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Ten years on, we all miss the clash of visionary leaders Keating and Hewson

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 13 March 2003

Election Day - March 13 1993. The end of an extraordinary period in Australian political life and one that bears no resemblance to the scene ten years on. Two passionate, iconoclastic leaders – Paul Keating and John Hewson – slugging out the end play of an 18-month turbulent, bitter and passionate battle to grab Australia by the scruff of the neck and haul onto a higher plain.

Paul Keating is a Mahler addict and his battle with the Liberal Opposition leader John Hewson bore the hallmarks of the fin de siecle composer’s music. Soaring melodies of pure ecstasy, coupled with despairing adagios and turbulent dissonance.

And if Mahler’s music was the most apt description of the Keating - Hewson period then perhaps ten years on, dull, repetitive brass band music is what one conjures when thinking of John Howard and Simon Crean, for the two eras could not be more different.


Never before had an Opposition Leader presented to the Australian people such a comprehensive vision of the future as when John Hewson unveiled his Fightback package in November 1991. And compared with the Hawke years the Keating Prime Ministership was audacious. The need for Australia to rid itself of the last of its colonial vestiges was put on the table in the form of the proposal for a republic. Keating, the great exponent of neo-classical economics in the 1980s became the neo-Keynesian with his expansive One Nation economic statement designed to shoehorn Australia out of its worst recession in 50 years. And the repositioning of Australia as a genuine participant in the Asia-Pacific region was accelerated under Prime Minister Keating.

To turn again to the comparison with the successors to Keating and Hewson. Whereas both these men were zealous missionaries, highly intelligent, convinced of the rightness of their cause and, it has to be said, with the temperament of genuine prima donnas, John Howard and Simon Crean are dogged triers. Both are also intelligent, but both graft their way into positions of superiority.

What was remarkable and genuinely unique about the 1993 election was that it is perhaps the only time the Australian people have been offered two contrasting, and highly detailed visions from which to choose.

John Hewson had come to the leadership of the Liberal Party after it had lost its fourth successive election when Andrew Peacock failed to dislodge a tiring Bob Hawke in March 1990. The Party, by this time desperate and battle-worn from seven years of ideological and personal warfare between conservatives and liberals, Howard and Peacock, wanted a fresh start. They turned to the one person who had impressed many in the 1990 election campaign through his capacity to challenge the Treasurer, Paul Keating, on economics. It is also worth noting that Hewson ascended to the leadership of the Liberals in record time - he was only elected in 1987.

With Hewson the Liberal Party was getting a very different leader. A Baptist, who had briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a missionary, and an economist who had been in the US to witness the collapse of Keynesianism and the rise of free-market economics in the early 1970s, John Hewson was to use the opportunity presented to him by the Liberals to set out the intellectual case he had been building for two decades.

Under Hewson – and this is something that Simon Crean must wish were present today – the Liberals became a tightly disciplined force. The leaks, and undermining of the leader – the hallmarks of the Party in the 1980s – vanished overnight.


In the meantime, Hewson and a small team of advisers and a handful of shadow ministers, beavered away at what they would term Fightback! When this 900 page magnum opus was finally produced it blew Bob Hawke away – Keating was Prime Minister within a month of its release.

While many in the community only remember Fightback! in the context of the proposal for a GST, this package of policy outlined a radically different Australia from that which existed in the early 1990s. The gradualist reform of the Australian society into one of a social market economy by the Hawke/Keating governments was to be torn asunder by plans to scrap tariffs completely, overhaul the tax system, a wholesale shake-up of the division of powers between the Commonwealth and the States and a thorough reworking of that Whitlam shibboleth, Medicare.

In Hewson, the Australian people got a man who saw politics very differently indeed. As he told an interviewer in June 1989: “It is time for a complete rethink, a new policy response, not a political or one-dimensional response, but something that has to address the underlying structural problems facing the Australian economy.”

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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