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The left has deserted Hawke's famous promise

By John Roskam - posted Wednesday, 27 June 2007

This week is the 20th anniversary of the most famous promise in national politics. At the Sydney Opera House during his campaign launch for the 1987 federal election Bob Hawke said: "By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty."

Almost as soon as he uttered these words people started laughing. And they've been laughing ever since. As 1990 came and went, the failure to deliver was obvious.

Hawke said last week that his pledge was "silly" and "one of the biggest regrets of his career".


As we now know, he improvised. The original text of his speech was "no Australian child need be living in poverty". Swept up in the moment, he made a commitment that continues to haunt him.

Hawke was accused of peddling cheap rhetoric, of being hopelessly naive and of making a promise he knew could not be fulfilled. While these criticisms might be justified, they all miss the point. To his great credit, Hawke was ambitious about overcoming the social problem of children living in poverty. He was willing to take a risk and he paid a price for that risk.

Maybe what Hawke did was politically foolish, and maybe it was a promise that could never have been kept. But the promise was never as important as the idea that motivated it. Hawke's idea was that poverty could be eliminated. While there can be argument over the merits of his solution, at least he communicated a feeling of optimism. He was selling a message of hope about the prospects of children living in poverty. He should feel no need to apologise.

Hawke's approach 20 years ago can be compared with today. Despondency now pervades the discussion of the country's most pressing social problems. Despair is understandable in some circumstances, but it is not a useful emotion.

Whether it is poverty in general or indigenous disadvantage in particular, the hard-headed realism required to tackle problems has been replaced either by pessimism or symbolism.

In 2007, the political left in Australia exemplifies the trend to hopelessness. Once upon a time left-wing politics was a confident creed. Indeed, its optimism was part of its attractiveness. All of that has changed. These days you would be hard-pressed to find a single bright note in any pronouncement from someone who aspires to the label "left-wing". After generations of trying to make the world a better place - and not succeeding - the left has now given up any pretence of concern for the poor.


Penning postmodern critiques of middle-class "consumerism" and "materialism" doesn't involve getting your hands dirty. Why talk about poverty in Melbourne's outer suburbs when you can rally to the cause of a self-confessed supporter of terrorism instead?

For decades, the promise of economic growth for the Third World fired the imagination of left-wing reformers. No longer. The activists of the left in Australia, the United States, and Europe now do everything possible to stop economic development in Asia and Africa.

The truth is that the "no child in poverty" pledge made many in Hawke's own party uncomfortable. Initially the left of the ALP welcomed Hawke's promise. It was taken as a signal that in return for acquiescing to Keating's economic reforms, the political constituency of the left, namely the poor, would receive improved social security. But it was soon realised that it was impossible to talk about poverty without talking about the origins of poverty.

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First published in The Age on June 21, 2007.

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John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.

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