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Remembering Bill Hayden

Remarks at opening of Hawke Symposium, 'Gold Standard'?: The Hawke Government Forty Years On, Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra, 3 November 2023

As we meet here in Canberra to talk about the achievements of the Hawke Government, one of the real architects of its success, Bill Hayden, is being laid to rest in Queensland, and I think it’s appropriate that, before we launch into the substance of our discussion, we spend just a few moments recognizing, respecting and honoring his incredibly important role.

Bill emerged from the Whitlam Government with a record of heroic accomplishment – as Social Security Minister introducing the single mother’s pension and Medibank which became Medicare and, as Treasurer, doing an enormous amount to restore the kind of financial discipline which had been so conspicuously lacking in his predecessors. He was seen, rightly, as one of the most effective members of the entire Whitlam Ministry, certainly the most balanced, and some would say the sanest of those who served it throughout!

As Leader of the Opposition in the years leading up to 1983, it was Bill more than anyone else who made the ALP electable again, by constructing a visibly highly-capable opposition front bench, by overseeing an overhaul of our policy priorities, and by strongly supporting a complete rethink – through a taskforce on government administration – of all the machinery of government issues (including Cabinet-Outer Ministry-Caucus, and Government-Public Service, relations) which desperately needed to be overhauled if we were to avoid in future the chaotic dysfunction of the Whitlam years.

And as Foreign Minister in the Hawke Government from 1983-88 he was really creative and effective, in ways to which I have often paid tribute as his successor, with three big achievements in particular. He made Australia a highly respected and influential voice in the global peace and disarmament movement, especially in relation to nuclear and chemical weapons. He was accepted as a knowledgeable and constructive voice in South East Asia, and laid the groundwork – especially in building a close relationship with Vietnam – for what we were able to subsequently achieve in Cambodia.

And in our relations with the US, while supporting the alliance, he wasn’t quite as willing as some others to drink the American Kool-Aid, insisting on maintaining our sovereign independent agency in all our policymaking. This didn’t win him much affection in Washington, but it did win Australia respect.

Bill was famously quirky, a bit temperamental, and more than a little paranoid –understandably enough – about some of his colleagues. He and I had our differences along the way, but that comes with the territory in this business: politics is a bloody and dangerous trade, and ALP politics probably the roughest of all.

I owe Bill a lot, as do all of us in the movement, and his legacy will be very long lasting. He was a genuinely great Australian, and he will be very sadly missed.