How 1980 marked a turning point to reform

Max Blenkin

Australians went to the polls in October 1980, electing a prominent union leader as a new Labor MP and giving Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Opposition Leader Bill Hayden big surprises.

The surprise for Fraser was that he nearly lost, while Hayden performed far better than even those on his own side expected.

The new Labor MP was, of course, Bob Hawke who would lead Labor to victory next time round.

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Cabinet papers from 1980 – released by the National Archives of Australia under the 30-year rule – reveal Fraser’s government was as hard-working as ever.

Cabinet made 2671 decisions and considered 759 submissions and 415 memoranda.

But Fraser’s government was harbouring tensions and ambitious up-and-coming MPs, among them his treasurer John Howard and foreign minister Andrew Peacock.

Yet for all the high politics and international tensions of 1980, the enduring news event of 1980 remains the disappearance of baby Azaria Chamberlain from a campsite at the foot of Uluru on August 17.

Archives historical consultant Jim Stokes said 1980 was a year of transition, with potential new leaders emerging on both sides.

“Labor was emerging from the trough it had fallen into in 1975,” he said.

“Politically the Fraser government had lost ground since its election triumphs of 1975 and 1977.”

Dr Stokes said the October 1980 election campaign began with an assumption that Fraser would win.

“By the end three of the national polls were predicting a Labor victory,” he said.

Fraser survived with a 23-seat majority, while in the Senate the balance of power passed to five Australian Democrats and Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine.

Dr Stokes said Labor took the view that they were well placed for a win in 1983, though the more pessimistic believed they could hardly rely on the coalition to run such a poor campaign twice running.

For Labor the key development was the election to parliament of Bob Hawke.

Fraser retained the coalition leadership with deputy Phil Lynch keeping the deputy leadership against a challenge by Andrew Peacock.

One event of 1980 well remembered today remains the leaking of most of Howard’s budget to then Channel Ten reporter Laurie Oakes two days before it was to be delivered. Just who leaked this document remains a complete mystery.

Dr Stokes said there was the usual peremptory inquiry.

“There was the standard `yes, prime minister, a full investigation will be taken’. There was that decision and there was nothing beyond that. So I presume the AFP (Australian Federal Police) is still working on it,” he said.

Then treasury secretary John Stone, subsequently a National Party senator and now a commentator on the cabinet papers for New Ltd newspapers, said the big question in any leak was who stood to benefit.

“The leak in that case … was not the complete budget speech,” he said.

“It significantly left out all the market-sensitive aspects of the budget speech, but of course it was taken as being a total budget leak.”

Archives launch guest speaker, veteran reporter Paul Kelly agreed 1980-81 were years of transition, although the period wasn’t appreciated as such at the time.

“What was apparent as 1980 and 81 unfolded was a gradual and dim awakening that change was stirring and the existing order was broken,” he said.

“The main domestic issue was the economy and the underlying issue was the tension between Fraser’s ambitions on one hand and his young treasurer John Howard, backed by Treasury secretary Stone on the other hand.”

At the time the economy was travelling reasonably well, with a resources boom on the horizon.

But that boom sparked a wages blowout. Stone in the budget papers noted that wage claims were formulated in anticipation of benefits which had not begun to flow.

Kelly said wages rose 14 per cent in the year to December 1980, which was too much too fast.

“The system would break over the next two years in a series of infamous events that set the scene for the early 1980s recession,” he said.

“It is this recession that changed Australian economic and political history by confirming to all sides, politicians, unions and business that an entirely new framework was needed – hence the Hawke-Keating reforms.”

Kelly said the 1980 election was the turning point.

“Before this election, Fraser’s task was to restore discipline after the Whitlam excesses,” he said.

“After this election, Fraser became an agent of resistance to necessary economic change, to broadly based indirect tax wanted by Howard and then resistant to freeing up interest rates and deregulating the financial system.”

Kelly said there was open-and-shut case on Fraser’s attitude to economic reform at this time.

“All you have go to do is look at what Fraser said during the 1980s when Hawke and Keating were in government. He was a ferocious critic of their policy decisions,” he said.

“The bigger picture was that Fraser declined in his last term the big issues of tax reform, tariff reform, deregulation. When it comes to the economy, the record is pretty clear.”