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Bob Hawke: Labor Lieutenant of Capital

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Nick G,                  18 May 2019

A great deal has been written and said over the past couple of days about the former head of the ACTU and Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, following his death at the age of 89.

Even as the current federal election campaign draws to a close, leaders of both major parliamentary parties were fulsome in their praises.  Likewise, commentators and journalists in the mass media.

Hours have been spent in the elevation of Hawke to a type of political sainthood.  Focus is made time and again on those aspects of Hawke’s personality and incidents from his life on the basis of which a constructed mass popularity has been built.  We know more about his larrikinism and lechery than we do about his service as a loyal labor lieutenant of capital.
So, perhaps we can be excused if we decline to go over once again his 1954 world record for drinking a yard of beer, or his poolside cavorting in skin-tight budgie smugglers at the ALP’s 1975 Terrigal Conference.

Nor is it with any desire to speak ill of the dead that instead we look at his real record of service to capitalism.  It is just that in a small way an attempt must be made to set Hawke’s record straight.

Hawke and the Presidency of the ACTU

Hawke became President of the peak union body the ACTU in July 1969. Some of our readers may be aware that we have just been celebrating the 50th anniversary of an event which took place two months earlier that year – the jailing and subsequent freeing of Tramways Union secretary and CPA (M-L) vice-chairperson Clarrie O’Shea.  The workers of Australia had been unrestrained in their strikes and demonstrations in support of O’Shea: over a million workers went out to free Clarrie and end the hated penal powers of the Arbitration system.  In the process, the tamecat ACTU leadership of Monk and Souter, who had opposed the strikes, had been thoroughly discredited.

Monk was about to retire.  Souter was positioned to replace him.  There was no confidence on the part of the ruling class of local and big foreign monopolies that Souter could control the workers.  Bob Hawke was then a research officer with the ACTU with a responsibility for wage policy.  He was young and ambitious. He made his move in March, meeting at Melbourne’s Downtown Motel with US Embassy officials with whom he had cultivated a relationship.  They included US labor attaches since revealed to have been working for the CIA. He explained to them what he considered to be the ineptitude of Monk and Souter, and won their backing.  One of them, Eric Lindahl, conveyed the US decision to the ACTU. 

The O’Shea struggle was the nail in the coffin for Monk and Souter.  The US candidate was elevated to the ACTU Presidency.
Reining in the workers

By the early 1970s Hawke had reassured the ruling class that their hopes of maintaining their control and deception over the workers with a ‘left’ leader had been well-placed.

A Hawke template was applied to every strike and struggle: make a lot of “militant” noise then at an opportune moment rush in and settle – not win – the dispute.

Hawke, and the ACTU leaders supporting him, were able to present themselves as “‘great tacticians” by preventing further struggles outside of the arbitration courts. Arbitration was “fair”, “just”, “the best way”, etc. The media loved the way Hawke went about “settling” disputes.

A case in point was the militant Ford Broadmeadows strike of May-July 1973.  

The nine-week strike was a magnificent example of workers’ struggle. Ford had attempted to impose a speed-up to compete with GMH.  Wages were low, and the workers complained of being treated like dogs.  Anger was directed at those who held back the struggle or tried to divert it into Arbitration (mainly Len Townsend of the  Vehicle Builders Union and the revisionist “Communist” Laurie Carmichael of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union). The workers defied a return to work order – the police were called in.  Townsend and Carmichael lost control.  A second order to return to work was made with Justice Moore saying he would inspect the factory and arbitrate a decision. At this stage, an opportune moment given that maybe a thousand strikers had sought better employment elsewhere, Mr. Hawke broke his long silence and urged the Ford workers to return to work. With the dispute now “settled”, Moore’s “inspection” resulted in a pathetic wage increase, removed lateness penalties from the award and gave the workers an afternoon tea break. Much more could have been won had the workers kept control of the dispute and retained the initiative embedded in rank and file leadership.

The official trade union bodies had long ago been carefully fitted into the whole system of exploitation. As ACTU President Hawke spent a great deal of time with the employers, with Fraser and Minister for labour Street, with the US and Japanese multinationals; he assisted Fraser in introducing so-called wage indexation which resulted in a substantial reduction of real wages. Just as he did against the penal provisions he made “militant” statements against the Industrial Relations Bureau and Fraser’s amendments to the Trade Practices Act. But he did nothing. He first said that the ACTU would fight these provisions. Then he explained that “fighting” meant that the ACTU would seek talks with the employers to discuss the Bill, because he hoped the employers would see the counter-productive nature of such legislation. He even said “there could be some aspects of the Bill which made sense…”

This was not fighting at all.  It was class collaboration and sabotaging struggle once again.

Militant workers were not as inclined as the capitalist media to praise Hawke as a great savior of the system.  Repeatedly, as soon as there was struggle, Hawke rushed in to settle it.  He breathed fire and brimstone against Fraser and Co. but always acted as a “reasonable” man, a “restraining influence”.  Reams and reams were written favourably about him in the daily press.

The attitude of fighters for the working class was perhaps best expressed in this parody of a well-known bush ballad (see here for an audio clip):

The Mild Colonial Boy

There was a mild colonial boy, by the name of R.J.Hawke
You'd think that he was Jesus Christ to hear the bastard talk
He is the system's only hope, the bosses’ pride and joy
The darling of the media is this Mild Colonial Boy
He's never faced election by the workers' rank and file
Yet every night on telly, we're condemned to watch his dial
He'll scowl and raise an eyebrow, 'tis nothing but a ploy
A useless bloody tamecat is the Mild Colonial Boy
He growls and drops expletives in a manner rather fierce
He's just about as radical as good old Eric Pierce.
He claims to be a socialist, he's not the real McCoy
A Labor opportunist is the Mild Colonial Boy
He loves to meet with Fraser, and they have such cosy chats
He's loaded with ambition and he wears too many hats
An action that is militant is certain to annoy
That gruff abrasive cream-puff called the Mild Colonial Boy
And if he gets to parliament, we know he'll never stop
Till he's the biggest windbag in that well-known talking shop
He'll shower them with bull-dust, for he's seldom ever coy
And that's the last we'll hear of him, the Mild Colonial Boy.
“Australia’s best Labor Prime Minister” - Scott Morrison
But being bumped into Parliament in 1980 was not the last we were to hear of him. After only three years in the job, Hawke led Labor to victory in the 1983 election. He moved almost immediately to float the Australian dollar on the global currency market - the first in a long line of deregulations benefitting global finance speculators that he and his treasurer Paul Keating were to undertake.
Tony Abbott has been criticized for his observation that Hawke had a “Labor heart and a Liberal head”.  Indeed, he was half right.  Hawke’s head was “Liberal” and he out-Liberalled the conservatives by getting in first with a fully-fledged program of neo-liberal deforms.
He opened the banking sector to foreign competition and sold the state-owned Commonwealth Bank of Australia. He also removed controls on foreign exchange and Australian interest rates.
In 1989, he founded the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to promote Australian and US monopoly growth in the region. Big business made sure through its membership of the Economic Planning and Advisory Council (an organization which was aimed to draw employers, Government and unions together) that it would have direct access to and domination over the Government.
Hawke also reduced all tariffs to 5 per cent and phased out protections for the textile, clothing and motor vehicle industries resulting in widespread job losses.
As ACTU leader Hawke had supported wage indexation as a means to freeze wages. In 1976 the employers stepped up their offensive and imposed a wage cut by making indexation only partial. Hawke had rushed to defend what he called “full wage indexation”.  Despite his defence of it, wage indexation was increasingly rejected by the working class. In 1974-5, 65% of national income was received as wages and salaries.  By 1977-79 it had fallen to 62% and by 1979-80 to 58%. …In the three years ending June 30, 1981 consumer prices went up by about 33%. The increase in award wages was about 25% and the crease in the legal minimum wage about 20%.  As Prime Minister, Hawke looked for a replacement method of containing wages.

Hawke called an Economic Summit and came up with the Prices and Incomes Accord. Employers were not party to the Accord. Unions agreed to restrict wage demands and the government pledged to minimise inflation.

Really the Accord and the Summit turned around one central issue – wage levels.  The trade unions were keen to break out of the wage freeze of 1982 and get back to the system of regular indexed adjustments.  They agreed to swap “guarantees of wage restraint” for increases in the “social wage” (tax reform, health insurance etc). Provision for a “catch-up” to make good the 1982 wage freeze were shelved. Hawke was determined that the Accord would achieve the ends he sought.

Sanctions were visited on those, like the Builders’ Labourers Federation, who tried to break out of this system. The Financial Review (Oct 15, 1984) contained this acute observation: “The Hawke government has become a jailer for unions which dare to break the Accord’s consensus, and the ACTU has become an industrial police force.”  This was written after the Labor government had said it would legislate to deregister the Builders’ Labourers Federation, while the ACTU, still committed to the Hawke template, said it would disaffiliate that union and allow other unions to take the builders’ labourers members.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge some positive achievements of Hawke as Prime Minister.  He did accept that certain battles, having been won on the ground – or in the rivers – should simply be accepted, that it was best for capitalism to move on whenever victories for the people were imminent.  Hence, he passed legislation to allow the Franklin River to run free and banned new uranium mining at Jabiluka, on the western border of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and gave world heritage listing to the Kakadu National Park. 

By the same token, he was unable to deliver on his pledge that no child need live in poverty after 1990 – they still are, nor did he deliver on his pledge (following receipt of the Barunga bark petition) to introduce a Treaty with First Nations -  they still don’t have one.
Yet he remains very popular.  So long as the media puts his elation at the America’s Cup victory on high rotation that popularity is guaranteed.

“Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum,” he famously declared.

They never show his next sentence, “Of course, they’ll have to work harder the next day to make up”.

And whilst we will be forever reminded that Hawke encouraged us to take a day off work because of a victory in a rich man’s sport, let it not be forgotten that he sent us back to work after the little matter of the sacking of Gough Whitlam in a US-inspired constitutional coup. The very next day, he rejected union calls for a nation-wide strike and urged workers instead to donate a day’s pay to an ALP re-election campaign.

He was indeed an exemplary Labor lieutenant of capital.


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