Vale Bob Hawke

03 July 2019

Much has been spoken today in this place on the legacy of Bob Hawke, and it is a great honour for me to add my remarks on the life of the Hon. Robert James Lee Hawke AC, Prime Minister of Australia from 1983 to 1991. As a nondrinker, I won't be regaling the Senate with stories of me in a bar with Bob Hawke. And despite hearing from other senators today about how they penned a letter to Bob Hawke, I didn't do that either. But I did meet him on many occasions, and I'm very proud that he led our country. Who could forget—those of us who are old enough—Bob Hawke, as president of the ACTU, demolishing journalists on TV? To me, it seemed to be almost every night that he would be on the television in his fiery defence of workers and trade unions. This is the Bob Hawke I first became aware of. I joined the Labor Party in 1983, shortly before Bob Hawke challenged Bill Hayden and won the leadership of the party. So, for me, Bob Hawke as our leader and our PM is personal. His changes impacted my life and the lives of my family in a positive way.

There are four areas that I want to mention today in my remarks. I'd like to begin with Medicare. The chequered history of Medibank and Medicare—introduced first by Whitlam, fundamentally changed by Fraser and finally settled by Hawke—made a fundamental difference to the availability of quality health care for me and my family. Private health insurance under Fraser was a significant burden on my family. We were a low-income family. Whitlam's introduction of Medicare initially provided relief to us and of course delivered affordable health care—sadly short-lived, as Fraser tore down those reforms. I recall during this time not visiting doctors because of the cost and always using the accident and emergency departments of our already overburdened public hospitals. As a low-income earner at that time, I had no other choice. So, of course the election of the Hawke government and the return to the original model set up under Whitlam was cause for celebration for me as a young woman, as a young parent of young children. I lived the words described by Neal Blewett when he introduced the legislation with the words that Medicare would be 'simple, fair and affordable'.

The next area I want to touch on is the Franklin Dam, and a few people here have spoken about that today. Whitlam's reforms to access to university enabled me to enrol in university as a mature-age student—although not so old, at 26. Apart from studying, I got involved in a range of campaigns. One of these was opposing the damming of the Franklin River. This opposition movement to the dam, which would have flooded the Franklin River, was Australia-wide, and for many it was their first real campaign. It seemed to me at the time that we were very active in Western Australia, although a long way from Tasmania, and particularly active at Murdoch University.

What Bob did was nothing short of miraculous. He fought the Liberals at every turn, both here in the federal parliament and in the state of Tasmania. As they thwarted his attempts to stop the dam, he came back with yet another strategy to stop their ambition to dam and destroy this magnificent river. In the end, he was successful.

The Tasmanian dam case is the most famous and influential environmental law case in Australian history. It was also a landmark in Australian constitutional law. In 1981 the area in which the dam was proposed was nominated for listing under the World Heritage convention. But that wasn't enough to save the damming; it wouldn't have prevented the construction of the dam. To stop it, what was required was the incorporation of the protection of the area under international law and incorporating that into Australian domestic law. The Commonwealth took the matter to the High Court and sought and won an injunction. The decision continues to have importance in Australia today. Large parts of Australia's main environmental law come from this Franklin River decision. Years later, when I visited the dam and saw its pristine state, I couldn't believe that at one time we were going to destroy that magnificent river. I thank Bob for his absolute undying attention to stopping that proposal.

The other area I want to touch on is uranium mining. This is a vexed issue in the Labor Party—I stand in opposition to uranium mining—and this was demonstrated between Whitlam and Hawke. Land belonging to the Mirarr people of the Kakadu and West Arnhem regions in the Northern Territory was first targeted as a location for uranium mining in 1974. Again, I was an active opponent of that proposal. The Whitlam government had signed agreements with two mining companies to provide uranium ore to Japan. But, upon election in 1983, Bob Hawke buried the Jabiluka project by declaring that the export permits would not be granted. He also gave highly publicised priority to the World Heritage listing of Kakadu National Park. The park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in three stages. Of course, some would think the mining of uranium at Jabiluka today, whilst in limbo, is unfinished business.

The last area that I really want to touch on today, which profoundly affected me and enabled me to achieve much more than I would have done if it hadn't been for Hawke, is the area of gender discrimination in the workplace. In 1984 the Sex Discrimination Act, as it was called then, outlawed sex discrimination in the workplace. Bob Hawke appointed Susan Ryan to the portfolio of Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, and she served in that role from 1983 to 1988. As Susan Ryan said:

When Bob was swept into power in March 1983 with his team of ministers he had a comprehensive policy agenda ready to go. It included the achievements for which he is most commonly praised: restructuring and strengthening of Australia's economy; globalising it; abandoning outdated measures like protection; reforming taxation; and building strong relationships with our regional neighbours.

It also included the most detailed set of commitments to Australian women ever developed. We delivered on virtually all of them. A lot were highly controversial and not widely popular.

At the time—and this is unbelievable, because for some of us 1983 doesn't seem so long ago—it was not unlawful to sack women who married, it was not unlawful to sack women who became pregnant and it was not unlawful to sack women just because they were women. Maternity leave was scarcely available. Women could not get home loans. Girls' education was restricted, and fewer girls got into higher education. Most of our community thought this was all okay.

Bob Hawke and Susan Ryan also presided over the passing of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 and a massive increase in spending on child care. There was considerable political opposition to all these reforms, including when it came to child care and affirmative action laws, even from within Hawke's own cabinet. Without his strong endorsement, they would not have happened.

The Sex Discrimination Act, as it was known at that time, changed Australia in a fundamental way. For the first time, there was federal protection against discrimination on the grounds of sex—which, of course, these days we refer to as gender—marital status and the condition of pregnancy in employment, and the provision of a range of goods and services. In practice, what Bob Hawke and Susan Ryan achieved was that, from 1983 onwards, it was against the law to treat women differently—to deny them employment because they were pregnant, for instance, or because they were married. Hawke's legacy lies not just in his successful reintroduction of Medicare and his other outstanding achievements. Throughout the rest of his time as Prime Minister, his ability to make radical policy changes for the benefit of the general public, against the direct wishes of the powerful groups in our society, provides useful lessons for political leaders of today.

The memorial held at the Opera House last month was wonderful, packed to the rafters and live-streamed to the crowd watching outside. I pay my sincere condolences to Blanche, Bob's children, his stepson, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. It was only fitting that we sang 'Solidarity Forever', as we had on many occasions before with Bob, and there was the beautiful rendition on the didgeridoo of 'Down Under'. Vale Bob Hawke, and rest in peace.