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Hawkie, for whom I'd have faced cannon fire



I told one of my fiercely right-wing Kiwi uncles that if Bob Hawke were elected leader of the ALP I'd follow him through cannon-fire, and surprisingly won his (grudging) respect. For he was a man's man, and so was my then hero.

Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke makes a speech during the launch of his biography Hawke: The Prime Minister in Sydney on 12 July 2010. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)When he did win the leadership, over the still-warm corpse of then-old-faithful-former-Queensland-copper, Bill Hayden, and then won the federal election, I got to test my respect for the man who knew people well enough and was genuine enough to negotiate the No-Man's Land of employers and the employed, at a time of great opportunity, and risk. But the Accord destroyed the old Labor Party focus on the hard-won rights and arbitration structures protecting ordinary workers, at a time when the boom seemed sent by the universe, to make us all happy.

He took the credit, over the next seven or eight years, and now that he is gone at 89, is still being praised for those extraordinarily exciting times of protecting the environment, putting Charlie Perkins in charge of Aboriginal affairs and Nugget Combes on a pinnacle of respect for economic risk-taking.

It was exciting for me, particularly, growing into activism over civil rights and liberties, land rights for the first nations, children's rights, the de-institutionalisation of lunatic asylums, and vicious child-care, not just because the old piss artist was schmoozing rather than boozing, nor even because of his infectious enthusiasm for a good time and a big laugh, but because of his willingness to open our country up to diversity, fighting discrimination, and not finding it unmanly to shed ugly public tears over his wayward family members and friends.

Of course 'Hawkie' was popular: he lit up every conversation he was a part of, sometimes wickedly. How well I reimagine how he ripped into Richard Carleton, after Carlton asked him (with a smirk and live on ABC television) how he felt with 'blood on his hands'. Hawk's eviscerating response tore Carlton's smooth skin down to the blood vessels, and the smile became a rictus. And oh, how we laughed. It wasn't us in that chair.

But when he was a warm, adventurous and sociable man — which was most of the time — Hawkie didn't have a saccharine grain in his sugar bowl, nor the capacity to be sanctimonious, which was pretty good for the state-school taught, home-living, very clever son of a properly disciplined, hardworking Congregationist minister.

He inspired loyality, the man with a mission, spending three years studying and setting beer-drinking records during his Rhodes scholarship BCL in Oxford, leaving the fiancee in the West, for three long years. No one could doubt he won that degree through brains, intelligence and willpower. As a much lesser man, and also a short-term prime minister of this country, did not.


"Bob Hawke loved large and wide and bravely and without embarrassment."


Like any great character, Bob Hawke's personal flaws were as massive as his ego. You need a strong ego to be in politics. And they weren't pretty. He let Hazel do the waiting and the caring and the home-making, despite the disappointments, and the infidelities, in which he was no worse than many a politician of his times (including his worshipped wartime prime minister), though he believed in women's right to equality. He was, as I'm sure Hazel was very much aware, a serial womaniser as well as a flagrant flirt who enjoyed the company of pretty young women. And he left Hazel when the excitement of political life was disappearing.

He didn't see the horrible flaws in the 'doing business' model of WA Inc, and the propensity of that state's premier Brian Burke, which ended in disaster and ruin.

He believed in consensus and practised it, without foreseeing (who could, but the old die-hards of the Labor party?) the consequence of risk-taking with other people's money; of appointing mates to powerful discretionary office, of informal business agreements and private instructions to the favoured.

The ALP of pre-Hawke political leadership was a different best after Whitlam's comet split the skies. Hayden would have led a less dramatic and more conservative march for the protection of Australian working conditions and social mores, and we will never know what the 'drover's dog' would have created if he had been allowed to form a government as Hawkie did, after just a month as leader of the Opposition. I am sad for him, and for some of the rights that men and women fought and died for — the eight hour day, the living wage, arbitration of industrial disputes and the right to strike, as well as public services adequately and publicly funded and ministerial accountability to the Parliament.

One cannot apply the same judgements to the great men of public life as to the quiet labourers in the fields. So I end my paean to the Bob Hawke who died just before the federal election of 18 May promised to re-introduce some of those great and glittering prizes for the many, with this tribute to the man I braved my uncle's sarcasm for: Bob Hawke loved large and wide and bravely and without embarrassment. And in that regard, perhaps he was truly his Christian father's son.



Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Main image: Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke makes a speech during the launch of his biography Hawke: The Prime Minister in Sydney on 12 July 2010. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Bob Hawke



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Existing comments

A remarkably balanced and unbiased eulogy for a most enigmatic man who possessed a number of unreconcilable, conflicting personalities that made Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde look like an amateur. There is unlikely to be another PM quite like him and his legacy is similarly Jekyll/Hyde-like, split between those who loved and those who hated him, both with equal fervour. What struck me as exemplary about him was that while he could destroy his opponents with a sharp tongue and wit he did not bear enduring malice towards them, a rarity in human relationships.

john frawley | 20 May 2019  

Like most Aussies, I was fascinated with Bob Hawke and thank him for his historic transformational contribution on so many fronts. At the same time, it is striking that little, or maybe even none of the hours and hours of commentary since his death, have included any comment on Bob's endorsement of the Suharto dictatorship or his weakness on East Timor. Lots on China, on which Bob made a lot of money, South Africa etc, silence on one of our most important relationships. One of Bob's early acts on becoming PM in 1983 was to ingratiate Australia further with Suharto by driving more nails into what was considered East Timor's coffin. In the most explicit statement of policy to that point, he declared East Timor Indonesia's 27th province and East Timorese Indonesian citizens. No courage to run through cannon-fire there on behalf of a suffering people and the much vaunted international rules-based order. Mr Hawke was a great man and good for Australia but don't overdo the eulogising at the expense of the full picture.

Pat Walsh | 21 May 2019  

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