In this ‘Out of the Cabinet’ series, Canberra writer Ian Warden immerses himself in the Cabinet records of the 1983 Hawke Government, and highlights policy decisions that captured his imagination. A submission urging Cabinet to make the most of Australia II’s triumph in the America’s Cup piqued his interest, and he explains the link between the famous victory, koalas and Paul Hogan.
On 26 September 1983, Australians all rejoiced, with Prime Minister Bob Hawke our Rejoicer-in-Chief, when Australia became the first country to beat the United States for the most prestigious yachting prize in the world, the America’s Cup.
Hawke Government Cabinet records for 1983 recently released by the National Archives of Australia show the government trying to make tourism capital out of Australia’s triumph.
The Prime Minister’s all-night vigil
The races of the series, with Australia represented by the controversially-keeled Australia II, were held off the east coast of the United States. This meant that Australians who watched that suspenseful final race live on television had to stay up all night.
Sports-mad Bob Hawke was one of those Australians who went without sleep to see Australia II take the Cup. He was the guest of the Royal Perth Yacht Club in the home city of Alan Bond, the millionaire behind Australia’s challenge. Moments after Australia II’s victory Hawke was asked if he thought exhausted and hung-over workers might be sacked for taking a day off. Famously, he chortled to the television cameras that ‘Any employer who sacks an employee for not turning up to work today is a bum!’
Within his government, elected in March that year, Cup euphoria also triggered some quick thinking. Only 10 days after the America’s Cup triumph, Cabinet was presented with an urgent proposal by John Brown, the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism.
Cabinet Submission 454 shows him urging the government to capitalise on the way Australia was temporarily on American minds. He wanted the government to spend, quickly, $5 million on an intensive Australian Tourism Commission advertising campaign to lure US tourists. He enthused that this investment could bring 20,000 more Americans to Australia every year, generating $25 million in revenue and creating 1000 new Australian jobs.
A new US awareness of Australia
The Minister’s submission said getting a wriggle on was vital because, while the America’s Cup had brought a ‘new … widespread awareness of Australia’ among Americans, unless something was done to keep that awareness bubbling it would probably only have ‘a life of around six months’. Cabinet shared his sense of urgency and agreed (with Cabinet Decision 2216) to a special allocation of $2 million.
It was less than the Minister had dreamed of. Perhaps Cabinet’s enthusiasm was cooled a little by some departmental doubts. A killjoy Department of Finance doubted there was anything to capitalise on, and counselled against any splashing-out of new money. It wanted the cautious continuation of the existing frugal ‘low-key’ tourist promotions in the United States. As well, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet thought the private sector tourism industry should share the cost.
The background to the Cabinet activity of October 1983 is that the history of Australian tourism initiatives was by then festooned with only partially successful attempts to interest Americans in Australia as a holiday destination. The potential, the promise, of these tourists always seemed enormous, but was seldom fulfilled. Australian tourism evangelists always battled against American ignorance of Australia.
Miss USA 1959
But Australian tourism champions have always tried. In 1959, the Australian National Travel Association brought the wholesome Miss USA, a 23-year-old Mormon (she swore she had never been kissed) to Australia with American press to snap her with koalas and have her testify what a nice, English-speaking place this was. But Miss USA didn’t achieve any miracles and in 1961 a US Department of Commerce study found Australia was only attracting 6400 visitors a year from a relatively uninterested USA.
In 1977 John Brown went to Disneyland and was appalled to find Australia represented there by just a kangaroo and a koala. He deplored Australia’s koala image, and in April of 1983 said (it sounded blasphemous at the time) that koalas were ‘rotten little things´ that ‘piddled’ on people. So, by October 1983, he was very ready to try some koala-less Australian tourism initiatives.
Were the minister’s October 1983 instincts confirmed? Did the $2 million invested to capitalise on America’s Cup exposure bear the fruit that he thought it would?
Another shrimp on the barbie
Certainly something worked, assisted by the Tourism Commission’s new advertisements starring the charismatic Paul Hogan, first shown on US television the following January. In one of them, ‘Hoges’ was framed by the Sydney Opera House and putting a ‘shrimp’ (an enormous Australian prawn) on the ‘barbie’ and inviting Americans to come and enjoy this kind of everyday Australian hospitality.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that 140,000 US visitors came here in 1983, then 160,000 in 1984, with 196,500 in 1985. In those same years the increases in numbers of overseas visitors from the UK and Europe were unremarkable. The 318,300 American visitors in 1987–88 were almost double those in 1984.
Australia II, John Brown and Hoges may, even without the help of koalas, have worked a kind of tourism magic.