Bob Hawke and Sir Peter Abeles; Bill Shorten and Anthony Pratt. What is it that attracts such close friendships between these Labor leaders and the richest part of the ‘top end of town’? Abeles and Hawke’s friendship had started in the 1970s when Hawke was president of the ACTU. According to Hawke’s biographer (later his wife) Blanche D’Alpuget, Hawke looked upon Abeles as a ‘father figure’; he found the older man ‘subtle, sophisticated cosmopolitan, immensely fascinating’. The Australian newspaper has described Shorten as ‘something of the prodigal son in the Pratt family’, having become close to Anthony’s father Richard through family links with Shorten’s first wife.
Hawke’s death two days before Shorten lost the unloseable election was a reminder of the major differences between these two Labor leaders: one was immensely popular with a 70 per cent approval rating, the other had a net approval rate of minus 10; one was committed to consensus, the other preached class war and division; one determined to avoid repeating the reckless spending and economic chaos of the Whitlam years, the other promising a spending spree paid for by tax hikes.
Hawke will be remembered as the great reformer (despite some problems with a collapsed currency, huge interest rates and high unemployment towards the end of his eight years at the top); Shorten as the loser who reinforced public perception of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s mantra that ‘Labor cannot manage money’ by refusing to answer questions about the cost of his disruptive emissions targets, by taxing retirees (‘If you don’t like it don’t vote for us’) and hitting middle-income earners with a range of taxes.
But what are the consequences of these Labor leader-billionaire alliances, beyond the obvious election fund-raising opportunities and links into the economy’s private sector movers and shakers? The media usually looks to something suspicious, as it did with Hawke and Abeles, particularly when Prime Minister Hawke intervened in the pilots’ strike to the benefit of Ansett that was then jointly owned by Abeles and Rupert Murdoch, along with a legal issue on whether Hawke benefitted from a substantial gift, or was it only a loan, as claimed by Abeles’ widow.
And with the great bulk of Anthony Pratt’s huge packaging empire located overseas, ‘investigative journalism’ in this instance seems to be confined to financial gossip columns about who attended political fundraisers (for both major parties) at the Pratts’ magnificent Melbourne residence Raheen and that Anthony turned up at Essendon last Saturday night to the wake that was to have been Shorten’s victory bash. The real question should be about the influence the rich mates had on the Labor leaders, rather than what the Labor leaders can do for them. It may be that much of the Hawke government’s remarkable program of economic reform emerged more from Hawke’s evident respect for Abeles’ massive intellect than initiatives coming from Treasurer Paul Keating (Hawke even rejected Keating’s attempt to introduce a goods and services tax). There can be no doubt, however, that Keating as Treasurer was the impressive implementer of reform – parts of which, like floating the dollar, were against Treasury advice. Hawke’s initial objective was not to seek electoral approval for a political agenda (and certainly not a divisive one like Bill Shorten’s) but to concentrate on avoiding the economic incompetence of the Whitlam years. In winning the 1983 election, Hawke provided few policy targets in a personalised campaign. Shorten not only presented a spread of controversial and potentially painful policies to be enthusiastically attacked by Morrison in an excellent campaign, but also decided to invoke the ghost of Whitlam – an image Hawke sought to avoid – by ending his formal campaign in the Blacktown hall where Whitlam gave his famous ‘It’s Time’ speech. With Pratt being close to Trump, what sort of political advice has he given Shorten? However, there is one remarkable similarity that is not unusual in the modern Labor Party; both Hawke and Shorten had a good family life, were well educated, both became union officials representing workers – but have never been a worker themselves.