Thursday, 13 Jun 2024

Bill Hayden, giant of the Labor Party and legend of the labour movement

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Bill Hayden, who rose from a pinched working-class childhood to become Labor leader and eventually Australia’s governor-general, but was denied the chance to become prime minister has died in Queensland, aged 90.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described Hayden as a legend of the labour movement, and announced a state funeral would be held in his honour.

Bill Hayden during his last days as governor-general.Credit: Palani Mohan

“If Bill Hayden left no other legacy than as a key architect of universal healthcare, he would still stand for all time as a legend of our labour movement and a great contributor to our nation,” the prime minister said.

“Of course, in his lifetime of service, Bill gave so much more to the country he loved. Indeed, in every role he held: governor-general, minister for social security, treasurer, foreign minister and Labor leader, Bill Hayden gave his utmost.”

Treasurer Jim Chalmers described Hayden as “the key transitional figure between [prime ministers] Whitlam and Hawke, but he was transformational too”.

“Without him and his efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there’d be no long-term Labor government, and the reform opportunities of the subsequent decades could have gone begging,” Chalmers said.

Hayden’s trajectory through his personal and public life was marked by paradox.

He spent much of his life as a committed atheist, but at age 85, he was baptised a Roman Catholic, having declared he had been captured by a gnawing of the heart and soul to seek the meaning of life.

He was long considered a man of republican bent – a position he later denied – but having served as governor-general, he took a monarchist stand during the republican referendum of 1999, and spoke of Queen Elizabeth II as “a consoling figure” when he felt isolated.

Aged just 28, Hayden was among the youngest of Australian politicians when he entered the federal parliament as the Member for the Queensland seat of Oxley in 1961.

Bill Hayden with his wife Dallas in 2008.Credit: John Woudstra

He retained the seat for 27 years before resigning in August 1988 to become Australia’s 21st governor-general. He served in the vice-regal role for a near-record seven years, second only to Lord Gowrie’s nine years from 1936 to 1945.

Hayden served as federal opposition leader from 1977 – when he replaced Gough Whitlam after Labor was heavily defeated in the election that year – to 1983.

His Labor Party colleagues, however, prevented him from leading the party to the 1983 election at which he believed he would have become prime minister.

Instead, the party chose Bob Hawke to replace him as leader of the opposition as the election campaign began.

It led to one of Hayden’s most famous quips: “A drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory, the way the country is.” A month later, Hawke, who was angered by the comment, led Labor to a decisive victory over Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition.

Hayden, however, had long before earned his place in Australian political history when, as social security minister in the Whitlam government, he fought and won a long battle to establish Australia’s first universal health insurance system, Medibank – now known as Medicare.

Among other major reforms during that period, Hayden introduced the single mothers’ pension.

He became treasurer late in the Whitlam government’s period, replacing Jim Cairns.

Though he served in that role for only five months before the Whitlam government was dismissed, Hayden is credited by former treasurer and prime minister Paul Keating as having laid the intellectual ground for the economic reforms undertaken during the Hawke-Keating government of the 1980s.

Bob Hawke shakes hands with Bill Hayden after he unsuccessfully challenged Hayden for the Labor leadership in 1982.Credit: David Bartho

“The antecedents of those changes, those great reforms, began with the frameworks Bill Hayden brought to the frontbench,” Keating said in the 2nd Hayden Oration delivered in 2017.

Having lost his chance to become prime minister, Hayden became Australia’s minister for foreign affairs in 1983, a position he held until he resigned from parliament in 1988.

“Without Bill Hayden’s instinctive grasp of the relationship between facing our nation to the world and securing our prosperity for the future, the government in which he served might not have achieved the same degree of engagement in our region that still benefits Australia today,” Albanese said.

Bob Hawke, Jim McClelland, Bill Hayden and Gough Whitlam in the grounds of the Lodge on November 12, 1975, the day after Whitlam’s dismissal.

William George (Bill) Hayden was born into the end of Great Depression on January 23, 1933, one of four children of George Hayden, then 52, and his wife, Violet (formerly Quinn), a young widow.

The family experienced hardship and poverty, and Hayden’s first year of life was spent with his family in a boarding house.

Young BiIl Hayden completed high school in Brisbane in 1949, aged 16, thanks to winning a scholarship.

Bill Hayden spent seven years as a policeman, a role credited for his insights into domestic violence.Credit: Fairfax Media

He joined the Queensland Police Force in 1953 – a move that saw him refused membership of the Communist Party of Australia, though in his much later years his views became progressively more conservative.

Albanese attributed Hayden’s police experiences to one of his major social reforms.

“As a former police officer who understood that poverty too often trapped women in violent relationships, Bill introduced Australia’s first single mother’s pension,” Albanese said.

Albanese said that through all the ups and downs of Hayden’s career, “Bill Hayden never lost his sense of humour.”

“Crucially, he never lost his faith in our party’s capacity to change the country for the better, he never doubted Australia’s ability to make a difference in the world and the work he did in the service of these causes will never be forgotten,” the prime minister said.

Former Labor leader Bill Shorten described Hayden as “a Labor giant” who believed in a classless welfare system in which anyone who needed government payments was not stigmatised.

Hayden is survived by his wife of 63 years, Dallas, their children, Georgina, Ingrid and Kirk, and grandchildren.

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