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Robert James Lee Hawke, Prime Minister of Australia from 1983 to 1991 passed away on 16 May 2019. His passing in the year that APEC celebrates its 30th anniversary provides a timely opportunity to reflect on one its founder’s intent. Typical of his sense of humor, when asked to reflect on APEC’s achievements and future role at the 13th PECC General Meeting in Manila in 1999, he quipped ‘I come to the task with a certain amount of pride for, while many people played a significant role in the emergence of APEC, I guess that if a paternity suit were launched I would be the prime suspect.’
Hawke studied at the University of Western Australia and University College, Oxford. In 1956 he joined the Australian Council of Trade Unions and was elected as its president in 1969. He was first elected as a Labor MP in 1980 and went on to lead the party to victory in the 1983 election.
It was through a speech given on 31 January 1989 to the Korean business community in Seoul that Hawke outlined what would eventually become APEC. In that speech he provided his rationale for an Asia-Pacific inter-governmental organization stating that serious cracks are appearing in the international trading system which have major implications for the future health of both our region and the world economy:
A few minor word changes to those paragraphs and those cracks could well describe the situation today. The system did not break and his initiative played a fundamental and often underappreciated role in filling in those cracks.
In explaining the rationale for APEC, at its first Ministerial Meeting in Canberra, Hawke said “Asia Pacific economic cooperation is, of course, an idea with a history. While proposals for some sort of regional economic forum have been emerging since the 1960s and were achieved in part but without the involvement of governments in any leading role - with the constructive formation in 1980 of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference.” Hawke explained that while “PECC's work has illuminated large areas of common interests within the region. But its informality, which has helped to broaden its membership, has also made it difficult for it to address policy issues which are properly the responsibility of Governments.”
The Seoul speech, while a critical milestone was just a speech. APEC was by no means a guaranteed outcome. Hawke appointed the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Richard Woolcott as his Special Envoy to lead consultations across the region to solicit views on convening a ministerial level meeting. The approach taken perhaps reflects what Allan Gyngell, writing on Hawke’s foreign policy, described as the power of human agency. According to Gyngell “Hawke never doubted his own capacity to persuade. And the secret of persuasion, and of any good negotiation, was to identify the interests of the various players and bring them together in search of common ground.”2 Indeed, returning to Seoul in 2005 for the 16th PECC General Meeting, Hawke said “A fairly long and extensive experience has taught me that in the fascinating race of politics, you rarely lose your money if you back the horse called Self Interest.” This has been the fundamental underpinning of Asia-Pacific cooperation – that cooperation and integration in the region should be undertaken on the basis of each member’s own interest and embodied in APEC’s approach to liberalization – individual action plans.
In 1989 Hawke saw the potential role that the region could play in resolving global issues noting that it generated more than a third of the world’s trade and could soon create half of the world’s output. Today, 30 years later, APEC members account for 60 percent of world output and just under half of global trade. While APEC members may fall short of achieving the Bogor Goals next year in 2020, these are timely reminders that the tremendous growth of the past three decades has come through a commitment to increasingly open economies embodied in and nurtured through APEC.
As we celebrate APEC’s 30th anniversary, Hawke’s own views provide valuable guidance to understand both APEC’s ultimate objectives as well as its value proposition, in his own words “In terms of having a strong and viable Pacific community, we will have a problem if we do not do everything that we can to stabilize political relationships between nations of the region and to avoid the possibility of conflict.”
At the same time, this was not a job he thought leaders should do on their own and called on all members of the community to work together to this end “It is the responsibility of all of us to help our leaders in this great task for there is no doubt that if they are prepared to meet the challenge, we can be on the threshold of the Pacific Century - a century which will bring significantly rising living standards to all the people of our regional and contribute to the possibility of a more stable and progressive world.”3
1 Speech by Prime Minister Hawke at the luncheon of Korean Business Associations: “Regional Cooperation: Challenges for Korea and Australia”, 31 January 1989, http://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/original/00007475.pdf
2 Allan Gyngell, Bob Hawke and Australian foreign policy http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/the-interpreter/bob-hawke-and-australian-foreign-policy
3 Speech at 16th PECC General Meeting, Seoul, 2005, https://pecc.org/resources/regional-cooperation/842-rising-to-the-challenge-creating-the-political-will