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
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.”