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Hawkie, for whom I'd have faced cannon fire

  • 19 May 2019


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.

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