GRAHAM FREUDENBERG. ‘No child in poverty’

At the risk of repetition I must put the record straight on ‘By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty’, Bob Hawke’s promise made in Labor’s policy speech in 1987. 

It surfaced again in Bob’s obituaries almost as the benchmark of his career.

I was the technical author and I stand by it. It is a measure of Bob Hawke’s decency that he stood by me and accepted responsibility to the end. There were plenty of ways he could have fudged direct responsibility; but he accepted unflinchingly the unspoken contract that the person who delivers the speech owns it.

The ‘no child’ pledge was made in the context of Hawke’s 1987 commitment to a revolution in the family allowance system. The team putting the speech together required the Department of Social Security to answer a specific question:

What would be the minimum weekly payment, together with existing benefits, needed to place every Australian household above the official poverty line?

The Department’s very specific reply is on the record and it is the exact promise Hawke made.

It is true that the first version of this passage (in those days a policy speech might run to seven or eight drafts) referred to ‘no child need live in poverty’. This was bureaucratic caution; it was meant to allow for feckless or irresponsible parents. This is a curious criticism – telling your voters that you didn’t trust them. During the controversy, Hawke himself briefly toyed with the idea as if the word ‘need’ provided a loophole. Yet it took on a kind of half-life of its own and 32 years later I still hear it said: ‘If only you’d stuck with the public service original’.

As it was, the pledge was carefully defined and qualified.

Fabius Maximus enveloping Carthage or Joshua undermining Jericho could hardly have prepared the ground more carefully. Hawke said:

For our next term we are setting achievable new goals, and the first of these goals is the future of all our children. So we set ourselves this first goal: by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty.

And to this end, my government will establish a new program of family help’

 The specific figure for the Family Allowance Supplement can be found on p.95 of The Hawke Government, ed. Susan Ryan and Tony Brampton. The specific pledge was fully implemented by 1990 and the promise was fulfilled in the terms it was made, a step towards a goal and an ongoing aspiration.

I emphasise that we were working strictly to the Department’s figure. This is on the record. We had a brief from Hawke and kept to it.

In the hey-day of policy speeches, when they meant something more than a campaign wrap-up, presentation of election promises were all-important. Campaigns depended on them; if victorious, so did the performance of the government. The 1987 election is probably the last time this rule applied.

All that is remember now, through its repetition on TV, is Hawke declaring ‘By 1990 [the next election] no Australian child will be living in poverty’.

It is as if Gough Whitlam never said anything else in his career than ’Nothing will save the Governor-General’.

Why should this issue have such damaging resonance for Hawke’s reputation more than 30 years on? Partly because it is a plausible rod to flay Hawke as an example of the irresponsible pork-barrelling politician, partly because the family allowance scheme of which the ‘child in poverty’ was only part, was the last great Labor reform in the old Labor tradition. Subsequently, later reform took new directions, with the emphasis on modernisation and the centre of Labor gravity set firmly in the broader middle class.

Above all was its political and electoral success. It robbed Howard of his win. One had to be in the Sydney Opera House to grasp the transformative effect of this promise. There was still life in the old Labor Party and it galvanised the whole campaign for a hard-won victory.

Of course, it pains me that Bob should say, in one of his last interviews, that the episode was ‘the thing he regretted most’. I can live with that when I think of the hundreds of thousands of families who did in fact improve their standard of living (even if the department’s ‘poverty line’ is too arbitrary and too low); and with the belief that it played a pivotal role in the famous Labor victory of 1987.

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