Inside Story

Imelda Marcos’s videotapes

… and other encounters with Bill Hayden, foreign minister 1983–88

Mark Baker 24 October 2023 1112 words

Regional vision: Hayden at Sydney airport in September 1987. Victor Colin Sumner/Sydney Morning Herald

In early 1986, not long after the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, Australia’s foreign minister Bill Hayden made a hastily arranged trip to Manila to engage with the new regime. One of his first stops was at Malacañang Palace, from whence the kleptocrats had fled before the place was stormed by jubilant pro-democracy protesters.

Often acerbic and sometimes irascible in public, Hayden had a fine sense of humour, a passion for political intrigue and a liking for journalists. As Geoff Kitney noted in a tribute in the Australian Financial Review, he loved to hear and trade gossip, preferably salacious.

After a tour of the private quarters of Ferdinand and Imelda that day in 1986, Hayden emerged to present us newshounds with a global scoop. Imelda might have been famous for her vast wardrobe of shoes, but she also had another collecting passion. Her rooms, he gleefully reported, contained a formidable stash of pornographic cassette tapes.

Hayden is mostly remembered as the Labor leader whose keys to The Lodge were snatched by Bob Hawke; as the fleeting but steadying treasurer in the last inglorious days of the Whitlam government; and as a principal architect of Medicare and the landmark economic reforms of the 1980s. He should also be celebrated as one of Australia’s most determined and effective foreign ministers.

When he fell on his sword, enabling Hawke’s unstoppable ascendancy to the Labor leadership to go unchallenged on the cusp of the 1983 federal election, Hayden had already anointed Paul Keating as the next treasurer and instead took foreign affairs as his consolation prize.

In his five years in the job, he would lay the groundwork for a peace settlement in Cambodia, strengthen the campaign against South Africa’s apartheid regime during Australia’s tenure on the UN Security Council and weather a period of bruising conflict with France over nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll, the Rainbow Warrior scandal and Paris’s intransigence on self-determination for its Polynesian subjects. He worked hard to build closer and deeper ties between Australia and its Asian and Pacific neighbours.

Hayden brought a stubborn determination and moral clarity to a job that saw him open talks over Cambodia with Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong in defiance of the United States, face down French bullying, and oversee a sensitive review of the ANZUS treaty. Through it all, he consistently spoke out in defence of what he saw to be Australia’s best interests.

In the same year as his visit to Manila, Hayden embarked on a grand tour of the nations of the South Pacific — if a two-week island-hopping expedition aboard an ageing Royal Australian Air Force Hawker Siddeley turboprop aircraft can be considered grand. At Funafuti, the tiny main island of Tuvalu, I vividly remember the plane almost getting bogged on the short grassy runway.

I missed another of the ports of call. The night before departure, a greatly amused Bill Hayden announced to his entourage over drinks, “We’re all off to Tonga tomorrow, but not Mr Baker, who has been declared persona non grata!” This is the first I knew of a ban imposed after I had detailed the extravagant lifestyle of the feudal court in Nuku‘alofa during an earlier visit to Tonga.

I rejoined the caravan in time for Western Samoa. On a free day, the travellers set off with togs and towels to a beautiful but treacherous beach on the north of the main island. To the consternation of his retinue, Hayden ignored the warnings, dived straight into the surf and swam far out to sea. Mercifully, Harold Holt’s fate was not replicated.

During the trip there was some engagement between the travelling journalists and the locals that went beyond the conventional scope of diplomatic intercourse. Hayden revelled in the gossip. At his first press conference at Old Parliament House after returning to Canberra he began by serenading one of the journalists with a variation on “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Hayden was also notorious for collecting outsized souvenirs on his global travels, many of them of dubious artistic merit. It was said that the garden of his Ipswich home was a Disneyland of kitsch, many of the pieces acquired on his travels around the world.

During a visit to Papua New Guinea Hayden alarmed his advisers by taking a particular shine to a large garamut, a slit drum fashioned from a tree trunk, that he spotted in the garden of the Mount Hagen hotel where his party was staying. Such was his enthusiasm that the hotel owner appeared to feel compelled to offer it as a gift to his distinguished guest.

The minders and the media — and perhaps the hotelier — concluded there was little risk of the gift being accepted given its great size and weight. Not so. By early the next morning it had been loaded aboard the VIP jet and found its way back to Ipswich via RAAF Amberley.

Throughout the tribulations and triumphs of his long political career, Hayden’s devotion to Dallas, his wife of sixty-two years, was a constant. In 1987 he was poised to travel to the frontline states of southern Africa at the height of the campaign against apartheid. It was a trip at the heart of Hayden’s determination to see an end to the racist regime in Pretoria — with the bonus of some exotic sightseeing and the chance to augment the Ipswich artefact collection. Days before departure, Dallas suffered a mental health episode and without hesitation Hayden cancelled the trip to stay with her while she recovered.

Among many fine tributes paid to Hayden in recent days was one by Laurie Oakes, former doyen of the Canberra press gallery. “They don’t come much better than Bill Hayden,” Oakes tweeted. “He would have made a great PM. Inheriting Bill’s policies and the people he’d put in key roles gave Hawke a head start. A politician in the finest Labor tradition. Humble, decent, clever, game as they come, Bill’s contribution was immense.”

Prime minister Anthony Albanese singled out Hayden’s achievements as foreign minister for particular praise: “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.”

Had that vision been embraced and effectively driven by all of those who followed Hayden as foreign minister, Australia might not be struggling with some of the formidable challenges it now faces with its neighbours, not least in the South Pacific. •