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Incorrigible Optimist: National Press Club Launch

Response by Gareth Evans to Bob Hawke launching Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir (Melbourne University Press, 2017), National Press Club, Canberra, 4 October 2017

One of the unhappy realities of political life is that many are called but few are chosen. And of those who are chosen, not everyone gets a chance to make a difference. I was one of the lucky ones, and the greatest luck of all that I had was to be around at a time when my Party was superbly led for the whole of my twenty-one years in Parliament – not least by Bob Hawke, to whom I am indebted for launching my memoir today – and when the Hawke-Keating governments in whose Cabinets I served for thirteen years became the Australian gold standard, as is generally now acknowledged: as good or better than any since Federation.

Those Cabinets were, throughout, very much teams of rivals, highly strung collectives of very capable, very forceful personalities. That we managed to work together as we did, and achieve as much as we did, owes almost everything to the quality of the leadership we had throughout. And Bob Hawke was as good as it gets for an Australian Prime Minister.

Bob had all the attributes of intellect, character and temperament that I identify in the book as necessary for any successful political leader – including that most distinctive characteristic of all – a degree of self-belief that defies normal human inhibition! But he also, as I describe, brought to the role four great particular strengths: his ability, well supported by those around him, to craft a grand narrative; his ability to maintain – rather unexpectedly for those who knew only the earlier boyo – great personal and political discipline; his quite exceptional instinctive ability to connect with people (John Howard’s supporters can credibly claim that he managed that across a fairly broad spread of the community, but Bob was I think the last to be able to do it across pretty much the whole social spectrum); and his instinct and ability to operate collegiately.

That collegiality was incredibly important. The success of the Hawke-Keating governments had a number of ingredients which I spell out – including the clarity of the underlying philosophical narrative; the communication skills with which that was sustained (‘the long straight lines of rhetoric’ as Paul has described them); the broad and deep consultation on which policy development was ordinarily based; and the quality of the process with which it was delivered (with us having fully learned the lessons of the dysfunctionality of the Whitlam government). But above all what I think really mattered was that the government ran on the basis of argument, not authority, and of genuinely collective decision making – everything was contestable, and a great many policy issues were intensely contested.

And when I say contested, I mean contested. There were plenty of things on which Hawkey and I disagreed – not least when I was Attorney-General, in what he used to occasionally describe as my ‘two-handed wank’ phase. And when we did, we tended to go at it hammer and tongs, including across the Cabinet table. My own temperament is, as I acknowledge somewhere in the book, ‘not of the cloth from which Zen masters are made’, but nor was Bob – for all the joy of his instinctively conciliatory temperament – immune from the occasional teensy touch of irascibility. Dedicated readers of my Cabinet Diary might recall one memorable exchange in 1986 which concluded with him bellowing ‘So up you for the fucking rent.’ And this is when I was back in general favour, as Minister for Pipes and Holes! And he reckons I was at times ‘in your face’!

The point is that, underlying all the rivalry and rumbustiousness, there was strong mutual respect and a lot of mutual affection between all the key players. We genuinely admired each other’s abilities, were prepared to listen to each other’s perspectives, were willing to accept – albeit sometimes only after exhaustive consideration of the alternatives! – the best policy outcomes and, in the larger interests of maintaining government unity, gave ground reasonably gracefully when the numbers were against us.

On the subject of giving ground, I was a bit slower than Bob would have liked to gracefully acknowledge that he was right – acting in my own as well as the government’s best interests – when he sacked me as Attorney-General. It has taken me 33 years– but acknowledge it I do in this memoir. So thank you Bob, for being a great colleague and friend, and a great Australian Prime Minister.

One of the many themes running through this book is the need to defend politics and public service from their present army of cynics and detractors. As I quote a Generation Next former assistant of mine, ‘The bullshit detectors of my generation are currently on overdrive. The challenge is to convince them that they can overcome that bullshit by engaging in major party politics themselves.’ What mattered for me, in my time, was my perception that while a lot of fantastically good things could be done at the micro level, it was only through politics, public service and public action that one could achieve change at the macro level – setting new policy directions, recognising and advancing our common humanity, and making Australia and the world a better place for all its people.

Maybe times have changed. Domestically, the standard of public debate has rarely been more shallow and superficial than over the last few years (although I have to admit some three-word slogans deserve immortality, notably ‘Abbot’s Australia: Meaner. Dumber. Hotter.’). The crucial challenge for the major centre-left and centre-right parties, in Australia as elsewhere, is to win back the traditional levels of support for them that have been so conspicuously eroding in recent times, driven by often interrelated economic, security and cultural anxieties.

In doing so, it is not a matter of resorting to crude populist appeals. Nor is it a matter of blaming the new media and social media environment for making serious discussion of serious policy issues impossible. It has always been the case that most people, most of the time, prefer light to heavy. The major newspapers have clearly lost some of their traditional distinctive influence, but – looking across the whole contemporary media spectrum – at least as much serious journalism is being written, and read, as ever before.

What is needed from the major parties, as I try to spell out in the last chapter, is not complaint about the impossibility of it all, but rather a new willingness to really listen to the electorate’s concerns, which are very real, to think hard about new ways of addressing them, and to act in ways that will win genuine respect. It has long been received wisdom on my side of politics that ‘the mob will always work you out’. And they do.

Voters have shown over and over again, here as elsewhere, that they will respond positively to an attractive story-teller telling an attractive story. Whether we have in place now, in the two major Australian parties, story-tellers with all the right skill-sets is something on which views will differ: Malcolm Turnbull’s problem, I suspect, is that the electorate now knows him too well, Bill Shorten’s only that it does not know him well enough. Consensus might be elusive on that.

But what ought to be readily deliverable, with some determined new listening and thinking, is an attractive story-line. On the evidence of the past, and recent developments in Europe, I suspect that the storyline most likely to be found attractive – and that will, if embraced, restore some real quality in policymaking – is some contemporary variation on the ‘third way’ approach that the Hawke-Keating governments made their own (viz. tough-minded dry, competition and productivity focused, economic policy; warm, moist and highly compensatory social policy, and liberal internationalist foreign policy). But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

While nearly half my memoir is devoted to domestic policy issues – law and justice, racial discrimination and Indigenous recognition, enterprise and the economy, higher education, and democracy and its current discontents, more than five full chapters are devoted to my greatest love of recent decades, international affairs, where you’ll find more than some of you will probably ever want to know – though hopefully leavened by some good stories along the way – about the making and execution of Australian foreign policy, the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict, responding to the horror of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes and, probably the most difficult task of all in the present environment, how to rid the world of nuclear weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised.

While there is quite a bit of history explained along the way – the backstories to some of the biggest issues in which I was involved both at home and abroad – I hope you won’t find too much of it is self-serving historical rewriting, of a kind which does tend to afflict rather too many memoirists. What I have been more concerned to do, in each of the ten thematic areas about which I write, is draw out the lessons I have learned – which may be of some use to future policymakers – from not only what on occasion went right, but what went wrong. As I make clear from the outset, none of us is immune from HPtFtU – the human propensity to fuck things up – and I was certainly no exception.

This book is what it says – a political memoir – not a full autobiography. It’s about my public, not my personal and family life. But it is hard to make sense of anyone’s public life without having at least some sense of what drives them, determines their career choices and influences their priorities – the values they inherit or learn, the formative experiences they have – and you will find some of that in almost every chapter.

What you will also find running through the entire book is an attempt to explain why it is that I continue to be, and describe myself, as that most unusual and perhaps implausible of creatures in this day and age – an incorrigible optimist. I am acutely conscious that always looking on the bright side lends itself to parody, as Monty Python fans will hardly need reminding. But what I offer throughout, in every one of the policy areas in which I have been immersed, are essentially two kinds of explanations for my evident naivete.

The first is that, however bad things may seem to be, they often don’t look quite so bad when looked at from a longer historical perspective – that’s true of conflict generally, mass atrocity crimes, civil violence, major human rights violations, and certainly of poverty – and there is usually at least some objective ground for thinking there may be a way of solving, or at least containing the problem in question. Will Kim Jong-un ever really be the first to attack anyone when he knows that to be homicidal is to be suicidal? And with all the checks and balances, constraints and pushbacks now visibly at work against Donald Trump there seems reasonable ground for believing that the present US presidential horror- show will not careen completely out of control.

My second explanation is a more basic one. I have found throughout my public life that as a practical matter, optimism is not self-fulfilling, but it is certainly self-reinforcing, just as pessimism is self-defeating. If you believe an enterprise is bound to fail, you won’t even begin trying to push the envelope. Achieving anything of lasting value in public life is difficult enough, but it is almost impossible without believing that what seems out of reach really is achievable. The bottom line is simply that I would prefer to live life an optimist and periodically be proved wrong than live as a pessimist and always be right.

For helping me to live that life I have more than fifty year’s worth of people to express gratitude to, which was a pretty impossible task in the book itself, let alone now.

So let me simply thank:

  • all those over the years, including all my staff and NGO and ministerial colleagues, and Bob again, who did their best to save me from myself;
  • all my wonderful colleagues at Australia’s national and finest university, the ANU, for giving me the time and space and support to get this memoir written;
  • Louise Adler and all those at Melbourne University Press whose confidence will I hope not be misplaced that this book, along with my earlier Cabinet Diary, will make a fine double Xmas present for the country’s diminishing legion of political tragics; and
  • to my family, to whom this swansong is dedicated. As I say at the end, the enthusiasm of my kids and grandkids for a better world, and their enthusiasm for making it so, has done more than anything else in recent years to keep my optimism about the future incorrigibly alive.