Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023


Hayden, Hon. William George (Bill), AC

3:34 pm

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by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 21 October 2023, of the Honourable Bill Hayden AC, twenty-first Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, former cabinet minister in the Whitlam and Hawke governments, former leader of the Australian Labor Party and former Member for Oxley, places on the record its gratitude of his long and distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia and the nation, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Senators, I rise on behalf of the government to express our condolences following the passing of a great servant of the nation, the parliament and the Australian Labor Party—the Hon. William 'Bill' George Hayden, former Governor-General, cabinet minister, Labor leader and member of the House of Representatives—at the age of 90. As I begin, I convey our sympathies to his family—his widow, Dallas Hayden AM and his children, Georgina, Ingrid, Kirk and the late Michaela—as well as to his grandchildren, former colleagues and many friends. I welcome Mrs Hayden, Ms Georgina Hayden, Ms Ingrid Hayden and Captain Kirk Hayden to the Senate today.

Few have given more in the service of our country than Bill Hayden, and even fewer have done so with his humility. In so many ways, Bill Hayden helped lay the foundation of what we have come to value about modern Australia. He introduced Australia's first universal health insurance scheme, Medibank, as social security minister under Whitlam. As foreign minister under Hawke, he was a strong advocate for our country, turning our attention to our own region, and for closer ties with the countries of the Asia-Pacific. He modernised our party, democratising and refocusing the Australian Labor Party while working to rebuild our credibility as a party of government, and he continued a life of service as the 21st Governor-General of Australia. He was central in reshaping Labor from its Whitlam identity to its modern character, not only as one of just four ministers to serve under both Prime Ministers Whitlam and Hawke, but, moreover, in how he turned Labor's focus, demonstrating competent economic management as the necessary precondition for implementing and, crucially, embedding bold social reform.

Bill Hayden was, in his own words, a product of the Great Depression. One of five children, he was born to a working-class family in Brisbane and raised in Ipswich. His father, George Hayden, an Irish American merchant seaman who settled in Australia, married Violet Quinn in 1933. Raised in poverty, Bill attended Brisbane State High School until the age of 15, before leaving school in 1953 to join the Queensland police force, where he served for eight years. During this time, he studied economics and politics part time at the University of Queensland. He became increasingly active in Labor politics and, despite some more-radical political tendencies, eventually gained preselection to contest the federal seat of Oxley for Labor at the 1961 federal election, where he defeated the incumbent, Liberal minister Dr Donald Cameron.

In his first speech to the House of Representatives, Bill Hayden spoke of the honour and privilege of serving the people of Oxley as a Labor member. He described the ALP as 'the only political party in Australia today which pursues policies designed for the greater good for the majority of the people'. For so many of us and for those who have the privilege of walking in the footsteps of giants like Bill Hayden, this articulation of who Labor is and who we are for is one that stands to this day.

It was as Minister for Social Security in the Whitlam government that Bill Hayden made his greatest contribution to the lives of millions of Australians, through the introduction of universal health insurance in the form of Medibank. In introducing legislation to establish Medibank, Bill Hayden said:

The first and main objective of Medibank is to give every Australian on identical terms automatic security against the cost of medical and hospital treatment, at reasonable cost to the community.

It's a simple premise, a just premise, but one that faced forceful and prolonged opposition both in this place and beyond. Medibank was, of course, eroded and eventually abolished by the Fraser government, which I would say proved Bill Hayden's point about Labor being the only party that governs for the good of the majority of Australians. But Medibank had laid the foundation for our current system of universal health care, enshrined by the Hawke government as Medicare. Ultimately, it was that simple premise—that Australians should not go without health care because they can't afford it—that Bill was so proud to see firmly embedded in Australian government and, indeed, now, in the Australian psyche. As the Prime Minister has said: 'If Bill Hayden had left no other legacy than as the key architect of universal healthcare in this country, he would still stand as a legend of our movement and a great contributor to our nation.'

As consequential as it was, the introduction of Medibank was not the only reform led by Bill Hayden during the Whitlam government that sought to build a fairer and more compassionate Australia. He also oversaw the introduction of the single mothers pension, provided to all single mothers to help them care for their children. It was provided at the same rate regardless of a woman's marital status, living arrangement or the time of the child's conception. Bill Hayden spoke of single mothers who would visit his electorate office in Ipswich, bereft of options to forge an independent life following a family breakdown. As a Queensland police officer, he understood all too well the way in which poverty limited women's choices, too often forcing them to remain in violent and abusive relationships. In introducing the bill to establish the payment, Bill Hayden described it as:

… a clear demonstration of this government's determination to bring an end as quickly as it can to the discrimination that existed against women and, in this case, certain classes of women …

Later expanded to include all single parents regardless of gender, the payment was a practical expression of Bill Hayden's and the Whitlam government's commitment to gender equality, to recognising women as equal citizens in Australian society, against whom no discriminatory treatment would be tolerated.

In June 1975, Bill Hayden became Australia's 21st Treasurer and served in that position until the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November of that year. But his short tenure as Treasurer belied his enduring influence over future Labor governments. It was he who laid the groundwork for the Labor economic philosophy that was to come, one that would reject crude binaries between the heart and the head or between passion and pragmatism; a philosophy that would prioritise economic management not as an end in itself but as a means to a fairer and more just society. Bill Hayden succeeded Gough Whitlam as leader of the Labor Party in 1977 and would go on to hold that position until February 1983 when he was replaced as leader by Bob Hawke. Paul Keating said of Bill Hayden:

The policy coherence that has given Australia its quarter century of uninterrupted growth, began its long coalescence the day Bill Hayden convened his first Shadow Cabinet meeting.

Much has been made of Bill's famous quip that 'a drover's dog' could have led the Labor Party to victory at the 1983 election. Like all counterfactuals, we will never know if Labor would have defeated the Fraser government under a different leader, but what we do know for sure is that Bill Hayden's legacy as a Labor Leader endures. He was the youngest leader of the Labor Party since Chris Watson in 1901, and after our second consecutive landslide defeat in 1977 he set about rebuilding a party reeling from a long period of conflict and upheaval—from the trauma of the split through the elation of Whitlam's election, the anger at the dismissal and a pair of electoral disasters. As leader, Bill Hayden sought to make Labor a more viable party of government, and he did so by facing up to the difficult economic realities of the late seventies and early eighties; by beginning the hard work of positioning Labor as a reliable steward of the dramatic changes coursing through the Australian economy and the Australian society; and by working to overcome entrenched conflicts in Australian politics. He built more positive relationships with business, laying the foundation for the extensive cooperation to come under future Labor governments. Once a sceptic of ANZUS, he adopted policies that would strengthen the alliance while, at the same time, emphasising Australia's independence and unique place in our region. Under his leadership, our party adopted a quota of 30 per cent women in parliament over 10 years, a big step in our progress to, last year, becoming the first government comprised of a majority of women.

Bill Hayden, of course, also served as foreign minister in the Hawke government from 1983 to his retirement from parliament in 1988. The great chronicler of Australian foreign affairs, Allan Gyngell, wrote of him:

… he strongly believed that the nation's interests embraced not only political, economic and strategic concerns but issues of 'moral duty' such as human rights, world poverty, arms control and the resolution of conflict.

Bill Hayden encouraged Australia to both embrace and expand our position in the region. He told parliament in 1983 that Australia should stake some of our national imagination on the development of broad perspectives regarding the future of South-East Asia.

In that light, with Bill Hayden as foreign minister, Australia pursued an active diplomatic role as a facilitator in the long-running Cambodian conflict, promoting dialogue between the various parties as a first step to an eventual peace settlement. His successor as foreign minister, Gareth Evans, would characterise Bill Hayden's role in Cambodia as creating acceptance by the international community of Australia as a responsible and knowledgeable voice on the issue of the Cambodian settlement. Doing so provided an important foundation upon which Evans would build, culminating in Australia becoming one of 19 cosignatories to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which led to the end of decades of civil war and laid the path for free and fair elections in Cambodia in 1993. And, importantly, it demonstrated to our region, to South-East Asia, that Australia was a reliable partner and a sincere partner.

Bill Hayden might have surprised many when he accepted the role of Australia's 21st Governor-General in 1988, having previously expressed support for an Australian republic. He served for an extended term of seven years until 1995. Upon leaving the role, he was described as having performed it with an egalitarian dignity and a common touch.

In concluding, I want to make note of Bill Hayden's advocacy for an issue on which he was outspoken long before almost any of his peers: gay rights. Way back in 1967, Bill Hayden advocated for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, pointing to such reforms in the United Kingdom. For context: this was seven years before my home state of South Australia would become the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality. In 1988, Bill Hayden was so appalled by the alleged harassment of gay men by the Queensland police that he wrote to the state's Premier to express his disgust and to call for an end to the persecution of gays. He would go on to become an early advocate for marriage equality and for the adoption of children by same-sex couples, arguing that to deny these rights was a clear form of discrimination. On this issue, like so many others, Bill Hayden was a man well ahead of his time. He was a man led by a profound sense of compassion and of decency, and that is something we should all work to emulate.

It is perhaps a curiosity of fate that Bill Hayden was so often to lay the foundation for successes that would fully come to fruition only after his departure from the stage. For some this might have stirred bitterness. It is a mark of his character that, upon being asked to reflect on his life in public service, he simply said:

… I hope people can say he used his time in office fairly and helpfully for those who had a need for help, and he did it honestly and with integrity.

May we all be so humble in our service.

On behalf of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate and on behalf of the government as Leader of the Government in the Senate, I again express condolences following the passing of Bill Hayden AC. And to Dallas, Georgina, Ingrid and Kirk; his wider family; and those here and beyond who knew him well: our deepest sympathies.


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