‘We are us’: Australian economic nationalism under Hawke and Keating


During his time as treasurer and prime minister, Paul Keating, seeking a soothing dietary supplement with which to serve his less palatable economic fare, insisted on the need to forge ‘a new sense of national unity… a common national sentiment… to create a new unity of purpose’.

‘Institutions and symbols’  chiefly the constitution and the national flag  should be adjusted. Doing so would ‘encourage closer identification with the nation’ and create ’a more spirited sense of national goals and purpose.’

In describing the ‘powerful unifying element’ needed to ‘re-cast Australian identity’ and ‘evoke pride in our Australian heritage’, Keating counterposed ‘traditional Labor ideals’  ’egalitarianism’, ‘social justice’, ‘the fair go’  with the ‘forelock-tugging’ of the conservative parties, ‘British to the bootstraps.’

Having flown by troop transporter, accompanied by a military historian, to the Papua New Guinea Highlands, the prime minister, overcome by the solemnity of this ‘sacred ground,’ stooped reverentially to kiss the soil of Canberra’s former colony.

‘[In] accordance with his mission to secure Australia’s interests in the region,’ reflected Keating’s speechwriter, the prime minister was moved to genuflection:

Somewhere on the flight from Moresby to Kokoda, as he talked to David Horner, Keating decided that he should make a gesture which would do justice to these events  an act of some kind which would indelibly mark Kokoda in Australia’s collective memory, as perhaps Gettysburg was marked in the American mind by Lincoln.

Around the prone head of government, a local children’s choir waved flags and chirruped the national anthem of both countries. ‘And no one had a dry eye.’

Keating Kokoda 1992

Such was the electoral formula for the era, adding comforting gestures of civic consensus to more strident policy imperatives.

For Keating and Hawke’s ’new unity of purpose’  in the form of a refounded national ideology  was required to legitimize, distract from and sustain the social and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s.

The latter involved a crushing re-assertion of the prerogatives of ownership (and the outlook of lenders) over the opposing claims of employees, borrowers and other subordinate classes.

It brought stagnant and declining real wages between 1983 and 1996; sharp redistribution of income in favour of property owners; creation of a vast reserve army of permanent unemployed, elimination of ‘restrictive work practices’, allowing longer hours at higher work intensity, alongside the emergence of sporadic or intermittent short-term employment; lowering of the company tax rate (from 46% in 1983 to 33% in 1996) and flattening of the personal tax scale; privatization of state assets including Qantas, Telecom and public utilities; removal of various banking restrictions; assignment of new decision-making powers over large pools of assets to union bureaucrats and Indigenous ‘representatives’; restrictions on eligibility to previously universal welfare entitlements through means testing; opening of capital markets; designation of price stability as the supreme goal of monetary policy; and rapid destruction of local steel production, car-making, heavy engineering and clothing, textiles and footwear manufacturing, etc.

To accomplish all this, Hawke and Keating  and others manning the levers of mass psychology and attitude manipulation  insistently invoked the first-person plural pronouns  the national ‘we’ and ‘us’  and affirmed the existence of a collective ‘national identity’.

In 1988, Hawke spoke before the National Press Club in Canberra:

As a nation  and as a Government  we have had to make hard choices. And there are hard choices and hard decisions to come. Because of world events, we have had to look very critically at the way ahead – what we are doing as a nation, where we are going as a nation…

The role of the union movement  the willingness of workers to create jobs through sustained wage restraint, an unprecedented attack on outmoded work and management practices, including under the auspices of the current two-tier wages system, and reduced  industrial disputation, has been indispensable…

But the task is far from complete  indeed given our rapidly changing world, and especially the massive changes in prospect among the giants of our region such as China and Japan, that task will never be complete. The reality is that our prosperity will not be handed us on a platter. We will have to match and better the productivity, the product quality, the creativity and the entrepreneurial flair of the world’s best across all sections of the economy, even those not directly engaged in trade.

Thus went the hypnotic mantra, aiming to secure popular adherence to policies (the ALP’s ‘competitiveness agenda’) that imposed hardship on most of the Australian population for the sake of benefits enjoyed by a few.

The false image of a unified domestic entity (‘the nation’), engaged in a shared project in pursuit of ‘our’ common objectives, was presented to obscure the class-specific goals and unequal sectional impacts of those policies.

‘I see policy’, said Keating, ‘as a process of national reinvigoration and reinvention. I see it as a process of national character building.’

He went on helpfully to explain that ‘conflict in the workplace is not a quintessentially Australian way of operating.’

This ideology of economic nationalism (the political base of which was found among trade union officials like Laurie Carmichael) had long been the means by which class objectives, laid out by the policy elite, were repackaged as ‘the national interest’, and through which the state’s pursuit of those objectives secured popular allegiance.

The task of formulating it traditionally fell to ‘radical’ or social-democratic intellectuals and its designated electoral lure was the ALP.

From the mid-1960s, an influx of US, British and Japanese capital, fleeing a global downturn in profitability, had rushed into the local mining industry.

In the early 1970s, state managers sought to create room for struggling Australian-owned firms to switch their capital into this profitable sector. Jack McEwen’s ‘buy back the farm’ slogan was used when the McMahon government imposed restrictions on foreign investment and the Whitlam government required 50% local equity in mining projects.

During this period, left-nationalist economists like Ted Wheelwright and Brian Fitzpatrick, along with various Stalinist groups, especially the CPA (M-L), presented Australia as a ‘dependency’ or ‘client state’ of transnational corporations, a branch office whose ‘comprador’ elite (Kosmas Tsokhas) was controlled from New York, London and Tokyo.

Parochialism of this sort  which described an ‘Australia ripped off’ (Carmichael) by foreign-owned firms  assisted domestically-owned firms like BHP, the ‘Big Australian’, to move into mining.

In 1981 a CSR executive declared to a business paper: ‘We quite cold-bloodedly used the rising Australian economic nationalism and the beginning of the resentment against multinationals.’

The economic nationalism of the 1980s was rather different, though any novelty might have been difficult to perceive at the time.

In 1975 Wheelwright had sat alongside ACTU President Bob Hawke on the Jackson Committee of Inquiry into the Australian manufacturing industry. Several of the guiding principles and policy recommendations developed there would subsequently form part of the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord under Hawke’s party leadership. And the weakness of the Australian manufacturing sector, a key complaint during the 1970s from the Stalinist AMWU official Carmichael and the ‘dependency’ economists, would eventually be a key pretext for the ‘reforms’ of the 1980s.

But in other respects the form of nationalism encouraged under Hawke and Keating was something quite new.

Industrial capitalism had always depended on the national state to provide its own conditions of existence: creation of a national workforce through mass education, unification of the domestic market through provision of public goods like transport networks (roads and railways), and through abolition of internal tariffs, enforcement of private-property rights via centralized bureaucratic rule over a contiguous territory and maintenance of a standing army, etc. These also provided the material foundation for nationalist ideology, by which members of a population came to see themselves as members of a single nation with a shared fate, and to believe that their common interests were tied to the economic (and inevitably military) needs of the domestic state.

The particular state-supporting Australian nationalism that emerged full-blown during the 1980s corresponded to the state’s new role, as decreed by elite policymakers: to facilitate the adjustment of private firms to global competition by reducing wage costs and raising the amount of labour effort extracted per given hour of paid work (‘productivity’).

In the 1980s, the national watchword was ‘international competitiveness’: global and regional integration called for ‘Australia’ to accommodate itself to the discipline of the world market.

‘National consensus’, courtesy of ‘a very enlightened central leadership in the union movement’, formed around ‘a principle of keeping wage movements competitive with our trading partners.’

This new imperative emerged slowly following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, when Australian firms were increasingly able to borrow funds in offshore capital markets.

From the 1980s onwards, compulsory subscription to funded pension schemes (‘defined contribution’ superannuation) channelled local funds into financial markets. The increased liquidity allowed sustained inflation of domestic stock prices. Following the removal of foreign-exchange controls on cross-border capital movements, there then ensued large inflows of portfolio investment, mostly from Britain and the US, in pursuit of the speculative gains promised by these rising asset prices.

These private financial inflows, rather than direct investment and rather than the few instances in which Australian-based firms purchased productive assets abroad or undertook transnational operations, were the means by which Australian capital was ‘globalized’, and through which it became necessary for domestic firms (and a fortiori their employees) to obey ‘international benchmarks’.

The latter requirement, in turn, necessitated a shift in the relative size and role of various departments, branches and agencies of the Australia state.

There was hypertrophy of those governmental arms (Treasury, Finance, the Reserve Bank, etc.) responsible for inflation targeting and wage repression; and a withering of welfare or service agencies, in order to reduce non-wage sources of income and thereby reduce the bargaining power of employees.

As the state acquired a new shape, so did the national ideology by which popular allegiance to the state was secured.

Hawke gave a ‘major statement about what we must do together to meet the economic challenges facing this country’:

Today I want to speak to my fellow Australians, not in the jargon of economists, but in terms we can all understand…

Government has the responsibility to lead the community by getting the right policy framework – we will do that. But it is only with the understanding, the commitment of all Australians – as individuals and through their representative organizations – that our nation will meet the challenges ahead. What are those challenges? The first is for us to realize that this tough, increasingly competitive world of five-and-a-half billion people does not owe, and will not give, seventeen million Australians an easy prosperity. The days of our being able to hitch a ride in a world clamouring, and prepared to pay high prices, for our rural and mineral products, are behind us. From this fact flows everything else.

The challenge for the foreseeable future is to produce more than we spend. The rest of the world will not allow us to continue indefinitely to live beyond our means by borrowing from them. Our rural and mineral products will remain important into the future. But the challenge is to add to them. That is, we must export more manufactured goods and services and substitute more quality Australian production for imports.

Thus ‘adaptation to the changing world economy’ demanded ‘change in our national habits and attitudes and way of thinking about things and our way of doing things.’

This raised what were ‘fundamentally questions of national confidence: could Australia survive, compete and prosper in this rapidly changing world?’

Australia had reached a fork in the road: down one track lay great challenges, coupled with the prospect of renewed vigour in our economy; down the other, an apparently easier ride, but one that would have seen a permanent fall in living standards, not only relative to our traditional standards of comparison in Europe, but relative to our rapidly growing neighbours in Asia.

An ‘Australia with a modern, diversified, competitive and export-oriented economy, an Australia vigorously engaged with the world economy and enmeshed in particular with the dynamism of Asia and the Pacific’ needed ‘the industrial wing of our great [labour] movement’ to bear ‘the pain and the difficulty, to further the fundamental objectives, both of the party and of the nation.’

This required ‘a root-and-branch re-examination of many long-standing features of our national life and of the assumptions underpinning them’. It involved ‘dismantling some of our most cherished orthodoxies… deeply embedded in the very psyche of the nation.’

In particular ‘we confront the prospect of perhaps the greatest changes in our wages system we have seen. The sharply increased emphasis on workplace bargaining against demonstrated productivity benchmarks will fundamentally alter industrial relations in Australia.’ Pleasingly, ‘in reforming awards to make them relevant to contemporary industrial conditions the union movement has been in the vanguard.’

There was also the matter of ‘anachronisms in many areas of public ownership.’

This state-sponsored project of renovating national ideology required that scholarly and published history, too, must adjust (I’ll explore this more in the post to follow this one).

Hawke, who was to that point the most uncompromisingly pro-Zionist and Washington-aligned leader in ALP history, suggested that ‘changes which have occurred in our attitudes to our history, our culture, and our relations with the rest of the world, especially with the peoples of our own region… may be said to have begun with the fall of Singapore in 1942.’

Canberra’s strategic turn from London to Washington had initiated a ‘process of deepening our sense of national identity, national responsibility and national maturity. We have altered the focus on our past. With that new focus on the past, has come a reassessment of the past.’

Hawke made this remark about Singapore in the same year that popular historian David Day published his book The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia and the Onset of the Pacific War 1939-1942. This commercially successful work, promoted by Keating and inventing a spurious ‘Battle for Australia’, portrayed Menzies as the credulous sycophant to a perfidious Whitehall.

Day’s was the latest in a genre of anti-British pro-Curtin Irish-Catholic republican histories, officially favoured by the ALP ever since Manning Clark described the struggle waged between the ‘old dead tree and the young tree green’.

Established via a concerted elite project, this vision of ‘the nation’ as a collective personality (with its own common destiny, moral qualities, etc.) would form part of the repertoire and lexicon of ‘progressive’ politics in Australia during subsequent decades.

The nationalist ‘we’, apparently delineated on the basis of ethnic ancestry, was the subject of Keating’s celebrated Redfern speech (‘…it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters’). This speech was written by the biographer of Brian Fitzpatrick, the left-nationalist historian.

William Deane, the former High Court justice and Governor General appointed by Keating, declared that the criminal horrors of Australian colonialism were ‘properly to be seen as acts of the nation itself’.

The nation was thus presented as a kind of supra-individual agent, capable of undertaking actions and of possessing beliefs and attitudes.

Predictably, with the onset of a deep and protracted recession in 1990, the elite project to assert Australian national identity assumed a more sinister form.

The government and its media conduits had spent years instructing members of the population that their interests were tied to those of Australia, a collective entity (‘us’) engaged in a competitive struggle with other nations: a game with winners and losers. The frustration and disappointment accumulated throughout those years of reduced life chances – of income, working conditions, job security and basic services sacrificed in the name of the ‘national interest’ – was readily displaced into racist chauvinism and scapegoating.

Were not ‘our’ jobs being taken by ‘them’? Were not outsiders receiving welfare payments to which only insiders were properly entitled? (In the 5 years before the recession, net inward migration had risen sharply, though it had plummeted from 1989 to historically low levels.)

Refugees and various ethnic groups became a useful diversion from the unfolding social misery.

(Keating’s Working Nation policy package, released in 1994 after the number of unemployed people had reached over 1 million, contained various ‘mutual obligation’ and workfare measures that prepared the ground for the Howard government’s work-for-the-dole scheme and privatization of the Commonwealth employment agency. Drafted with the participation of Carmichael, now chair of the Employment and Skills Formation Council, Working Nation‘s Job Compact pushed long-term unemployed people into training programs and subsidized private employment for which they received below-award ‘Training Wages’.)

In 1992, Keating’s Immigration minister Gerry Hand (Hawke’s former minister for Aboriginal Affairs) introduced mandatory incarceration of ‘boat people’.

A former AMWU officer, Labor senator Jim McKiernan, spoke of the country being ‘inundated’: ‘boats filled with people’ would soon ‘land on our shores by the score.’ Said Hand, as he introduced the legislation to Parliament: ‘The Government is conscious of the extraordinary nature of the measures which will be implemented by the amendment aimed at boat people. I believe it is crucial that all persons who come to Australia without prior authorisation not be released into the community.’

The federal government publicized workplace raids and subsequent deportation of ‘illegal immigrants’. Public-opinion survey responses showed a dramatic rise in negative attitudes towards immigration during the early 1990s.

The following years produced the sudden rise to media attention and electoral prominence of a vicious and openly racist brand of nationalism, advanced by Pauline Hanson. She spoke at the launch of her One Nation Party:

We, all of us here tonight, and millions of people across Australia can celebrate, at last there is the chance for change…

The chance to stand against those who have betrayed our country, and would destroy our identity by forcing upon us the cultures of others.

The chance to turn this country around, revitalise our industry, restore our ANZAC spirit and our national pride, and provide employment for all Australians who have given a fair break would seize the opportunity for a better way of life, for themselves, and for their families.

The chance to make sure the Australia we have known, loved and fought to preserve will be inherited intact, by our children, and the generations that follow them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, chances are fleeting, they must be held tightly, and so tonight more than celebration, is a time for resolve, for if we fail, all our fears will be realised, and we will lose our country forever, and be strangers in our own land.

As it stands, the future is one where the majority of Australians will become second class citizens in their own country, under a government who panders to minority interests and denies the majority their right of decision…

We can win, we can make the difference, we can be the best place, but we must learn the lessons of the mistakes made by so many other countries.

We must stop our government repeating these mistakes, before we become like all the other places everyone wants to leave.

We cannot continue pursuing the failures of multiculturalism.

We cannot just give away what we all know to be so valuable.

If you want to live here permanently, you must want to be an Australian.

We must stand together to make these changes, or eventually be dragged down by the conspiracy of divisiveness that has been encouraged by our governments, and let loose upon the people of Australia without their permission.

Australians can no longer afford the luxury of apathy.

We must stand up.

We must all pull together.

We must win this battle, or lose the war.

After the political establishment had made use of Hanson, who provided cover under which ‘moderate’ politics shifted drastically to the right, she was removed from the scene through a legal stitch-up orchestrated by senior government figures.

Her invocation of ethnicity as the basis for ‘national identity’ was described as something sui generis, contrary to all that had gone before it (or, at least, and as she thought, wholly opposed to the nationalism of the recent ALP governments).

But the insipid rhetoric of the above speech plainly borrowed both tone and substance from more exalted, and very proximate, sources.

Hawke, Keating, and the respectable figures of Australia’s ‘progressive’ political elite had spent the previous decade and more drumming into heads the idea of a collective entity called ‘Australia’, and the categorical distinctiveness of ‘Australians’, who were said to be engaged together in a competition with the rest of the world. In this battle (loss of which threatened a ‘permanent fall in living standards’) Australians were said to share a common ‘unity of purpose’.

Whether membership in this national group was defined by ethnic origin or cultural ‘values’ or degree of workplace pliancy (in truth Keating used each of these criteria at various times) was therefore relatively unimportant.

For the deliberate purpose of ‘encouraging a closer identification with the nation’ was to nurture parochialism: to bind the vast majority of the population ideologically to the goals of a ruling elite with which they shared no common cause, and to divide them from the billions throughout the rest of the world, with whom their interests, should they have come to know them, were aligned.


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6 Responses to “‘We are us’: Australian economic nationalism under Hawke and Keating”

  1. An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism « Churls Gone Wild Says:

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  2. An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] latter was presented to the population as ‘a root-and-branch re-examination of many long-standing features of our national […]

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    […] laud about this period, and present as an exemplary model for the present day, involved (as I’ve written several times recently) the fulsome participation of the trade-union leadership, including key […]

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    […] put aside their narrow party interests and personal ambitions, and work together for the good of the nation. (The US ‘debt ceiling’ charade provides the template […]

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