist era, an awareness that underpinned their environmental policy platform and successful electoral strategies.

Few have taken the environmental leadership reins in quite the same manner than Prime Minister Bob Hawke did several decades ago. The post-Hawke decades have been marked by significant to-ing and fro-ing on environmental issues, both by the different political parties in power, as well as by different Labor leaders. While a key legacy of the Hawke era has been steady progress on the environment front, the post-Hawke environment agenda has noticeably lacked his era’s innovation, buoyancy and commitment.

Overall, he was sufficiently visionary to recognise that the environment was an important issue that could no longer be brushed aside, and sufficiently pragmatic to recognise that it needed to be managed very carefully politically.



Dr Giorel Curran is Director, Learning and Teaching and a senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. Her current research focuses on environmental politics and policy and the theorising of new social and political movements, areas in which she publishes widely. Her most recent book is Sustainability and Energy Politics: Ecological Modernisation and Corporate Social Responsibility.

The Machinery of Government

Independent analysis by Australia's best political scientists and policy researchers with a focus on politics, policy, and governance.


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Independent expert analysis and insights from Australia’s best political scientists and policy researchers.

The Machinery of Government

Independent analysis by Australia's best political scientists and policy researchers with a focus on politics, policy, and governance.

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