John Bannon and Bob Hawke

Remembering the Hawke Government 1983–1991

Hawke’s ‘New Federalism’

by Associate Professor Robyn Hollander

Jun 14 · 3 min read

In 1990 Bob Hawke boldly committed a ‘New Federalism’. While he was not the first (or last) to do so, his version was shaped by his characteristic consensus building approach and in marked contrast to that of his predecessor, Malcolm Fraser whose New Federalism sought to devolve power.

While Hawke was not adverse to expanding Commonwealth powers to overrule the states, he also saw that winning their co-operation would prove more productive over the longer term. One of his first actions after winning the 1983 election was to overrule the Tasmanian government’s intention to dam the Franklin River. This intervention established that the commonwealth had an important and ongoing role in environmental protection.

Despite the political fracas surrounding the Franklin River, Hawke did not enjoy being confrontational and preferred to work with the Premiers in a ‘closer partnership’. Thus followed a series of Special Premiers’ Conferences in the early 1990s, where Commonwealth, State and Territory leaders agreed to four principles: nationhood, subsidiarity, structural efficiency and accountability. Working together, they addressed key issues including the establishment of a national electricity grid; a uniform road transport regime for heavy vehicles; a National Rail Corporation; national food standards; and uniform building regulations. They began negotiations for the National Competition Policy, a complex package of microeconomic reforms, and committed to using Ecologically Sustainable Development as the overarching principle that would inform their policy making going forward.

This more ‘collaborative’ style of federalism was in marked difference from the arm’s length adversarial interaction which had characterised commonwealth-state relations since Federation. Prime Minister Hawke left a long-term legacy in the form of COAG, the Council of Australian Governments established under Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating. While COAG’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the past 25 years it has remained an important institution for engagement between commonwealth, state and territory leaders and testimony to Hawke’s collaborative approach to leadership.



Dr Robyn Hollander is Head of School and Associate Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

She has long standing interests in federalism and regulation which stem back to her doctoral studies. While that research focused on housing policy in Australia, and in particular the work of the then Queensland Housing Commission, two relationships were unavoidable; that between the commonwealth and the states and between governments and markets. These relationships have continued to inform her research agenda which has spanned several policy areas including the environment, competition, and higher education.

Her current work centres around issues of moral policy. She has published in a range of well regarded journals including Publius, The Australian Journal of Political Science, The Australian Journal of Public Administration and The Australian Journal of Politics and History.

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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