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John Button’s Letter To Bill Hayden

This is the text of Senator John Button’s letter urging Federal Opposition Leader Bill Hayden to resign.

ButtonThe letter was sent on January 28, 1983. It followed the ALP’s defeat in the Flinders by-election in December 1982.

Hayden had been ALP leader since succeeding Gough Whitlam in 1977. He had made up some ground in the 1980 federal election but doubts were held about his ability to defeat Malcolm Fraser. Speculation that Fraser might call an early election was starting to build.

Bob Hawke had been elected to the parliament in 1980. He unsuccessfully challenged Hayden for the leadership in July 1982.

On February 3, 1983, Hayden resigned and Bob Hawke was installed as ALP leader. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was in the process of calling an early double dissolution election. Hawke defeated Fraser in the March 5 election.

Hayden served as Foreign Minister in Hawke’s government until he was appointed Governor-General in 1989.

Button served in Hawke’s government as Industry Minister and Government Leader in the Senate. He retired in 1993 and died in 2008.

Hayden spoke at Button’s funeral and praised the former senator’s “open and honest” manner. He said Button had been “powerful, direct, but firm” in his urgings. Hayden jokingly told the congregation that he had asked Button: “Do you really think Bob would want to take this job?”

Text of John Button’s letter to Bill Hayden in January 1983.

HaydenDear Bill

I had hoped to talk with you in Brisbane regarding the matter of your leadership of the party. My impression was that you were anxious to discuss this matter too, but that you subsequently changed your mind, and certainly I was reluctant to raise it with you in the presence of Denis Murphy. Hence this letter.

My visit to Brisbane on 6 January was only undertaken after a lot of thought, and some discussion with several colleagues. During our talk on that day I expressed, albeit reluctantly, the view that you should stand down as leader of the party, and I was concerned to put that view to you as a friend. It is still my opinion.

I felt I could talk to you about that issue, because since you became leader of the party I have been consistently loyal to you in every major difficulty you have faced. I am still loyal to you as a person and I hope I am still regarded as a friend. In part, I hope that is apparent from the fact that in spite of considerable discussion on this issue within the party, none of it appeared in the press. My ultimate loyalty, however, must be to the ALP.

If we had had the opportunity of talking yesterday, I would have put the following points to you.

  1. I believe that you cannot win the next election. In July last year I had doubts about this. Since the last leadership contest, it seems to me that your level of performance as party leader has declined considerably.

  2. In discussions between us, you have relied on the polls as indicative of a reasonable level of performance by yourself and the party. It has been my view that with the recent economic performance by the Government, we should have been 10-15 percent ahead of the Government consistently. We have not, and the last Morgan Poll shows us at four per cent ahead.

  3. The worst feature of the last poll, however, is the approval rating amongst Liberal voters of Fraser’s performance (69 per cent), compared with your approval rating amongst ALP supporters of 46 per cent.

  4. The last figure reflects my view of the state of morale amongst party members and supporters, which I raised with you on 6 January. It is very bad, and you cannot win an election without the enthusiastic support of our own constituents.

  5. Whilst ‘the party’ in July-August was divided on the issue of a change of leaderhsip, it is not nearly so divided now. At least four of the state leaders, five of the six state Secretaries, and National Secretariat, and a majority of the parliamentary party favour a change.

  6. The alternative leader (created as such by the last leadership ballot) is, of course, Bob Hawke. You said to me that you could not stand down for a ‘bastard’ like Bob Hawke. In my experience in the Labor Party the fact that someone is a bastard (of one kind or another) has never been a disqualification for leadership of the party. It is a disability from which we all suffer in various degrees.

  7. I am personally not one of those who believe that we can necessarily coast into office on the coat-tails of a media performer and winner of popularity polls. On the other hand I believe Hawke’s leadership would give us a better chance of success, and if the ALP is to be defeated in the next election I would personally prefer it to be under his leadership than yours. That might provoke some really hard thinking about where we are going.

  8. I must say that even some of Bob’s closest supporters have doubts about his capacities to lead the party successfully, in that they do not share his own estimate of his ability. The Labor Party is, however, desperate to win the coming election.

If I might return to our discussion in Brisbane, I repeat what I said then: namely, that I not approach you as an emissary from any group within the party, but rather to indicate my own perceptions and concerns. These are based on a lot of listening to many people who are your friends rather than your opponents.

You have, unhappily, a difficulty in working with colleagues, but it in no way diminishes their respect for your political career. I believe that respect and affection would be greatly enhanced if you stepped down from the leadership. The ‘Macbeth stuff’ which you gave me in Brisbane is really all bullshit. My own present wish is to see the election of a Labor Government in which you play a prominent and influential role.

Could we talk about this?

With kindest regards,

Yours sincerely,


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Malcolm Farnsworth
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