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Labor’s golden boy who transformed a nation

Robert James Lee Hawke: December 9, 1929 – May 16, 2019

There were the four federal election victories and the distinction of being Labor’s longest-serving prime minister but Bob Hawke transcended politics and came to personify a certain sort of Australian who, while rooted in the federation, gazed steadfastly to the future.

He was unusual for a politician. In a profession in which the appearance of certitude is a prerequisite, he introduced Australians to the new idea that human frailty was neither contemptible or to be feared.

Bob Hawke portrait, 2016.

Bob Hawke portrait, 2016.Credit:Nic Walker

It was Hawke’s luck to oversee an extraordinarily optimistic time in Australian history. The economy self-righted thanks to his policies, the nation started to take its place on the world stage, the bulge of baby boomers began to get their hands on the levers of power and, like an older brother from the Depression, Hawke led them into a golden time.

Robert James Lee Hawke was born on December 9, 1929, at Bordertown, South Australia, the second son of Congregational minister Clem Hawke and his wife, Ellie (nee Lee), a former teacher. His elder brother Neil died in 1939 and the family moved to the West.

Hawke attended the selective Perth Modern School, where fellow students included the now disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, public servant-cum-politician John Stone and playwright Alan Seymour. At 17 he began a law/arts degree at the University of Western Australia. His first-year studies were interrupted by serious injury in a crash on his Panther motorbike. His spleen was removed and the family faced the loss of their second son as he hovered between life and death.

His survival was regarded by his parents as proof of Ellie’s premonition when pregnant that the child inside her was destined for a special life. “I firmly believed that God had spared my life,” he wrote in The Hawke Memoirs (1995). “I determined to live my life to the full extent of my abilities, to push myself to the limit … it was not a question of spiritual rebirth but a conviction that I had been granted a new life.”

There were strong family links to Australian Labor Party so joining the party came naturally. Leadership skills surfaced early too, both in local church groups, and on the sporting field. At university he became SRC president. Some of the conflicting Hawke traits Australians came to know were captured by his wife-to-be Blanche d’Alpuget, in her famous 1982 biography: “On the one side there was the gregarious student leader, the sexually experienced beer garden king who when indignant would throw punches. On the other was the minister’s son who abhorred violence, who went to church on Sundays, was a deacon, taught Sunday school and helped to organise wholesome holiday camps and hymn-singing social evenings”.

Hawke graduated in 1953 with an arts/law degree. That same year he attended a world conference of Christian youth in Kerala, India and his experiences of wealth amid poverty there seemed to shock the Christianity out of him. He kept mum about it. The media, however, continued erroneously to swathe him in Christianity long into his career as a national entity.

Hawke had became engaged to Hazel Masterton during his university years. They met as teenagers in the Congregational Youth Fellowship and were to endure a Biblically-long six-year engagement for he left for Oxford University in December 1953 as Western Australia’s Rhodes scholar. It was here that Hawke racked up perhaps his most publicised achievement: he set a Guinness Book of Records mark, downing 2.5 imperial pints of beer – equivalent to a yard of ale – in 11 seconds.

He graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Letters – schooled in economics – and returned to Australia in 1956. In March he married his sweetheart and the couple moved to Canberra where he began (and failed to finish) a doctorate at the Australian National University. The first of three children, Susan, was born and the family shifted to Melbourne after Hawke obtained a researcher/advocate post with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Another two children, Stephen and Rosslyn, arrived. A fourth, Robert Jnr, died shortly after his birth in 1963. A baby had been aborted during the couple’s courtship in 1952 so Hawke could go to Oxford.

Bob Hawke and Hazel, engagement photos.

Bob Hawke and Hazel, engagement photos.

A union star

When he returned from Oxford, Hawke had asked his uncle, Albert Hawke, the then WA premier, about a seat in Parliament. But his first attempt, a failed tilt in 1963, was for the federal seat of Corio (based in the provincial city of Geelong) against Liberal incumbent, Menzies minister and revered cycling champion Hubert Opperman.

During his decade as ACTU advocate, Hawke became a lion of the trade union movement. He lost plenty of times but when he won the wages of Australian workers (and PNG) rose.

By the time he was elected president of the ACTU in 1969 he had become used to rubbing shoulders with the powerful and the rich, and frequent appearances on nightly news programs outside wage case hearings had created a user-friendly public profile that eluded other trade unionists and ALP parliamentary leaders of the time.

President of the A.C.T.U. Mr Bob Hawke addresses rally outside Parliament House, 1975.

President of the A.C.T.U. Mr Bob Hawke addresses rally outside Parliament House, 1975.Credit:SMH

But the drinking, philandering and carousing at the John Curtin Hotel across Lygon Street from the ACTU headquarters in the Melbourne Trades Hall, and his inability to let go of work, were to have devastating and lingering effects on his wife and children.

Hawke worked hard to hide his harsher elements. By 1971, he was named Father of the Year, led the union anti-apartheid charge against the South African Springboks rugby tour, was honoured by Israel and flew to Moscow to negotiate getting “refusenik” Jews out of Russia. His growing popularity also saw him play a visible role in Gough Whitlam’s successful campaign to win office in 1972. The following year he was elected federal president of the ALP.

Three years later, in mid-1975, with the Whitlam government on the nose and with “The Dismissal” just three months away, Hawke was flattered into admitting during a television interview that he would give up drinking if he was to become parliamentary leader. Whitlam retorted Hawke’s upstart arrogance, saying, “I intend to turn over a new leaf and undertake steady drinking from now”.

Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam enjoy a poolside beer at the ALP Conference, Terrigal, 1975.

Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam enjoy a poolside beer at the ALP Conference, Terrigal, 1975. Credit:SMH

In a glimpse of the born to rule mentality that came to infest Labor power brokers, Whitlam offered Hawke the ALP leadership after his 1975 election defeat though it was not his to bestow. Hawke declined but his vaulting ambition was in sync with pub talk around the country. Whitlam led Labor to increasing unpopularity and another election loss.

Meanwhile, Hawke’s ability to resolve, rather than escalate, industrial relations conflicts turned him into a sort of unofficial Labor leader. It was said Hawke inherited his high concept of democratic consensus from his father who had striven in his Congregational ministry to follow the rule of working at differences to reach democratic consensus.

Hawke delivered ABC radio’s Boyer Lectures in 1979. His topic? “The resolution of conflict”. But the real surprise of the series was his decision to publicly move away from his past and declare himself agnostic.

His mother died in 1979, and after suffering a physical collapse Hawke got back on the wagon. An opinion poll put him ahead of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Opposition Leader Bill Hayden as preferred prime minister. Hawke’s parliamentary career had become a matter of urgency. The safe Labor northern Melbourne electorate of Wills was a left-wing fiefdom but the looming retirement of the venerable Gordon Bryant gave Labor power brokers an opportunity to stitch up a factional deal and present Hawke with an assured preselection win over the left’s Gerry Hand, 38-29.

Immediately following the October 1980 election Hayden put Hawke on the front bench. He was named Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Employment and Youth. Hayden, widely respected as the architect of Medicare and for having come close in the election just gone, was nevertheless no match for Fraser’s bull-like strength and cat cunning.

Besides, his leadership was continually undermined by Hawke’s soaring popularity. Australian politics waited for the showdown. It came in July 1982 when Hayden called on a leadership ballot and won – by five votes. It was not enough to stop the Hawke juggernaut.

Labor drifted while the pair shaped up again. Hayden’s failure to achieve much more than a miserably small swing in a December 4 byelection for the Victorian seat of Flinders sealed his fate. The end came just after the summer holidays, on February 3, 1983 before a meeting of the shadow ministry in Brisbane, when Hayden’s close friend, the Victorian Senator John Button, despite his distaste for Hawke’s show pony ego, told the Queenslander with regret he should fall on his sword. Hayden obliged, saying bitterly “a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory at the present time”.

Hours earlier, Fraser, hoping to capitalise on Labor’s brawl and unaware that Hayden was yesterday’s hero, called an early election for March 5. It was the first of many mistakes Fraser made in the campaign that followed.

Days later, Hawke was unanimously elected Labor leader. He won the March 5 election in a landslide, the greatest Labor victory since 1943. Labor won 75 House of Representatives seats and reduced the Coalition to 40.

Bob Hawke delivers his election policy speech at Sydney Opera House. February 16, 1983.

Bob Hawke delivers his election policy speech at Sydney Opera House. February 16, 1983. Credit:SMH

Reshaping Australia

Hawke and his treasurer Paul Keating set about creating a new economic order. He broke with Labor tradition, creating an inner Cabinet and an outer ministry, and a month after taking office got political parties, unions and employers to attend a National Economics Summit aimed at a national consensus on economic policy.

That meeting, together with a Prices and Income Accord agreed to by unions, a Tax Summit, the Economic Advisory Council and Australian Labor Advisory Council, provided a new foundation that changed the way business was done in Australia and accommodated workers and employers.

Strikes abated, Australians got an increased social wage and superannuation, and in December Cabinet decided to float the Australian dollar, a game changer for which Hawke and Keating both claimed credit. The Fraser government’s $9 billion deficit had imposed economic doldrums but Hawke’s reforms cranked the country up so it could roar when the 1980s boom sounded.

Nobody knew at the time that Australia was poised for serious prosperity. Perhaps the bell sounded symbolically in September 1983 when the Perth businessman Alan Bond won the America’s Cup and gave Australia its moon landing moment. Hawke, who had joined the rest of the country and stayed up all night to watch the final race at Royal Perth Yacht Club, was filmed by television cameras saying words that were to echo down the years as his most famous pronouncement: “I tell you what, any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.”

Alan Bond with Bob Hawke. Celebrating the America's Cup win, 1983.

Alan Bond with Bob Hawke. Celebrating the America’s Cup win, 1983.

Hawke’s enduring affinity with ordinary Australians was helped by his private obsession with sport. A champion sportsman as a young man in Perth, throughout his years in public office he was rarely far from a horse racing form guide. The Prime Minister’s XI versus the Parliamentary Press Gallery XI match in 1984 was memorable for Hawke playing a hook shot into his face and smashing his glasses. Few politicians could have matched such reckless chutzpah; besides, Hawke returned to the crease to lead his side to victory. People knew he had a genuine, knowledgeable and inspired appreciation for Australian endeavours on diverse sporting fields.

Those around his Cabinet table knew him as a leader who was neither dull or indolent. But he was also accommodating of others’ frailties and shortcomings, patiently allowing colleagues to fully canvass concerns when his mind had been decided well in advance.

Sometimes sport and politics were as one to Hawke: In the 1987 federal election, with Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ill-judged “Joh for PM” campaign all but cruelling Coalition Leader John Howard’s chances, the two men were campaigning in Victoria’s old goldfields. Early one Monday morning the Australian Pat Cash downed Czechoslovakian Ivan Lendl in the Wimbledon men’s final.

In a Ballarat motel Howard spent the telecast asleep beside his wife Janette. Hawke stayed up watching the tennis with the press corps in Bendigo’s Shamrock Hotel. His effusive cheering of the Australian’s victory was all over breakfast television programs. The now-defunct Melbourne afternoon Herald‘s front page story carried the headline “Cash beats Czech”. On the press bus, the Sun-Herald‘s Canberra correspondent, the late Neil O’Reilly, saw the headline and offered a droll alternative: “Hawke takes credit”.

It was during the 1987 election campaign that Hawke uttered his other most famous bon mot: “By 1990 no Australian child will live in poverty.” It was an off-script election promise he was unable to keep and came to regret.

Over the years Hawke had developed close friendships with the very rich and very powerful, men like transport magnate Peter Abeles and the leading Zionists Isi and Mark Leibler, magnates whose business interests ran close to government policy. Unsurprisingly, Labor left-wingers – from whose ranks Hawke had defected years earlier – thought Hawke’s friendships emblematic of a party moved to the right.

Hawke’s developing habit of suing media outlets for libel became a handy little earner. Hapless journalists dispatched to his Sandringham home of a Sunday afternoon were routinely greeted by a semi-naked (or sometimes naked) Hawke who would precede to dictate comments for the next day’s newspaper while swimming in the pool he invariably boasted was paid for by “Flinders Street” or “Spencer Street” (the now defunct Melbourne Herald or The Age respectively). Hawke remained quick with the writ, reputedly collecting significant sums in settlements while prime minister.

Yet Hawke’s era was so rife with economic change that in retrospect it shapes as some kind of reform golden time. Not only was the dollar floated, but banking was deregulated, the two-airline policy abolished, tariffs reduced to 5 per cent and phasing out of textile, clothing, footwear and motor vehicle protection introduced. Centralised wage bargaining ended and a regional economic co-operation forum established.

Australia’s industrial relations landscape was altered substantially by strikes by electricity board workers in southern Queensland and abattoir workers at Mudginberri in the Northern Territory that went so wrong that the union movement under ACTU leader Bill Kelty decided the only future lay in larger unions.

Environmental issues loomed like never before in Australian history. Early in his government, Hawke had used the “external affairs power” to decisively intervene and save Tasmania’s Franklin River from being dammed. He also enacted world heritage legislation and put Tasmania’s forests, far north Queensland’s rainforests and the Kakadu National park on the list.

In the area of social issues, Hawke took some steps towards reconciliation, replacing the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The handing over of Uluru, formerly Ayers Rock, to local landowners in the face of virulent opposition from the NT conservative government was also regarded as of great practical and symbolic significance. The Sex Discrimination Act made gender discrimination in workplaces illegal and an Affirmative Action Agency was established after Senator Susan Ryan was appointed minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women.

A tense political marriage

Much of the era’s achievement may not have been possible without what another prime minister, Julia Gillard, termed years later as the “bittersweet partnership” between Hawke and Keating. In the collective memory of the time, the pair are forever joined at the hip and together they powered through four elections.

In them, they were assisted by ongoing rivalry between Liberals Andrew Peacock and John Howard.

Peacock did rather well in 1984, given that Hawke’s opinion poll ratings topped 70 per cent. Three years later, Hawke easily did down John Howard in a long winter campaign thanks mainly to the Coalition leader being undermined by the Queensland premier, Bjelke-Petersen.

Peacock was back for the 1990 election and it turned out a close run thing with Hawke’s victory attributed to the government’s environment policies being rewarded by preference flows from Australian Democrat and young “greenie” voters.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating at the ALP Conference in 1988.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating at the ALP Conference in 1988.Credit:SMH

Recession in the early 1990s unravelled some of the economic gains and popularity of both the government and Hawke. Keating’s ambition had been festering for years yet the pair continued playing the media for mugs – for instance, for the first edition of the new Sunday Age newspaper in 1989 the pair posed obligingly as great mates for a front page exclusive. But it was all surface. The previous year, in what became known as the “Kirribilli agreement” at the prime minister’s Sydney residence, Peter Abeles and Bill Kelty witnessed a deal between the pair on leadership succession.

In mid-1991, Keating claimed Hawke had reneged on the agreement and challenged. He lost and retired to the backbench. Hawke suddenly looked unclothed for the first time, a point brought home when the new Liberal leader John Hewson released his “Fightback!” economic reform package and Labor appeared unable to counter it.

Just as Australians had waited for Hawke to run down Hayden a decade before, Keating’s inexorable return finally came on December 19 when Labor dumped Hawke 51-56. It was an undignified exit for such a successful leader. In an emotional press conference the night he lost the prime ministership, Hawke said of all the people in the Labor Party, he knew the Australian electorate best, a clear hex on his vanquisher. Regardless, Keating went on to win “the unwinnable” 1993 election. But each had exhausted the another. Their whole was greater than the sum of their parts.

Hawke resigned from Parliament the following February. An independent, Phil Cleary, took his Labor heartland seat of Wills.

Legacy

After politics, academia embraced him and Hawke’s business contacts served him well. There were consultancies doing business in China and the Middle East, and a betting agency in Vanuatu. Honorary doctorates and fellowships showered down to complement the Companion of the Order of Australia.

An OA came in 2010, the same year the Ten Network made a television film, Hawke. It was a soap opera. But then Hawke’s real life was not far removed from soap opera.

At the dawn of the age of celebrity, he was one of the first Australian political leaders to step outside the paradigm. Hawke innately understood that in order to succeed he had to become public property. During his ACTU days, he assiduously supplemented a public image as the great mediator and conciliator with frequent appearances by his family in magazines and on television.

As prime minister, he made cameo appearances on television shows and presented the 1984 Gold Logie. He cried about his daughter Rosslyn’s drug involvement after a 1985 story in the National Times newspaper reported that his other daughter, Sue, had a drugs conviction that by now had been overturned on appeal. He cried for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989. Earlier that year he was in tears confessing marital infidelity.

Hawke’s celebrity came at a time when society’s leaders started behaving like rock stars.

In 1976, Hawke started an affair with writer Blanche D’Alpuget. Two years later he proposed. The relationship stalled and Hawke stayed with his wife Hazel for the good of his prime ministerial aspirations. “‘Divorce could cost Labor three per cent,’ he had fretted several times, back when this was an issue for us,” D’Alpuget wrote years later. “As it turned out, he made the right decision: for himself, for me, for his family, for mine, for his party – and, as became obvious, for the nation.” But the non-couple collaborated on her admiring 1982 biography Robert J. Hawke, a book that enjoyed the felicitous coincidence of being published as her lover firmed as favourite for prime minister. The pair resumed their relationship in 1988.

Bob and Blanche Hawke at the Bob Hawke Handicap, Randwick, 2006.

Bob and Blanche Hawke at the Bob Hawke Handicap, Randwick, 2006.Credit:SMH

In 1994, Hawke and Hazel announced their separation. He married D’Alpuget eight months after their divorce.

In 2003 Hazel Hawke revealed on the ABC series Australian Story she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She died from complications from the disease on May 23, 2013.

Shortly before her death, Hawke saw her in hospital and lay down beside her and sang Danny Boy.

In later years, Hawke remained a dependable stalwart for Labor come election time. In 2009 he was given life membership. In May 2012, as Labor sank deeper in the polls, he received blanket coverage for leading the singing of Solidarity Forever at the ACTU national conference formal dinner.

Hawke is survived by Blanche, and three surviving children, Sue Pieters-Hawke, Rosslyn Dillon and Stephen Hawke.

 Damien Murphy

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