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Inside the Hawke Keating Government - A Cabinet Diary

10 October 2014

Reviewed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Gareth Evans is, in his own words, “a legal academic and barrister, civil libertarian and constitutional reformer” who went into Australian politics. He became Attorney-General in 1983 at the age of 39. He had a long and distinguished ministerial career first as Attorney-General, then as Minister for Resources and Energy, Minister for Transport and Communications, culminating with eight years as Foreign Minister. For most of his political career he was a Senator for Victoria, becoming Leader of Government Business in the Senate. He transferred to the lower House in 1996, leaving Australian politics in 1999.

After leaving politics he became President and Chief Executive of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group where he remained until 2009. Returning to Australia in 2010 he became Chancellor of the Australian National University. He remains very active in international affairs and runs the Asia Pacific Leadership Network devoted to promoting nuclear disarmament in the region. The reviewer is a member of this group.

Evans is characterised by a penetrating intellect, restless energy and a clear vision about how to change things. He has many accomplishments to his credit. One of the most notable in recent years was his contribution to the emerging international law doctrine “Responsibility to Protect”, challenging the traditional doctrine of sovereignty, teaching instead that nations should protect their populations from such atrocities as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. He was co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty established by the Canadian Government that produced a seminal report in 2001.

There is nothing here of these later accomplishments; the book is a diary he kept for two years from late 1984 to late 1986. It is all about the life of a busy minister on a day-by-day basis, the meetings he had, the people with whom he interacted and in particular the two dominant figures of the Australian Labor Party, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It is, as Evans says in the introduction, an issue as to how did “this highly strung collective of very capable, very forceful personalities ever manage to work together as a team.” They suffered, as he says, from “endlessly distracting clashes of egos and agendas that, then as now, so dominate Australia political life.”

Inspired by the diaries of the United Kingdom Minister Richard Crossman, Evans is direct and detailed in recounting the issues that arose in this phase of his ministerial life. One of those issues was New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy, about which there is quite a lot here. The differences between the fraternal Labor/Labour parties and how to manage the issue was of continuing concern to the Australians, as it was to us. I had a number of interchanges with Gareth at the time on that subject and these are recorded here.

Gareth and I both spoke at the Triennial Law Conference in Rotorua in 1984, sharing the platform with Lord Scarman. We were both promoting a Bill of Rights for our countries. But it turned out in the end that my task was much easier than Gareth’s. As Attorney-General he laboured mightily on the project in Australia. But in the end he could not prevail, partly because the furore about the overflying of Tasmania by military aircraft to take photos in the dispute over the Tasmanian Dams. He was gathering evidence for what became a leading case in Australian Constitutional law: Commonwealth v Tasmania (1983) 158 CLR 1. Had Evans not been moved by Hawke to the Resources and Energy portfolio the history of Australia may have been different on the Bill of Rights, but I doubt it. As Gough Whitlam famously said in the 1957 Chifley Memorial lecture, “The way of the reformer is hard in Australia.” This book illustrates the truth of that statement in profound ways.

To a New Zealand sensibility a number of features stand out in stark relief in comparison with our own relatively quiet polity. First comes federalism. Gareth’s struggles with the states, especially Western Australia, over minerals policy were continuing and difficult. New Zealand ministers have no such distractions and given the number of concentric circles of political power in Australia we can be grateful we are spared it. I often found as the New Zealand Attorney at meetings with the State and Commonwealth Attorneys that I was, apart from the Commonwealth Attorney, the only friend of the Commonwealth power.

Second, comes the issue of size. Being a minister in Australia requires many more hours in planes than New Zealanders. It is a vast country and such travel for ministers and MPs can be an enervating experience. Ministers are always struggling with fatigue but reading Evans’s travel schedules to out of the way places relevant to his minerals portfolio was astonishing.

Third, the Australian political culture is much more aggressive, punishing and personal than in New Zealand. The media is tougher. There is much complaint in Evans’s diaries about the media and much indication of how influenced by its reportage the politicians are. Even in these times of crumbling values the New Zealand political culture is more restrained.

Fourth, the deeply factional nature of the Australian Labor Party comes through in dynamic ways in this book. Organised and disciplined factions make the decision-making process fraught.

Fifth, the orderly methods by which the New Zealand Cabinet is organised and run seem very tidy compared with the picture of Cabinet government that emerges from this book.

I often think the New Zealand relationship with Australia needs to be more developed and deeper. But this book does illustrate how different the governance of Australia is from our own. Reading this vivid account from Gareth Evans will explain much about those differences.

Inside the Hawke Keating Government – A Cabinet Diary, Melbourne University Press, September 2014, 978-0-522866-42-1, paperback and e-book, $A49.99.

Former Prime Minister and Attorney-General Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC now practises from Harbour Chambers in Wellington.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016