At the time, it was described as the most dramatic day in Australian politics since the Dismissal of the Whitlam government.
Rumours abounded on the morning of February 3, 1983 that Bill Hayden’s leadership of the ALP was under threat from Bob Hawke. Speculation had also begun that Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser might call an early election.
I was attending the funeral of the Victorian state Labor member for Springvale, Kevin King. There was an air of expectation as Labor notables and party activists mingled outside after the service. Some not-so-discreet preselection lobbying was underway but many of us were interested in events further afield.
In Brisbane, the ALP’s National Executive was putting Bill Hayden to the sword. Back at the funeral, one Victorian MP told me of a cryptic conversation he’d had with Bob Hogg, the Victorian ALP’s State Secretary. This was a time before mobile phones, the internet and continuous news. Political information passed around like Chinese whispers. As the funeral finished, we still weren’t sure if Hayden had gone. People who turned on their car radios heard reports that Fraser was on his way to see the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen.
The confirmation of Hawke’s accession to the leadership wasn’t long in coming. The drover’s dog had been put down.
Fraser’s intentions remained unclear for some hours. We now know that Fraser arrived at Yarralumla without an appointment around midday, presented documents to Stephen and requested a double dissolution of the parliament. Hosting a lunch with the departing Polish ambassador, Stephen told Fraser to come back at 3pm. Fraser’s lunchtime press conference was cancelled.
Confusion reigned as the afternoon wore on. Was an election on? Had Fraser been hoping to campaign against Hayden? Was he having second thoughts now that Hawke was in? In fact, Fraser was being given a vice-regal runaround. At 3pm, Stephen told Fraser he required more information about the deadlock between the houses. Agreement for the election didn’t come until around 5pm. Those few hours were the most significant moments in Sir Ninian Stephen’s term as Governor-General.
Fraser was finally able to front the media just after 5pm. This is an extract:
- Malcolm Fraser press conference, Feb 3, 1983 (9m)
- This is how the Channel 9 news reported events on the 6pm News:
- The Blood On Your Hands Interview – This is the famous interview involving the ABC’s Richard Carleton and Bob Hawke, just hours after Hawke ascended to the leadership following Bill Hayden’s resignation.
- …and a video extract:
- This is the complete edition of Nationwide if you want to see the Hawke-Carleton exchange in context – it includes appearances by Ian MacPhee, Don Chipp, Simon Crean and Gough Whitlam (41m):
- This is the audio of the complete edition of Nationwide (41m):
This is the front page of The Age in Melbourne on February 4, 1983:
During the campaign, the Liberals tried to portray Hawke as an inexperienced blow-in. Spot some well-known faces in this advertisement:
- 1983 Liberal Party election advertisement (5m)
But it was all too late. Fraser was on the back foot from day one. The Ash Wednesday fires derailed his campaign and Fraser became steadily more erratic as the campaign wound on.
At one media appearance, Fraser was asked about the economic future under a Labor government. In one of his more strident denunciations of the ALP, Fraser said that if a Labor government was elected people would be better off keeping their money under the bed.
- This is Hawke’s response:
At the National Press Club on March 1, four days before the election, Fraser attacked Laurie Oakes over his reporting, whilst another journalist suggested one of Fraser’s responses was “bullshit”.
- Listen to Fraser and Oakes:
On election night, Fraser conceded defeat in a brief statement, complete with quivering lip and an immediate resignation from the House of Representatives. He was then the nation’s second longest-serving prime minister. Hawke would eventually ease him out of that position.
- Listen to Fraser’s concession statement:
Hawke gave a magnanimous victory statement. Note the reference to Tasmania, the only state to swing against the ALP, mainly because of the Franklin Dam issue.
- Listen to Hawke:
A little-seen press conference Hawke held on that election night is worth viewing for the insight it gives into how Hawke intended to govern.
- Watch Hawke’s 1983 election-night press conference (11m)
On the morning after the election, the outgoing Treasurer, John Howard, commented on the election outcome and was asked about his own leadership ambitions. The Liberal Party chose Andrew Peacock as its leader and Howard had to wait two more years and another election before he got the job.
- Listen to Howard: