Labor Prime Ministers Since 1970s

Read more here about the achievements of Labor leadership in the early 20th Century.

Below is a summary of some of the major achievements of the Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments.

Whitlam Government (1972-1975)

The 1972 election of the Whitlam Government was a landmark victory for the Labor Party, following 23 years of Coalition rule and policy inertia. Gough Whitlam’s ambitious reforms included initiatives in the fields of education, health, social welfare and urban improvements – always embedding environmental outcomes, prosperity and nation building in its modernising mission. A commitment to increasing women’s workforce participation, via a broad and visionary range of measures, vastly improved the lives and opportunities of Australian women.

Some achievements of the Whitlam Government include:

  • Establishing Medibank, the precursor to Medicare.
  • Creating an Office for Women and equal pay for women in the public service.
  • Social welfare reforms that included the supporting mother’s benefit. (Prior to 1973, only widows were entitled to pension payments.)
  • Introducing Australia’s first federal legislation on human rights, the environment and heritage.
  • Ending conscription and extricating Australia from the Vietnam War.
  • The Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which conferred rights to equality before the law and bound the Commonwealth and the states to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
  • Creation of a separate ministry responsible for Aboriginal affairs and instituting Aboriginal land rights, including handing land title deeds to some Gurindji traditional lands owners in the Northern Territory in 1975.
  • Introducing FM radio and pushing for the creation of 2JJ, to support Australian music and connect with young Australians.
  • Setting up multicultural radio services – 2EA Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne – and issuing licences to community radio stations for the first time.
  • Replacing adversarial divorce laws with a simplified, no-fault system and enacting the Family Law Act, providing for a national Family Court.
  • Establishing the Australian Legal Aid Office, to provide free legal advice to people from disadvantaged backgrounds – especially in key areas such as family law and the Magistrates’ Courts – as well as working with welfare organisations and community groups.
  • Establishing the Australian Law Reform Commission.
  • Education reforms that included needs-based funding for schools and free university education, as well as introducing financial assistance for eligible students (via the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme).
  • Free university education led to a 25 per cent increase in higher education enrolments in the three years of Whitlam’s government, with women the main beneficiaries.
  • Foreign policies that established Australia as a middle power, leading the world in diplomatic and trade relations with China, aiming to redefine the alliance with the U.S., and granting independence to PNG.
  • Establishing the Australian Development Assistance Agency, to support the economic, environmental, social and political development of developing countries.
  • Barring racially discriminatory sports teams from Australia.
  • Instructing the Australian delegation at the United Nations to vote in favour of sanctions on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.
  • Establishing the National Film and Television School, the Australian Film Commission, and the Australia Council for the Arts.
  • Launching construction of the National Gallery of Australia.
  • Establishing the Prices Justification Tribunal and the Trade Practices Commission (forerunners to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission).
  • Establishing the Technical and Further Education Commission (a national employment and training program).
  • Establishing the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Heritage Commission.
  • Removing ‘luxury’ taxes on contraceptives.
  • Welfare payments for homeless people.
  • Introducing the Trade Practices Act.
  • Opening the Australian economy to the world by slashing tariff barriers by 25 per cent across the board.
  • Reducing the voting age to 18 and providing the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory with representation in the Senate.
  • Creating a single Department of Defence, rather than separate Departments for Army, Navy and Air.
  • Changing the national anthem to Advance Australia Fair and replacing the British Honours system with the Order of Australia.
  • Replacing the Postmaster-General’s Department with Telecom and Australia Post.
  • Introducing legislation to create The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a world first, allowing the citizenry to challenge administrative decisions made on their behalf by government, in matters such as taxation.
  • Abolishing the death penalty for Commonwealth offences. These reforms also led to 2010 federal legislation prohibiting the reinstatement of capital punishment in all Australian states and territories.
  • Establishing the Australian Assistance Plan to fund regional councils and employment projects, which persists in the concepts of ‘social planning’ and ‘community development’.
  • Building vital infrastructure, including funding the National Sewerage Program to connect suburban homes to sewerage.
  • Embedding environment in planning processes and building ways to assess, regulate and enforce environmental controls. Whitlam appointed Australia's second Federal Environment Minister, Moss Cass, and the country's first Urban Planning Minister, Tom Uren.
  • The nation's first Environmental Impact Inquiry established that sand mining on Queensland's Fraser Island was untenable.

Hawke Government (1983-1991)

Bob Hawke led Labor’s return to office in the 1983 election, and to a record four terms, with subsequent election wins in 1984, 1987 and 1990. He is the longest-serving Labor Prime Minister, and the third-longest serving Australian leader. The key focuses of the Hawke Government were globalisation, micro-economic reform and industrial relations. Lasting achievements include floating the Australian dollar, dismantling tariffs and deregulating the banking system to assist in the expansion of the national economy. Other successes included the establishment of Medicare, Landcare, a landmark wages accord with the unions, the Family Assistance Scheme, superannuation schemes for all workers, legislation against gender discrimination in the workplace, wildlife conservation and a focus on Aboriginal Affairs.

Some achievements of the Hawke Government include:

  • Outlawing sex discrimination in the workplace via implementation of the Sex Discrimination Act.
  • Passing the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986; most recently updated as the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012.
  • Launching Medicare, and bringing the scheme into line with the Medibank model originally introduced by Gough Whitlam (but partially dismantled by Malcolm Fraser's Liberal government).
  • Passing the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983, saving the Franklin River from being dammed, and protecting the Daintree, Kakadu and Tasmanian World Heritage Area.
  • A reformation of the native forest industry that saw the most important old growth stands across the country protected.
  • Banning new uranium mining at Jabiluka, on the western border of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
  • Floating the Australian dollar, allowing the international money market to set the exchange rate (later credited with helping Australia avoid the impacts of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.)
  • Releasing the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal prisoners between 1980 and 1989. The 11-volume report included 339 recommendations.
  • Opening the Australian economy to global competition; allowing the operation of foreign-owned banks, selling the state-owned Commonwealth Bank of Australia, removing controls on foreign exchange and Australian interest rates and opening Australia to competition in the telecommunications industry.
  • Founding the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, with 21 Pacific Rim Members, to promote participation and growth in the region.
  • Signing The Accord: A historical agreement between unions, employers and government, lifting the living wage and improving social services for workers and their families. The Accord also resulted in fewer industrial disputes, and access to superannuation.
  • Industrial relations policies involving award restructuring and the introduction of enterprise bargaining.
  • The appointment of the first Indigenous person to head a Commonwealth department, when Charles Perkins became Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Establishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC); the result of a merger between the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development Commission.
  • Establishing the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, responding to widespread concern about disposal of radioactive substances, the effects of exposure to radiation, and the impact on traditional owners’ use of their lands.
  • Establishing a national framework for power.
  • Making Australian law independent of British parliaments and courts and abolishing remaining provisions for appeals from Australian courts to the Privy Council in London.
  • Adoption of Advance Australia Fair as Australia's national anthem by the Governor-General in 1984, on Hawke’s advice (following a decade of debate, a national opinion poll in 1974 and a plebiscite in 1977).
  • Official recognition of green and gold as Australia's national colours.

Keating Government (1991-1996)

In 1993, Paul Keating led Labor to a historic fifth term of Government and continued with a progressive reform program that included measures to boost national savings and reduce unemployment. Focus turned to expanding trade relations and fostering new alliances with Australia’s Asia-Pacific neighbours, while developing a vision of the nation’s future as a republic of equal citizens, not bound by old ties to Britain. Other key achievements of the Keating Government included a review of the Sex Discrimination Act; reconciliation through formal recognition of the land rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and new legislation to ensure protection of endangered species.

Some achievements of the Keating Government include:

  • The One Nation program of infrastructure development, income tax cuts and jobs creation, to stimulate the economy and provide the foundation for future development.
  • The Australian National Training Authority Act established an agency to coordinate training opportunities, increase workforce skills and provide for a youth training wage.
  • The National Superannuation Scheme implemented to address Australia's long-term problem of chronically low national savings aimed at ensuring that most Australians would have enough money to retire.
  • The Superannuation Guarantee Act requiring employers to make contributions on behalf of their employees to a complying super fund, with contributions increasing over the following decade from 3 per cent to 9 per cent.
  • The Redfern Speech, delivered by Keating in December 1992, marked the first time a Prime Minister acknowledged the profound injustice and disadvantage suffered by Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
  • The Native Title Act was Australia’s first national native title legislation, enabling Indigenous Australians to claim rights to certain land because of their traditional laws and customs.
  • Establishing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund and Indigenous Land Corporation. 
  • A major push, led by Keating, for the expansion and strengthening of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum.
  • A bilateral security agreement with Indonesia.
  • The Endangered Species Protection Act, providing for the protection of endangered species and the establishment of ecological communities. 
  • The Creative Nation policy, increasing financial support for the arts and linking the culture sector more directly to national economic prosperity. 
  • The Disability Discrimination Act 1992, providing a uniform base for the elimination of employment discrimination against disabled people. 

Rudd Government (2007-2010 and 2013)

In 2007, Kevin Rudd led Labor to a landslide election victory, defeating the long-serving Liberal-National Government led by John Howard. The new Labor government wasted no time taking action on climate change through ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and distinguished itself in delivering the first national apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples for the Stolen Generations and by committing to ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Major reforms were set in motion in domestic policy areas including health, education, industrial relations, social security and infrastructure. The Rudd Government was also widely acknowledged for its sound management of the Global Financial Crisis; including planning an economic stimulus package that saw Australia become the only major developed economy ­– among 33 nations surveyed by the IMF – to avoid a recession.

Some achievements of the Rudd Government include:

  • Signing the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by UN member countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions; something the Howard Government had declined to do for 10 years.
  • Establishing the National Broadband Network (NBN).
  • An ambitious schools reform agenda, to improve quality of teaching and infrastructure as well as lift achievement in disadvantaged schools, via the Digital Education Revolution and Building the Education Revolution programs.
  • Passing the Fair Work Act and removing the WorkChoices program; a prominent reform of John Howard’s government that had cost workers’ conditions, including penalty rates and overtime, and made them vulnerable to unfair dismissal.
  • Withdrawing Australian troops from the Iraq War.
  • Closing the skills gap through increased vocational education and training.
  • Increasing the first home buyers’ grant.
  • Challenging and ending abuses by the banks.
  • An Australian bank deposit guarantee, to ensure no depositor in an Australian bank could lose their money.
  • Prime Minister Rudd’s formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, in particular the Stolen Generations, for the 'profound grief, suffering and loss' caused by past policies, including the policies of removing children from their families and Indigenous assimilation.
  • A strategy to achieve economic security amid the growing Global Financial Crisis, via an emergency spending plan, with payments totalling more than $8 billion for pensioners, families, first home buyers and training.
  • An economic stimulus package to address the Global Financial Crisis, with expenditure of some $75 billion on a nation-building recovery plan that included a public works construction program and federal guarantee of bank deposits.
  • A $42 billion nation-building and jobs plan, to further avoid recession, that included free ceiling insulation, school building projects, local community infrastructure and roads, payments to families and students, as well as business investment tax breaks.
  • Demonstrating leadership at the UN General Assembly on the vital importance of urgent worldwide action on climate change.
  • Initiatives to enhance public participation in government – including a 'travelling Cabinet' with meetings held around Australia, and the 2020 Australia Summit; where 1000 participants gathered at Parliament House in April 2008, to generate ideas and strategies in key areas such as climate change, water, international security, health and Indigenous affairs.
  • By signing the historic Close the GapStatement of Intent on 20 March 2008, Rudd committed the government to achieving health equality in a way that respects the rights of Indigenous people.
  • Environmental protections that include building the largest network of Marine National Parks in the world, setting Australia on the path to a low carbon future, and protecting 170,000 ha of Tasmania's forests as World Heritage Area.

Gillard Government (2010-2013)

Julia Gillard has the distinction of being Australia’s first and only woman Prime Minister, overseeing a highly productive term in which 570 bills were passed by the Senate. Key achievements include the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the child abuse royal commission, creating an emissions trading scheme, education funding and reform, improving the provision and sustainability of health care, aged care and dental care, and paid parental leave. Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’, as well as her tenure as the nation’s first woman prime minister, changed the ways that politics and sexism were talked about in Australia, and heightened awareness of the need to address parliamentary and other workplace cultures.

Some achievements of the Gillard Government include:

  • Full implementation of the National Broadband Network (NBN), with the goal of delivering high-speed internet access across the nation.
  • The Clean Energy Act 2011, addressing global warning by establishing a three-year period of fixed carbon pricing – to reduce emissions – followed by an Australian emissions trading scheme (ETS).
  • A major reform of disability services that established the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), to offer publicly-funded, individualised support for people with permanent and significant disability, their families and carers. 
  • Education reform legislation, arising from the recommendations of a review led by David Gonski, to provide 'needs-based' funding, with a benchmarked amount of funding for each student and additional funding for disadvantaged students.
  • The creation of a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with a scope including religious organisations, schools and clubs, state care providers and not-for-profit bodies, as well as the responses of child service agencies and the police to allegations and instances of abuse.
  • As a measure to deter Australians from smoking, plain packaging laws were introduced – the first in the world – to reduce the attractiveness of cigarette packaging and make health warnings more salient. 
  • An apology by Prime Minister Gillard on behalf of the Australian Government, to people affected by forced adoption or removal policies and practices.
  • The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) – a tax on the ‘super profits’ from the mining of non-renewable resources in Australia, payable when a company’s annual profits reach $75 million. It aimed to develop a more diverse economy that would prosper beyond the mining boom, redistributing profits to more vulnerable sections of the economy.
  • In federal-state relations, productive negotiation of health reform was undertaken with the conservative premiers.
  • A foreign affairs focus on strengthening relations with Australia’s major partners –particularly China and the US – as well as upgrading ties with India, and deepening ties with Japan, Indonesia and South Korea.
  • Australia’s election to serve on the United Nations Security Council.
  • In response to Opposition calls for speaker Peter Slipper to stand down over a series of text messages, Gillard delivered what has become known as the 'misogyny speech' in Parliament.