Politics

History of Australia

The secret bodgie
What do we make of Bob Hawke’s American mates?

Bob Hawke in Sydney on September 10, 1969, having been elected president of the ACTU. Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Anthony Albanese told the National Press Club last Friday of his plans to host an “Australian jobs summit as one of the first actions of an incoming Labor government”, he didn’t mention Bob Hawke’s name even once. Odd, perhaps, given that the late Hawke is practically Labor royalty, and given that Albanese’s summit would be a repeat of Hawke’s National Economic Summit, which brought unions, business groups, state and local governments, and welfare groups together within a month of his famous 1983 election win.

Odd, but explicable, following an essay that appeared in the Australian Journal of Politics and History just over a week earlier. It’s not often the 66-year-old peer-reviewed journal makes the news. But by the time of Albanese’s speech, that essay – by Federation University doctoral student and former Nick Xenophon staffer Cameron Coventry – had made page one in The Australian and prompted an excoriating tirade on RT.com. Jeff Sparrow’s analysis appeared soon after at Guardian Australia, as did the World Socialist Web Site’s correct-line coverage.

For his essay, “The ‘Eloquence’ of Robert J Hawke”, Coventry mined seven years of United States diplomatic cables covering the period 1973 to 1979, progressively released by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) between 2005 and 2014. They record frequent conversations Hawke was apparently having – in secret – with American diplomats. During this period Hawke was president of both the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Labor Party. In those roles he had privileged access to the Whitlam and Fraser governments, and was well known in the corridors of power. And he was feeding strategically significant information to the Americans.

Coventry isn’t the first to discover this secret history of Bob Hawke, which isn’t in The Hawke Memoirs (1994) or in Blanche d’Alpuget’s 1982 biography (or its 2019 update). Humphrey McQueen – of A New Britannia fame – got closer to it than he probably realised in a 1983 article for Australian Society. Former journalist turned academic David McKnight was the first to really break the story, way back in 2003, of Hawke’s “cultivation” by a series of US labour attachés during the latter 1960s (McKnight used earlier NARA releases of the same cable series). The Cold War role of the labour attaché in US diplomacy was to promote US interests in countries that had strong labour movements (like Australia), by identifying and cultivating relationships with key movement figures and, where possible, by seeking to exert influence on their ideas and politics. In the 1960s both the US and Australia were fighting communism in Vietnam, and the US had significant strategic interests Down Under. At the time the attachés began speaking to Hawke, who was then in his late thirties, he was an ACTU advocate who expressed militant ideas, drank too much, slept around and (necessarily) associated with communists in the unions. He was also brilliant, charismatic and ambitious. If the attachés could get him, they suspected he’d be good value.

By 1974, Hawke was creating headaches for Gough Whitlam with his – Hawke’s – uncompromising public demands for higher wages. Behind the scenes, Hawke was working with Whitlam on a “Kirribilli accord”, an attempted agreement that would have committed the unions to a position of wage restraint. Ultimately Hawke wasn’t able to bring the ACTU executive with him. But in private, and in secret, Hawke was telling the Americans he agreed that inflation was being driven by union wage demands. Throughout the course of Whitlam’s prime ministership, Hawke regularly complained about him to the American attachés. This fact was first reported in April 2013, following the mass “release” of many of the 1970s cables by WikiLeaks. James Curran used these cables for his book examining Whitlam and Richard Nixon’s relationship, Unholy Fury (2015), as did Clinton Fernandes in What Uncle Sam Wants (2019).

The main value in Coventry’s essay is its comprehensiveness, and that it provides a narrative of Bob Hawke’s intellectual and political development during the 1970s that challenges our enduring image of him as the workers’ best mate. Hawke was apparently having long and frequent conversations with the labour attachés, even while Nixon was in the White House. (At the time, Nixon was pursuing a strategy – one ultimately employed very effectively by John Howard in Australia – of appealing to blue-collar voters on traditionally right-wing issues like crime and national defence.) And the attachés weren’t just listening. On behalf of Washington, the attachés were pushing a system of “American-style” collective bargaining – in other words, a much less militant union presence and a “tripartite” commitment to wage restraint in the interests of inflation control. By about 1977 the cables were reporting to Washington – approvingly – that under Hawke’s leadership the ACTU executive had become more conservative. Hawke’s subtle approach to convincing union leaders to ease up on wage demands was much preferred to Malcolm Fraser’s counterproductive “union-bashing”.

Hawke first publicly advocated a tripartite conference between the ACTU, government and business groups on August 21, 1974, in a speech he gave at the Australian National University. He remained vague about where he got the idea, but the cables reveal it was suggested by a labour attaché less than three weeks earlier. That may be coincidence, but it’s clear that the labour attachés continued to advocate tripartism throughout the decade. It’s a fact of history that Hawke brokered the Prices and Incomes Accord – initially between the ACTU and the new Labor government, and eventually incorporating business – in the month before his March 1983 election win, and that it became primarily about wage restraint after it was revised in September 1985. It’s also a fact of history that the Accord precipitated a decline in union membership, which has never recovered.


Hawke wasn’t the only senior labour movement figure “cultivated” by the labour attachés. They also exerted significant influence after World War Two over future Labor leader Arthur Calwell and Victorian minister and ACTU president Percy Clarey, and, during the 1970s, future NSW premier Bob Carr. The role of the attaché, no doubt, goes some way toward explaining the propensity for the labour side of Australia’s political class to adopt a position that can only be described as a kind of fawning sycophancy vis-a-vis the United States, despite its atrocious record on workers’ rights and protections.

What do senior labour figures get out of their secret relationships with American diplomats? It’s a genuinely difficult question to answer, especially from outside of a Cold War milieu. Hawke got regular travel to the United States and high-level access while he was still ACTU president. That may have been enough. Vere Gordon Childe famously wrote in 1923 of the problems created for the labour movement of having middle-class lawyers elected as its representatives in parliament, Pledge notwithstanding: “The minister faced with the actual responsibilities of governing … courted by men of wealth and influence, an honoured guest at public functions, riding in his own State motor car, is prone to undergo a mental transformation.” The same is presumably no less true of the movement’s representatives a century later.

What, ultimately, should we make of the Hawke revelations? As Jeff Sparrow points out, if he’d operated in a similar way today he’d likely fall foul of the foreign interference laws, passed in 2018 and upheld last month following a High Court challenge – “informing” isn’t all that far removed from “spying”. However, the US and Australia were especially close allies during the Cold War, and Hawke had become by the 1970s a committed anti-communist. For Hawke and others, secret relations with US diplomats was possibly more about cultivating great and powerful friends.

Would Hawke have arrived at wage restraint and the Accord without the influence of the US labour attachés? Along with tariff cuts and the floated dollar, wage restraint and the Accord heralded the emergence of neoliberalism in Australian public policy. Would neoliberalism have had such a smooth landing here without Hawke championing its central tenets? Counterfactual history is rarely fruitful, so we’ll never know. But nearly four decades later, our industrial relations – marked by highly casualised workforces, stagnant wages and individual contracts – sure look a dang sight more American than they did during the 1970s.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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