I may be getting nostalgic n my old age – hell, I am getting nostalgic in my old age. But it was hard not to rejoice in the good old days as Bob Hawke and Gareth Evans arrived at the National Club Press last week to spruik Evan’s memoir.
An Incorrigible Optimist, it is called – and how long is it since we could genuinely feel optimistic about Australia politics?
There have been glimmers: there were some very promising moments when Paul Keating as Prime Minister shone, although few of them reached fruition. John Howard, once again topical, inaugurated far-reaching gun reform.
The arrivals of Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull respectively signalled the hope of a new beginning. But most of it has been downhill: division, cowardice, expediency and unalloyed lust for power.
In retrospect the Hawke years seemed something of a golden age.. They weren’t of course; there were mistakes, tensions, rivalries and the odd blow up. But most of them were resolved in a civilized manner; the debates were serious ones, but by and large the losers accepted their losses and moved on.
These days much of the blame for the current dysfunction is laid on the civil wars between prime ministers – Rudd and Gillard, Turnbull and Abbott. But the Hawke cabinet had its share – given its unusual quality, more than its share – of prima donnas.
There was Keating, always lurking in the wings, but he generally avoided sniping, undermining and wrecking even after he resigned as Treasurer. The previous leader, Bill Hayden, channelled his disappointment and resentment into working as a highly successful foreign minister. A previous aspirant, Lionel Bowen, kept his head down. Kim Beazley and Simon Crean were staking a claim, but bided their time; and they weren’t the only privates with a baton in their haversack.
And of course there was Evans himself, who made it clear he thought he could outdo the lot of them. As he put it himself last week, “my own temperament is not cut from the cloth from which Zen masters are made” He always had a nice line in self deprecation: when he got into trouble over his surveillance flights to Tasmania, he said he would rely on the streaker’s defence: “It seemed like a good idea at the time, your worship.”
But the point is that all these contending egos were able to work together, to settle their differences to produce notable results. Part of the success was Hawke’s chairmanship of cabinet, generally regard as the benchmark. But a lot of it was a genuine interest in policy rather than clashes over personalities: the Hawke mob were almost always confident enough to shrug aside the bickering and concentrate on the main game.
At the time I regarded them as a bit pedestrian; I accused them of lacking pizzazz after the wild and exhilarating rollercoaster ride of the Whitlam years, the real glory days. But by golly they were effective, as their unprecedented four terms in office attested.
And even as I heard Hawke lambasting the absurd same sex marriage plebiscite as the worst economic decision since of any prime minister, I knew how much we missed them.
Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum.