JOAN STAPLES. Hawke’s environmental legacy – a personal reflection.

May 30, 2019

There has been much written on Bob Hawke’s legacy following his death. None has fully celebrated his monumental environmental record nor touched on his unique relationship with the environment movement.  

As Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) lobbyist during much of his government, I mourn the passing of a great PM. Today, any one of his environmental achievements would be praised as significant. The Franklin River was saved in 1983 following his first election, but it was between 1987 and 1991, assisted by Graham Richardson, that the majority of the Hawke legacy was enacted. In those few short years, Kakadu National Park was expanded, the Wet Tropics protected, Landcare was introduced, the Antarctic protected from mining, Wesley Vale pulp mill was stopped, Tasmania’s Lemonthyme forests and thousands of other forest areas protected, the Great Barrier Reef greatly expanded, and a significant Ecologically Sustainable Development Process of 9 working groups met. World Heritage status was introduced for places known today as jewels in our environmental landscape – Kakadu, an expanded SW Tasmania, the Wet Tropics, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Shark Bay, NSW Rainforests. On climate change, his Cabinet took the first specific climate change decision of any Australian government – to limit CO2 emissions to 20% of 1988 levels by 2005. The accession of Keating ended any likelihood of action, but the decision is historically significant.

Hawke has been correctly portrayed, as a larrikin, a canny political strategist and a superb consensus negotiator and manager. My greatest respect is for how he used the last of these skills to manage a Cabinet of talented strong individuals and produce good policy. In a 2008 interview, he told me that his Cabinet ‘always operated on the basis that the overwhelming majority of decisions were consensus decisions’. His leadership style of encouraging robust debate, consulting widely, not dominating debate and rarely exerting his will, allowed space for talented individuals to contribute. Yet he had the respect of his Cabinet colleagues and provided direction once he achieved a consensus. That is surely true leadership.

Those Cabinet debates were often difficult, particularly on the environment, where there was strong opposition from ministers such as Peter Walsh. For example, the decision to protect the Tasmanian Lemonthyme and southern forests generated 14 hours of gruelling debate, reputedly the longest debate of any Hawke cabinet. As was his common practice, Hawke let the debate run to the end before showing his position, ensuring all Cabinet members fully contributed.

Hawke’s political skill could also see him make swift decisions. In 1989, despite historical antagonism between the National Farmers’ Federation and ACF, a unique friendship formed between their CEOs, Rick Farley and Phillip Toyne. Together they came up with the idea of a national program to care for the rural environment – what we now know as Landcare. Together they went to Hawke, having prepared themselves well to argue their case. Phillip Toyne told me that Hawke was obviously intrigued when the representatives of two major antagonistic interest groups, walked into the room together. Toyne was amazed when after only 15 minutes of describing their proposal, Hawke exclaimed, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ Farley and Toyne’s carefully prepared longer presentation was redundant. Hawke immediately saw the environmental, economic and political benefits of a program that could draw on bipartisan support across the political divide.

In contrast to Hawke’s usual consensus Cabinet style, the Coronation Hill mine in Kakadu was prevented from going ahead only by the prime minister using the full prestige of his office. In 2008, Hawke told me that he ‘allowed enormously long debate’, but that Coronation Hill was one of only two issues, ‘both to do with the environment’, in which cabinet ‘resisted’ his view. On this occasion, he took the unusual step of lobbying ministers beforehand and leading the debate. In The Hawke Memoirs, he said:

I did not have the numbers around the Cabinet table but I did have the authority of the prime ministership. My position on mining at Coronation Hill was accepted. This was comfortable for the more bitter of my opponents, who had the luxury of making it known that the decision represented the will of the Prime Minister and not the majority view of the Cabinet.

Hawke elaborated his feelings about this cabinet debate to me, saying,

I was in a very clear minority on that. I thought their arguments were pathetic on it. It was not just the environment, it was the environment argument and there was the Aboriginal sacred site argument.

He went on to make a comparison with the Aboriginal belief of a serpent under Coronation Hill and Christian belief in the virgin birth and holy trinity, which he found ‘no easier to digest than the belief in the snake’. However, he emphasised that Aboriginal people did believe in it, ‘and you’ve got to take that into account’.

The environment movement endorsed Labor at the 1983, 1987 and 1990 elections, running campaigns in marginal seats and handing out explicit how-to-vote cards. At Hawke’s last election in 1990, this endorsement was the crucial factor in the re-election of Labor. This was achieved by the movement recommending a first preference vote for the Democrats and a second preference to Labor – a strategy supported by Richardson. The ALP received only 39% of the primary vote, the Coalition 43%, but the Democrats almost doubled their vote to 11% and their preferences gave the ALP victory. In the 9 marginal electorates where the environment movement campaigned for a vote for the Democrats with second preferences to Labor, the Democrat vote was 13.4%, which was crucial in returning Labor candidates. Paul Kelly in The End of Certainty, concluded that the environment vote had won the election for Labor. In interviews for my own research, both Richardson and Hawke’s staffer, Simon Balderstone, concurred. Today such endorsement is no longer legally possible, nor desired by environment organisations.

We have lost a great leader. Because of his leadership, the nation’s thinking on the environment evolved, and today, lasting monuments to his memory are to be found in places of great natural beauty now having World Heritage status.

Dr Joan Staples is an honorary Principal Research Fellow in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.

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