The 1986–87 Cabinet: a view from the inside

Below are speaking notes that accompany the audio presentation given by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to the National Archives of Australia 1986 and 1987 embargoed Cabinet records release, Canberra, 5 December 2013.

An audio presentation of these notes is available.


Thank you very much Len Marsden – and especially to Jim Stokes for a terrifically professional career: every best wish for the future after a fabulous contribution to this enterprise for so long.

George Brandis, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

The story of 1986 and 1987 is essentially that of a competent government (which George Brandis has been kind and gracious enough to acknowledge as such) at pretty much the top of its form:

  • steering the economy back on track, although not without some bumps along the way, through some very perilous economic waters – especially the terms of trade/current account plunge in April/May '86 (which produced Keating's 'banana republic' comment) and the dollar plunge in July that year (which we countered with the slash-and-burn 1986 budget)
  • continuing the process of macro and especially micro-economic reform (including tackling the role of government business enterprises, which began in earnest after the July '87 election)
  • running into no really serious foreign policy problems (although the Fiji affair certainly caused some frissons and relations undoubtedly were pretty cool throughout that period with Indonesia: they didn't start warming up until the following year)
  • functioning for the most part efficiently and well in terms of intra-Cabinet, Cabinet–public service and Cabinet–Caucus relationships
  • politically being as united as a Labor (or perhaps any Australian) government ever is, certainly by comparison with our then Opposition (with the Howard–Peacock contest a running sore, and the distraction of Joh-for-Canberra saga in early '87), with Hawke–Keating tensions certainly gaining some momentum (and well evident to insiders) but during this period still very much under control

all of which helped us cruise to our third election win in a row in July 1987.

How one sees the key Cabinet events of any period of government, depends very much on where you are sitting – and in my case I was for most of this period Minister for Pipes and Holes (otherwise known as Resources and Energy), not a central part of the economic and budgetary management action but close enough to it as a Cabinet Minister to know what was going on, and with plenty of other major issues to keep me preoccupied, not only in my own portfolio, but quite often as acting Foreign Minister or Attorney-General in Bill Hayden's or Lionel Bowen's absence, or representing them and others in the Senate.

I should perhaps say in parentheses that this was actually quite a good period for me personally, completing my rehabilitation back to political respectability after a rather catastrophic period – which George has no doubt been studying closely! – as Attorney-General in which, apart from many other self-inflicted mishaps in '84 and '85, I certainly misread the party's and government's enthusiasm for serious legal and constitutional reform. But that's a story for another day...

The Cabinet issues of the '86–87 period in which I was most involved as Resources and Energy Minister, and which you'll see well represented in the papers released on embargo today, included:

  • oil pricing: dealing with the endless flow of issues associated with the collapse of world oil prices in early '86 – in particular whether to maintain the import parity price or artificially prop it up (maintaining excise revenue or infuriating consumers), or – as we did – steering a course between, all this as a prelude to ultimate oil industry deregulation
  • the Maralinga British nuclear tests compensation issue: in which we had to steer a course, delicate in terms of relations with both the UK and Caucus, between what payment could be extracted from Britain and what was necessary to decontaminate the whole area
  • the decision to resume uranium sales to France, to raise some desperately needed revenue for the '86 Budget but at the cost of overriding party policy endorsed only three weeks earlier (which led me to reflect in my diary at the time that 'they say a statesman is a dead politician').

As Transport and Communications Minister after July '87, the main Cabinet issues in which I was involved in the relevant period (my battles with David Hill at the ABC lay ahead) were:

  • setting in train major reviews of the major government business enterprises (including Qantas, Australian Airlines, Telecom and Australia Post, constituting between them some 40 per cent of Commonwealth employment), which resulted first in the corporatisation of all of them and ultimately the privatisation of most of them – a huge step down the economic rationalist path, and politically highly fraught as a result
  • following through on airline deregulation – but with one conspicuous regulatory exception: the introduction of a ban on inflight smoking (I think we were the first government in the world to do this, and it was certainly one of the most popular decisions I ever made, not least with flight attendants, even the heaviest smokers among whom hated the constant fug in which they had to work).

And as a minister often still involved in legal and constitutional issues, representing the Attorney-General in the Senate or in his absence – and with a strong lingering interest in at least some of them – I was engaged during the 1986–87 period, among other things:

  • in the intense discussions, though largely outside the Cabinet room and unrecorded in its minutes, about how to react to the tortuous unfolding saga of Lionel Murphy's trial and acquittal and trial again by the Senate, culminating in the harrowing revelation in July '86 of his terminal cancer and death three months later
  • in the culmination of the exercise to sever Australia's remaining formal constitutional links with the UK, which I had been intensely involved in negotiating as A-G and continued to follow as minister assisting the Prime Minister. At the signing of the Proclamation of the Australia Act, in the presence of the Queen, at Yarralumla in March '86 a conversation took place which you won't find recorded in the Cabinet minutes. It went something like this:

    First, Hawke introduces me to Her Majesty as Minister for Resources and Energy, and she says, uncontroversially, 'You have a lot of those,' to which I reply, 'But we are not getting very good prices for them just at the moment,' which seems to destroy what little chance the conversation at that stage might have of taking off. Hawke then says to her something like, 'Senator Evans has just been in England talking to Maggie Thatcher about coming to the party on cleaning up the Maralinga test site,' to which Her Majesty replies, 'Oh'. High matters of state having been thus disposed of, she and Bob move on, leaving me to confront His Royal Highness, Prince Philip.

    The Queen's grace under pressure was not, it must be said, quite matched by her husband. When I was introduced to him by Hazel Hawke, his initial response was just to stare blankly. Feeling obliged to fill the conversational gap, I offered the not very brilliant but at least perhaps topical observation: 'I spent a lot of time working on this residual links exercise, including quite a few hours locked in combat in the Palace with Sir Philip Moore and Bill Heseltine but it all seems to have worked out very well'. To which the Duke replied, 'Big deal'. And moved on.
  • in the death throes of the proposed legislative Bill of Rights, which I had championed as A-G and for many years before, and which was finally shelved in August '86. It came back to Cabinet in February '86 in the context of a Caucus Committee resolution to extend it, and in particular its 'universal and equal suffrage clause' to the states, in order to enable challenges to the well-established gerrymanders in Queensland and Western Australia.

    My diary notes of the time record Prime Minister Hawke, supported by Kim Beazley, describing this 'half-arsed proposal' with politics 'so absurd I can't understand why it was ever considered'; with John Dawkins saying that, on the contrary, 'he had listened to Beazley's horror stories for the last three years and had we ignored him as we should have, we would at least have Land Rights legislation now in place rather than the mess which confronts us on that topic', and Hayden making a passionate plea about the need not to run away from every proposition likely to generate controversy – 'politics is about argument, conflict, views and values'. But, as with every other piece of adventurous law reform legislation in the life of his government, Hawke's view prevailed, and the day proved, in Hayden's words 'an elaborate burial ceremony for the stillborn'.

The Cabinet records being released on embargo today are about as interesting as any public documents can be, and will no doubt be, as usual, the subject of many fascinating press stories on and after 1 January. But what they don't of course do, and can't do, is capture the real flavour of a great deal of the discussion, often rather robust, that actually goes on. I've just given you one small sample of that in the Bill of Rights context, and have notes on a great many more in the detailed diary I kept from late '84 to late '86 – which, partly encouraged by this event, I've been recently re-reading with a kind of eerie fascination.

Take for example the Cabinet exchange on 10 June '86 about the big 'state of the nation' economic speech which the PM was scheduled to give the following day in an attempt to settle down some of the uproar that had followed the Treasurer's 'banana republic' comment a few days earlier, and which exchange – again – I don't think you'll find in the minutes:

Cabinet was scheduled to resume at 8pm for this discussion, but that time came and went with no call being made. Peter Cook had told me over dinner that he, Gerry Hand, Robert Ray and Graeme Richardson had been asked to be at Hawke's office at 8 for consultations and I naturally assumed that this was what holding matters up. We were finally called together at 10pm and confronted with a 20-odd page draft statement – but not the text of the seven-minute address to the nation itself.

Things did not get off to a good start when I asked Hawke – wanting to get a fix on what themes were going to be given most emphasis – whether we could see the speech as well as the statement, and he snarled irritably that he wasn't in the habit of having his speeches vetted by a Cabinet Minister or anybody else. After we had scanned the statement text for four or five minutes – time enough to develop a sinking feeling that the content was not at all up to the expectations that had been generated – Hawke then really laid it on the line when he said that the final text had to be at the printer at 11pm, to meet tomorrow's deadlines, and so we had just one hour to consider the statement. I found it, as usual, impossible to suppress my dissatisfaction at being thus so crudely presented with a fait accompli. So I said something like: 'Isn't it a bit unreasonable to give your Cabinet just an hour to look at this, especially when you've been meeting with the factional people since 8 o'clock?' Hawke snapped back at me, 'It's not unreasonable, I haven't had such meeting'. Me: 'But you were scheduled to have such a meeting'. Hawke at this stage seemed to completely lose control, shouting, 'Scheduled, yes: but held no. So up you for the fucking rent!'

Bloodied, but not feeling especially bowed, I simply said, 'OK, I apologise. As you were. But I still think we ought to have a little more time'. Going around the table, it quickly became apparent that there was quite a deal of dissatisfaction with the document, especially an extraordinary part of it – nothing much to do with a resolution of our current economic problems, but appealing wonderfully to the prejudices of our opponents – requiring the 'younger unemployed' to participate in a community work program as a condition of receiving unemployment benefit.

After the debate had gone on inconclusively for some time, I decided to grasp the nettle once more and proposed that the statement go much softer on this issue, but rather harder than it did on some other things like prices, investment incentives and limiting public service expansion, which would each be more immediately responsive to current problems and less inflammatory to the party.

Hawke had calmed down enough by this stage to appreciate that I was actually trying to help, and after we made a few small but not insignificant changes to the text, he beckoned me over to his seat and said, 'Thank you for responding constructively'. I replied, equally amiably, 'I'm a very robust fellow, but sometimes I feel like jobbing you'. Hawke grinned away chirpily and said, 'The feeling's mutual'. Sue Ryan, overhearing some of this, said as I came back to my seat, 'So you're buddies again'. And we were.

I have to say in this context, for what it's worth, that I think you'll have a sense that, had any of the problems of alleged dysfunctionality of the kind that have been said to be associated with the previous government in more recent times arisen back in my day, my kind of response to this sort of thing, as I have just recorded it, was not at all unique. I don't think you would have found our senior ministers at all shy about confronting the Prime Minister with that kind of perception.

Often the atmosphere was, of course, less tense and more cheerful than it was on this occasion. Take for example the couple of exchanges I recorded on 7 April '86:

  • During debate on a proposed rural statement, with a lot of anxiety being expressed about the package being too generous to cockies or generating over-inflated expectations, Hawke says, 'At least you can kick 'em in the balls in your statement, saying what our depreciation decision has done for them', to which Hayden chips in, 'This under the heading of "you've never had it so good" I suppose?'
  • Then John Kerin on the Plant Variety Rights submission: 'I don't know whether I should be proceeding with this today. It hasn't been through all the party processes'. To which Keating interjects: 'You're wanting to break with our tradition?'

And then there was Keating's memorable opening line a few weeks earlier, when as we were taking our seats someone mentioned an item on AM that morning:

'Listen, when you buggers are all tuning in to AM at 8 o'clock, I'm listening to Golden Oldies on 2CA – you can't have [c-word, plural] filling your mind up with shit at that hour of the morning: you've got to keep your head clear for the day.'
It was gross, but carried off, as usual, with such an engaging charm that everyone, as usual, fell about.

As I wrote a few months later, recording another Rabelaisian extravaganza which I won't repeat here, 'God knows what the more po-faced Cabinet officers, scribbling away in their corners, think of this sort of thing. I've no idea how it compares with some of the more relaxed Cabinet styles of the past, but I'm amused to compare it mentally with what I've read of accounts of the British cabinet in action, quintessentially Crossman but also a number of others, all of which suggest a degree of formality – if not always necessarily dignity – which would be unrecognisable here'.

Well, one thing that we do share with our British colleagues is a willingness to open up to public view, after an appropriate lapse of time, Cabinet records, warts and all (albeit without quite as many warts as verbatim records would disclose). It's a fine tradition that the National Archives is continuing today, with its expert packaging and supporting material, and long may it continue.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019