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Jan 12, 2016

The more things change: Hawke-era political debates we are still having today

From stopping the boats to a second Sydney airport, the issues being debated by the Hawke cabinet could have come from today's headlines.



Bob Hawke and journalist George Negus at the launch of the Environmental Futures Group, 1991

The annual dump of cabinet documents on January 1 is always a chance to get an insight into what decisions the government of the day was considering a couple of decades ago. This year we were treated to the end of the Bob Hawke era, with the cabinet papers from 1990 and 1991 being released. But it gave us a strange sense of deja vu — many of the issues troubling the Hawke cabinet then are still being debated today.


While the Coalition takes credit for the three-word slogan of “stop the boats” (which Tony Abbott says is one of the legacies of his time as prime minister), it was a Labor government that introduced hardline policies for mandatory detention in Australia. Although Paul Keating is widely blamed for introducing mandatory immigration detention in 1992, it was actually in July 1991, at the end of Hawke’s term as prime minister, that the Hawke cabinet agreed to establish an onshore detention centre for unauthorised arrivals at a cost of approximately $25 million over three years. That was several months before Keating challenged for the leadership the second time, but after he went to the backbench.

The policy came about due to concern that “Australia could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from South-East Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.

Between 1989 and 1990, it was reported that there were three boat arrivals from Cambodia, with an additional 1800 “Cambodian boat people” detained in Indonesia. In 1991, there were five more boat arrivals.

Climate change

Governments across the globe struck a new agreement in Paris late last year to limit the average global temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees, which is described as either a historic agreement or “a lot of hype about nothing”, depending on what government MP you talk to. In early 1991, Hawke’s cabinet agreed to approach negotiations on climate change in Washington later that year with a view to substantially reducing greenhouse emissions, but not proceed with adopting measures that would “have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse gas producing countries”. The cabinet documents reveal:

“To maintain Australia’s reputation for progressive action, we should continue to urge all developed countries to establish national targets, and all developing countries to commit themselves to appropriate action to reduce the threat of human-induced climate change in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities.”

In October 1990, the cabinet agreed to $13.8 million in funding over three years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through education programs on how to reduce household emissions, energy auditing of government buildings and Commonwealth vehicle fleets, and working with the states on appliance energy efficiency labelling, which you still see on fridges and dryers today.

ABC efficiency and SBS ads

Under the Abbott and Turnbull government, the ABC has been subject to an efficiency dividend, with its budget cut $254 million over five years — a reduction of 4.6%. SBS received a recent reprieve, with the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December making up funding that the broadcaster missed out on because legislation that would have allowed additional advertising during prime time on SBS failed to pass the Senate. It was in June 1991 that the government agreed to allow advertising on SBS (although there had been ministerial approval for sponsorship for the SBS test pattern and the World Cup coverage in 1990).

In a cabinet submission, then-communications minister Kim Beazley asked cabinet to agree to increase funding for the ABC and SBS to $500 million and $60 million respectively as a base level of funding in 1991-92 to account for inflation, subject to a 1.25% efficiency dividend, and for SBS to be allowed to have five minutes of advertisements per hour.

Unlike the current government’s efficiency dividend, in a speech in June 1991 to mark the opening of ABC’s headquarters in Ultimo, Hawke said the ABC would keep any savings it managed to find.

Cross-media ownership

When the Hawke government was planning the launch of pay TV services in Australia, to coincide with the privatisation of the government’s satellite service known as Aussat (which became Optus and introduced competition into the telecommunications industry in Australia), the cabinet flagged that as part of the introduction of pay TV in Australia no person in control of a TV licence would be permitted to own more than 25% of a national pay TV licence, with a view to extending the limits already applied on newspapers.

The current Turnbull government is expected to now relax those laws later this year, in a move that is widely assumed to trigger a set of takeovers and acquisitions involving some of the largest media companies in Australia.


Whether advertising for alcohol or junk food should be banned is a regular issue in modern politics, but in July 1991, the Hawke cabinet agreed to ban all remaining tobacco advertising. TV and radio ads were already banned, but sports sponsorship had not been completely banned by that point. The cabinet agreed to create a fund to fill the gap created by banning tobacco sponsorship with a $32.5 million fund to effectively “buy out” the advertising space.

Badgerys Creek airport

On December 10, 1991, the cabinet agreed to begin developing the airport at Badgerys Creek in New South Wales, after finalising the government purchase of the land by the end of 1991. The cabinet document outlines that by 2005, depending on capacity issues in New South Wales, that the airport could be opened up to general aviation operations. It was only in 2015 that the government released a draft plan for a commercial airport at Badgerys Creek, and the airport under current plans would not be opened until 2025.


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One thought on “The more things change: Hawke-era political debates we are still having today

  1. Raaraa

    I wonder… rather than building a second airport in Sydney, could they expand Canberra’s airport and build a fast rail to there from Sydney?

    I know it’s possibly a bit off-topic, but then again Hawke was toying with the idea of fast rail, wasn’t he?


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