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Until he died, it’s fair to say millions of Australians would not have known it was Bill Hayden who introduced universal health care in 1975, back when the doctors’ union was capable of destroying governments.
Nor would they have known that in 1974 he introduced a new pension designed to lift single mothers out of poverty. It came too late to save a government beset by scandals, but as treasurer, he gave the Whitlam Government economic credibility by producing a budget responsible enough for his Liberal successor to implement.
Former Labor leader, Bill Hayden. Credit: Dionne Gain
Without Hayden, Bob Hawke might never have made it as prime minister. Hayden’s hard work and self-sacrifice made it possible for Hawke to win, then to run the most successful Labor government in Australia’s history.
Hayden was a shining example of the good that a government, or even one individual, can do. He deserved every accolade and then some, heaped on him and his loving family since his death.
More could have been said about his wicked sense of humour, or his mischievous streak, but the really important stuff was there. Especially the many lessons for today’s politicians from Hayden, not the least of which is not to waste your time in a position of privilege, either in government or opposition; to put the greater good above personal ambition; to have the courage of your convictions; to not allow yourself to be broken by adversity.
Hayden’s friend John Dawkins, who takes great offence when anyone refers to Hayden as humble – just because he didn’t brag about his considerable achievements – described him as the “brains, the backbone and the conscience” of the Labor Party.
Dawkins pays tribute to Hayden for his courage in reforming the party’s policy and its infrastructure after Gough Whitlam’s successive landslide defeats in 1975 and 1977.
When he became opposition leader after the 1977 election, Hayden inherited a shattered, demoralised party, then took it to within a hair’s breadth of victory in 1980. It was not enough to stifle Hawke’s ambition or silence those who supported him.
Under pressure from both friends and enemies, Hayden stood aside for Hawke as Malcolm Fraser prepared to call the 1983 election. Staying on would have splintered the party that he loved and therefore deprived it of the victory he was certain he would secure. Assuming his party stayed united. But he knew that Hawke and his backers would never allow that to happen.
The first Hawke ministry, generally regarded as the best of the modern era should be called the Hayden Ministry. He put it together, shaped its thinking, reformed its policy agenda, then bequeathed it to Hawke, after receiving guarantees before his resignation that his supporters would not be punished.
In case anyone made the mistake of thinking he quit because he was weak or feared he could not win, Hayden delivered the immortal line that even a drovers’ dog could win the looming election against Fraser.
After he became foreign minister, he tested the boundaries. He was regarded by his enemies, many residing in a certain media empire, as insufficiently pro-American and insufficiently pro-Israel.
He thought Australia would be respected more if it were more assertive in its relations with the United States and more independent in its views. He spoke publicly of his “enormous sympathy” for the Palestinian people.
He quickly set about improving relations in the region. In 1983, he became the first Australian foreign minister to visit Vietnam since the fall of Saigon. In Hanoi, he was greeted by his hosts as “a knight of peace.” Mishearing what they said Hayden replied:“I hope it lasts longer than a night.” It most certainly did.
He trod political minefields during a visit to the Middle East in 1984, sadly cut short by the death of his mother.
In a glorious eulogy last Friday at St Mary’s Church in Ipswich, Paul Keating did justice to Hayden’s many achievements, swiped at Hawke’s “ego-driven sense of destiny” for destroying Hayden’s chance of becoming prime minister and sent unmistakeable messages to today’s politicians.
Keating acknowledged Hayden had provided his pathway to the prime ministership by appointing him shadow treasurer. “I had earlier told him that had he not appointed me shadow treasurer in 1983, there’s no way Hawke would have appointed me treasurer,” Keating said.
He recalled Hayden’s founding of the Centre Left faction, a troupe Barry Jones (whom Hawke loathed) dubbed the unloved, as a shield against those who still sought to do him harm. They backed the economic reforms pushed by Keating, often resisted by Hawke, which transformed the Australian economy.
Among the many true words spoken, Keating said:“We may see the likes of Bill Hayden again, but I doubt it. He set up the Australian Labor Party to put it in a position to change the country, which it did in fundamental terms. This is his enduring achievement.”
Speaking after Keating, Anthony Albanese said he was a hard act to follow. Maybe, and in more ways than one, although it’s too soon to judge. However, if Albanese’s slide in support continues he needs to reread all those words about Hayden, then adapt accordingly: less activity, more action, less talking, more thinking, less caution more daring.
Hayden’s death and the reviews of his big life also coincided with the London jamboree of conservatives, where older participants seemed to believe the solution to their existential crisis was to find new ways of fighting old or lost causes. John Howard was still grappling with multiculturalism and Tony Abbott with climate change.
Hayden never forgot where he came from, nor why he was there. We connected in the early days of his leadership, after he visited the GMH plant in Dandenong where my father, in his blue overalls, introduced himself on the factory floor. For more than 40 years I was proud to call him and his wife Dallas, my friends.
Niki Savva is a regular columnist.
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