A ruling party is in an enviable advantageous position to draw talents and recruit ambitious persons to share power and participate in policy making and implementation. A long absence in government makes essential administrative experience lapse, weakens the party's appeal, and disappoints those with a desire to serve. Without any memory of long years of Liberal governments from the time of Sir Robert Menzies, I witnessed overwhelmingly the exuberant Labour governance and sorrow state of Liberal opposition at federal level. Labour politicians and supporters then could hardly imagine a picture of their own opposition wilderness recurring sometime in the following decade.
The talent pool under Labour is impressive. A good example is Dr. Barry Jones, the Science Minister who used his high intelligence level to win many Australian quiz shows before entering politics. His calibre of thought is further demonstrated by his idea and promotion of a "knowledge society", prior to the phenomenon of knowledge economy, the so-called new economy, in the US.
Senator Gareth Evans was another prominent figure in the party and took up the posts of Foreign Affairs Minister and Senate leader. His knowledge is wide and thorough, and his speeches, especially in the Parliament against opposition questioning, were often long and winding, displaying his versatility and depth, and explaining foreign affairs matters in professional ways, but perhaps a little overkill and overstretched to audience of ordinary folks. It sometimes got one worried from his fiery eyes and facial expression that his contempt to the opposition is unquestionably stronger than it ought to be. His temper and emotion are also well known to all. The combination of a unique way of articulating and the temper issue perhaps ruled out his chance to stand as a national leader, especially a popular one, but he is well qualified to be an excellent minister. A student friend of mine happened to have rented a self contained room in his massive Ivanhoe house in Melbourne, and he attests to the long working hours of Senator Evans most of the time. His brilliant records of service later extended from politics to roles at international bodies.
The most prominent Labour leaders of this period were the two Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Hawke rose with a union background, from the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions). That is not only a firm backer of Labour, but also a source of personnel to Labour leaders and senior politicians. Apart from Hawke, Simon Crean, another ACTU president, served as Labour leader in opposition in later years. This strong union base is in general weakening in the country, and surprisingly, when Labour was in government, the ACTU lost some influence, since the party is torn between left and centre right wings, and Labour governments' continued effort on restructuring the economy inevitably eroded unions' hold on political power.
Labour in the 1980s started an Enlightenment. It shrugged off many past baggage and confirmed their ability to govern. The party appeared more assertive, humanist, and fair minded than the Coalition bathed in their past doctrines and glory. Hawke was the initiator of the virtual turning in policy direction, made great achievements politically, and was rewarded by a series of election wins which offer him a special place in Australia's contemporary political history. His stature withing the party was also immeasurably high, as signified by a sarcastically humble kneeling from a former Labour leader Bill Hayden to a kingly Hawke at a gathering of newly sworn in ministers. Loud laughter of this gesture, not nervous murmurs or boos from surrounding party members, prove the popularity and acceptance accorded to this brilliant Labour leader.
The Hawke administration was sustained by vital assistance from the talented Treasurer Paul Keating who mastered economics and policy matters through self-education. I bet no politicians of the time would openly boast their education credentials in front of this former high school dropout. With that low starting score, he then simply outperformed them all. The once political leader with the highest possible education credential of all political parties is Dr. John Hewsen, an economics and finance professor, yet he felt greatly inadequate in confronting Keating on national economic issues and in debates in general. A well known conversation occurred between these two leaders during Parliament question time. Hewsen asked a simple question, to which he expected to receive a direct answer: "Why won't you call an election?" Keating replied in his typical casual and serpentine manner: "Because I want to do you slow-ly". That brought the house down. Even Coalition parliamentarians seemed acknowledging Keating's brilliant counter remarks and the over eagerness of Hewsen to win as a novice in politics. Hewsen, eventually, left politics for good without an upper hand over Keating.
The Labour team of statesmen Hawke and facilitator Keating worked wonders from the later half of the 1980s and thwarted a number of offensives from the Coalition. He was frequently seen as Hawke's charging light brigade, on the order of the senior politician. Conflicts and friction bound to surface between these two capable, outstanding, and charismatic leaders. One solution is for Keating to take over from Hawke the leadership position, through agreement or challenge. Keating, seeking his own destiny, employed both means. Hawke made concessions to Keating in the famous Kirribilli agreement of an orderly power transfer. Few would have expected Hawke to disavow the agreement and retract his words, but he did. The only way open for Keating was then through a leadership challenge.
Even with a good number of supporters, Keating lost the first challenge and immediately relinquished his key government posts. There were then awkward regular TV footage showing that Keating sat at backbench of the Parliament and leisurely chatted with other MPs, sometimes leaving the chamber without a word. Hawke had to counter Opposition questioning on his own. The feeling Hawke had must be a sad and depressing one, since he was facing a coming tidal wave, and behind him perhaps half of his staff were going to abandon him, those people who wanted to see him embarrassed enough then stepping forward to dump him. Everyone knew there was something not right in this picture. The waiting for the moment of truth was nerve-wracking.
It is hard to imagine how an articulate and quick firing Keating would endure this forced political exile for long This resembles perfectly a situation succinctly described in the Chinese "Book of Change" that sometimes great leaders experience temporary lows, just like a dragon is trapped in a swamp. It will roar and fly high above the cloud at the next turning point. To Keating, his time was to come in the second leadership challenge in December 1991, and as Hawke's vulnerability was fully exposed, Keating grabbed the power in a vote with sufficient numbers of his supporters.
After becoming the new Prime Minister, Keating was once in a helicopter for a visit to some rural regions. The chopper lifted up in an area surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees, which are common in Canberra. The rotors then swept tree stems and leaves and cut them down. This caused the chopper to be unstable for a while, long enough for people to get worried. Keating seemed not noticing the danger and at least showed no panic. The authorities later admitted that there was a sight chance of downing. All these were shown on live TV, so people witnessed a new Prime Minister in real "trouble" soon after his takeover of power and possibly a first ever occasion of losing a head of government in an air tragedy, in addition to the sea tragedy which took the life of former Prime Minister Harold Holt.