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Inside the Hawke-Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary

Remarks by Gareth Evans on the launch by Paul Keating of Inside the Hawke-Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary (Melbourne University Press), Australian National University, Canberra, 27 August 2014

Thanks to Louise Adler – our cyclonic force of publishing nature - for that introduction (in the best tradition of publishers being kind to their authors because someone has to be),  for all the confidence you had in this project from the outset, and for all the support you and your splendid team from MUP have given me along the way.

Thanks to Glyn Davis, who despite the mortal institutional rivalry between Melbourne and ANU these days, has been a longstanding friend and colleague in the rather thankless enterprise of trying to achieve better governance in this country.

And thanks above all to Paul Keating for all the kind words with which he has just launched my book;  for our longstanding friendship both personal and professional (which survived me staying loyal to Bob Hawke through the leadership ballots – although not without him telling me more than once that in doing so I was ‘leaving my brains in the bottom drawer”);  and for the towering contributions he has made to this country for so long and in so many ways, only a small proportion of which are captured in this diary.

As most of you here will have been long aware, Paul is a larger than life, and I suspect globally unique, combination of statesman, aesthete, showman and street-fighter – what I once described to an American friend, in terms he could culturally relate to, as a combination of Franklin Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Lenny Bruce and Mike Tyson. Playing in his team, alongside him or under his leadership, there was never, ever a dull moment, and I hope I have captured at least a little bit of that in my diary.

The story I tell in this Diary is of not just one, but multiple strong personalities; it’s a story of strong leaders and those with strong leadership ambitions.  There were multiple occasions in the period I document – 1984-86, still very early in the thirteen-year life of the Hawke-Keating governments – when tensions between old bulls and younger bulls, and competing egos and ambitions, were on display, if not publicly, certainly in the cabinet room and the corridors. And it is inevitable that my contemporaneous accounts of some of these clashes, often pretty raw, have captured most of the pre-launch attention my book has been receiving this week.

But the real story-line is not that those tensions and dynamics existed – as I suspect has been the case with just about every government that has ever held office – but that they were so successfully managed, and that this government maintained such strong reformist momentum for as long as it did, and delivered as much as it did, with as much discipline and coherence as it did, to the extent that it is now generally regarded as the gold standard. I think there were four main reasons for this, which were all very evident during the period I was recording.

First, we had throughout a clear philosophy and sense of policy direction which we maintained consistently throughout our term:  very dry in our economic policy, very moist in our social policy, and liberal internationalist in our foreign policy, with the concept of the “social wage” - delivered mainly through health, education, superannuation gains – being at the heart of our capacity to sell wage restraint, deregulation, and tough economic reforms generally to the wider community. We never – or almost never! – let politics drown good policy, certainly in the crucial area of economic policy, because we were confident of the strength and coherence of the policy we were making.

Second, we operated internally on the basis of argument rather than authority. We argued everything out, often very fiercely (and in language which reflected the strength of the views held) and didn't just succumb passively to the exercise of leadership authority. The Prime Minister may have been first among equals, but only just. Everything was contestable, and contested. The concept of captain’s picks and captain’s calls, after a couple of early mishaps, just didn't apply. The idea that something as riddled with equity flaws and sitting as incoherently with the government’s larger economic message as Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave scheme, could be accepted passively, without demur, by a timorous, deferential, Cabinet, was simply inconceivable. Our leaders didn't always love the reality of Cabinet peer group pressure, but both of them accepted that they were running a Cabinet, not a presidential, system.

Third, we really did listen, and consult with relevant stakeholders, on every major policy issue, starting with the famous summits of the early years. Compare and contrast, as many have, the lengths we went to in order to get up the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax, and the Resource Rent Royalty which I negotiated, with the history of the mining tax under our Labor successors. We respected and welcomed the advice of the public service, not just in policy implementation but in conceptualisation and design, and had at least as many public servants seconded to our ministerial offices as political and personal staff.

And fourth, we explained and argued the case for everything we did, with Hawke and Keating both outstanding communicators, and Paul in particular absolutely remorseless in his determination to ensure that the major opinion-moulders knew what we were trying to do, why and how.  If the focus groups told us we had a problem, that was the beginning of the public argument, not the end of it.  The notion that we didn't have to communicate all that hard because we were given a bipartisan dream ride by an acquiescent Coalition and an accommodating Senate is a comforting fantasy - we had to work very hard to win the arguments, not only on the big socio-cultural issues like Mabo, but also on a lot of key economic reforms.

It is true that we didn't have in the mid-‘80s some of the technology-driven, 24/7 media pressures that present governments are under, or quite so flaky a set of cross-benchers to have to negotiate with. In all sorts of ways it is now tougher than it has ever been for governments to deliver good policy outcomes.

But I’m not persuaded that the problem is wholly a systemic one, and I was intrigued to hear Tony Abbott making that point yesterday in launching Paul Kelly’s new book.  In too many quarters the disaggregation of the media, its preoccupation with personalities rather than substance, and the prevailing self-reinforcing political culture of negativity have become excuses rather than explanations for policy failure. I strongly believe that if the current generation of political leaders do tackle the task in the way the Hawke-Keating governments did, we can do much better. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The sense that there may be something that could be learned by current generations from my political generation’s experience was the key reason why I explored the possibility of publishing this diary thirty years after it was written. Why I waited 30 years, rather than 30 minutes like my friend and colleague Bob Carr, is explained in my Introduction. 

You’ll also find answers there to a number of other questions that I’ve been repeatedly asked as I’ve been talking about this book over the last few days:  Why these two years – 1984-6?  Why only two years – and not the whole life of the Government through to 1996? How and when did I produce these daily entries? How much of the original text was edited out and on what principles? How can I justify retaining in the published text passages of such spectacular vulgarity as to make even Jacqui Lambie blush? (Well, maybe not Senator Lambie…). Were we really all as waspish to each other as some of the reported extracts might lead you to believe, and do I feel guilty and contrite now about some of the character-assessments I’ve committed to posterity? There’s no time now for me to give you the answers to all those questions, but for the modest purchase price of this book, you’ll find them all in my Introduction.

You’ll also find in the Introduction some discussion of the whole intriguing question  about the value-added of the Cabinet diary genre, as distinct from the more familiar, and far more numerous, memoirs, histories and analyses. And  you’ll find some discussion of the quite different ways in which Cabinet diaries tend to be written, which I can perhaps best summarise  by saying that some  –  like Richard Crossman’s famous UK originals, and Neal Blewett’s on the Keating Government here – are more about the sausage, the substance of the government policy-making process, while others - like Alan Clark’s wonderfully tasteless account of the Thatcher years again in the UK, and (as he cheerfully acknowledges)  Bob Carr’s recent book, are really more about the sizzle: the egos and eccentricities and colour-and-movement of ministerial life. I think it’s fair to say that most of my diary is a serious attempt to explain the sausage-making – but hopefully with enough sizzle to make it readable to a rather wider audience than just the wonks and tragics.

If I have succeeded at all in this enterprise it’s because of the help and support of wide cast of characters. I can’t mention again here all those I hope are appropriately thanked in the Acknowledgements, but let me single out just a few

First of all, again, Louise Adler – for her crazy bravery in believing there might just be an audience for the thirty-year old scribblings of what the former UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan once memorably described himself to me as being, a CLOOF (when pressed to explain, ‘my dear fellow, a Clapped Out Old Fart of course). And for her superbly professional team at MUP, including Sally Heath and Dina Kluska.

Secondly, ANU, for providing me with the office and staff back-up to enable me not just to play my role as Chancellor, but do many other Quixotic things including preparing this book for publication. And, for hosting today’s event, the Crawford School of Public Policy, for which I nurture the ambition – I think well on the way to being realized – of becoming the southern hemisphere’s answer to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Third, my government colleagues: pre-eminently Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, but also Susan Ryan and others here today – and so many more who provided, every day of my ministerial life, such extraordinarily rich veins of material to write about.  

Fourth, my advisers: the legion of public servants - the senior departmental officers and those who worked on my ministerial staff – for whom I had, overwhelmingly, such respect and in many cases real affection, and my  personal staff generally – a number of whom are here today both from the period of this diary, and from later years – who it’s simply impossible to thank enough for their commitment and support. As any Minister will acknowledge, the quality and loyalty of your personal staff is the most crucial single professional ingredient in enabling one to cope with the relentless pressures of this life.

There are too many wonderful staffers to mention individually, but there’s one I can’t not single out on this occasion: my very long-serving and totally wonderful personal assistant Christine Neville, here with us today who, quite apart from everything else, typed up from my nightly tapes all 350,000 words of the original text of this diary. Chris also played that very necessary role, I suspect not as common as it should be these days, of constantly whispering in the Emperor’s ear ‘Remember Caesar that thou art mortal’: if she didn’t stop me from all the self-inflicted wounds I incurred during my ministerial career, it certainly wasn’t for want of trying!

Finally, or any of us to have a chance of survival in this business, it’s not just the professional but the personal ingredient that has to be right. And in that respect I simply can’t thank enough my immediate family –   Merran, Caitlin and Eamon, all of them here today – for their love and support through some often very difficult times.

Maybe just one last little thank you to the member of the fourth estate (who should perhaps remain nameless) who really made my day earlier this week by texting me before our scheduled interview: “Am chortling my way through your book which, after labouring through Swanny’s,  has restored my will to live”.

Well, maybe that was a little over the top – but there’s only one way to find out: by buying and reading the book for yourself!  Thanks once again to Paul, and all of you, for being here to join in this celebration.