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When Labor culled their best: from Hawke to Rudd

By Alexander Morgan - posted Tuesday, 9 August 2011

On the 19th of December 1991 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) disposed of its leader, Prime Minister Bob Hawke, in a caucus room ballot which would see Hawke's former deputy and Treasurer, Paul Keating being elected as Australia's 24th Prime Minister. Not twenty years later the ALP again disposed of its leader, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who resigned his commission as Labor leader (and subsequently Prime Minister) on the 24th June 2010 following a challenge by his deputy, Julia Gillard. These two political assassinations came as a result of a variety of reasons; however, the loss of factional support, a fatal policy and an ambitious deputy played a significant and common role in the ALP's overthrow of two of Australia's most popular Prime Ministers.

In 1991 Australia was in the midst of its worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment had reached 10%, interest rates were at 12%; having been as high as 17% the previous year, and Hawke's personal approval rating plummeted to 26%. Whilst Hawke presided over a number of economic reforms in his first three terms of government, the economy proved to be Hawke's fatal policy. As a result of the deepening recession, Hawke made a series of economic blunders that influenced the ALP's caucus decision to discard him as leader.

Hawke's response to the failing economy was filled with inertia, contrition, and helplessness; leaving the ability for the ALP to govern effectively paralysed. In August of 1991, Keating's replacement as Treasurer, John Kerin, handed down the budget that "would signal then the beginning of the end for the Hawke government". As a budget, it failed both politically and economically, seeing Australia slide into deficit for the first time in five years. It was a budget deemed pathetic by then ACTU secretary Bill Kelty. Four months later on the 6th December, Kerin was sacked as Treasurer following further economic slip-ups, with Hawke outlasting him by thirteen days. As Australia went into its fifth consecutive quarter of negative growth, the Hawke Government lost its economic credibility and therefore the support of the ALP caucus. Australians could no longer trust Hawke or his government.


Fightback! The Liberal-Nation Party Coalition's economic policy further damaged Hawke's economic standing. Hawke by his own admission received severe criticisms (including from his own party) for his inability to launch an effective and immediate response to Fightback! the policy which Keating would use to win the Labor leadership and the1993 election. Fightback! was announced in November 1991 and saw the Opposition Leader John Hewson take a considerable lead in the polls, thus placing Hawke under further pressure to resign. As a consequence of Fightback! and after a series of economic failings, the Hawke Government which initially promised there would be no recession, was marginally defeated and replaced with the new Keating Government.

Keating's ambition to become Prime Minister grew significantly during the Bill Hayden and Hawke leadership years. According to Blanche D'Alpuget, "Keating was convinced in every cell of his body that he was meant to be Prime Minister". This ambition would drive Keating to force Hawke into two leadership deals and then into challenging Hawke for the leadership. Eventually Keating was able to capitalise on Hawke's economic failings and, using NSW Right powerbroker Graham Richardson, he was able to gain the support of the fifty-six caucus members needed to topple Hawke.

On two occasions prior to 1991, Keating thought he had an understanding that Hawke would resign the Prime Ministership. This first occurred at the Sydney Boulevard Hotel in 1980, when Hawke allegedly told Keating he would only serve two terms providing he was elected Labor leader and won the 1983 election. However, after his refusal to hand over power before the 1990 election, Keating forced Hawke into the Kirribilli Agreement. Despite agreeing in front of witnesses, Keating was again denied the Prime Ministership when Hawke reneged on the Kirribilli Agreement to hand over the leadership. Therefore Hawke was eventually dumped as leader because of his reluctance to resign in favour of his ambitious deputy.

Fortunately for Keating he was also able to use the economy to his advantage. As support for Hawke collapsed under the mounting pressures of the economy, it became clear that a change in favour of Keating was needed. Furthermore 'Fightback!' conveniently appeared for Keating to use as a weapon to challenge Hawke. In his memoirs Hawke expressed the view that "it was fortuitous for Keating that Fightback! appeared in November" as the economy "was sapping the moral of the government" and, according to Keating, "the Government was stuck dumb". Finally with the factions, powerbrokers, and senior government ministers abandoning Hawke, Keating was able win the support of the party.

Richardson, along with the Labor Left faction, played an integral part in getting Keating the numbers needed to topple Hawke. Whilst Richardson was initially a strong supporter of Hawke, he and Hawke had a falling out over the Transport and Communications portfolio after the 1990 election. From there, Richardson claimed he would do "whatever it takes" in order to overthrow Hawke. Hence by 1991 Richardson was Keating's strategic and numbers man. He was ruthless and skilful, influencing pre-selections as a means to coerce Labor MP's to support Keating and tactically orchestrating a second challenge after the first failed attempt in June of 1991. When Richardson decided to make a move against Hawke, the Prime Minister's days were numbered.

The Labor Left had also influenced its faction members in a way which contributed to the downfall of the Prime Minister. Whilst prior to the first challenge the Left passed a motion forcing its members to vote for Hawke, by the second challenge it was only recommended, in essence giving members of the Left a conscience vote. Not only had Hawke lost the guaranteed support of the Left faction and Richardson; the two factors that helped bring him to power, he had also lost the support of influential senior cabinet ministers Kim Beazley, Robert Ray and Gareth Evans. As a result of the loss of key factional support, Australia's then second longest serving Prime Minister was defeated by a margin of five votes: 56-51. It was to be the first time a Labor Prime Minister had been defeated at the hands of his own party. Kevin Rudd would be second.


Rudd's dismissal as Labor Prime Minister in 2010 was as humiliating and brutal as Hawke's had been nineteen years earlier. In his first term of government, Rudd had signed the Kyoto Protocol, abolished the unpopular Workchoices, apologised to the Indigenous Australians and successfully led Australia through the global financial crisis. Whilst Rudd had achieved a record approval rating of 74% and had led the Labor Party into government for the first time in eleven years, he made the fatal decision in April of 2010 to shelve his Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). He was essentially thrown from the leadership, friendless and with limited factional allies within the party. Rudd's popular and politically strong performer, Deputy Prime Minister Gillard took the leadership following pressure from factional powerbrokers, Mark Arbib and Bill Shorten, thus ending the Rudd Prime Ministership.

"The greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our age", climate change, would largely be responsible for the ALP's decision to dump Rudd as leader. It was a defining element of the Rudd Prime Ministership as he had stuck his credibility on the line, and had failed. Australians had arguably given Rudd a mandate to act on climate change in the 2007 election with a 2008 poll showing that 45% of the public believed the ALP was the best party to manage climate change; compared to the Coalition with 18%.

Rudd's attempts to act on climate change twice failed in December 2009. Firstly when the deal he struck with Malcolm Turnbull fell through after the Opposition Leader was replaced as Liberal leader. Secondly when the Copenhagen conference failed to produce a significant agreement to act on climate change, further damaging Rudd's credibility. From this point onwards "Rudd's bond with the people began to fray". Unable to get his "great big new tax on everything" past the Senate, Rudd officially shelved the ETS. Newspoll subsequently showed Rudd's approval rating fall from 50% to 39%, as the polls and the people began to turn against him. Climate Change Minister Penny Wong described the shelving as "a decision that had an implication". With defeat in the upcoming election now a real possibility, the factions turned on Rudd as he began to lose the support of the public and the caucus.

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About the Author

Alexander Morgan is a politics graduate from the University of New South Wales.

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