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The people’s PM: Why Bob Hawke was loved by the Australian public and revered as a political giant

Robert James Lee Hawke, died on Thursday May 16, aged 89

Robert James Lee Hawke, died on Thursday May 16, aged 89

Bob Hawke, one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers, combined a potent mixture of political and personal qualities.

Labor’s most successful federal leader, who presided over the modernisation of Australia’s economy, was a larrikin with a narcissistic streak and little overarching ideology.

He was a man of shifting factional allegiances who could still give and command great personal loyalty; a pragmatist with a sense of destiny; passionate yet calculating.

His success in four elections and through nearly nine years in The Lodge depended largely on two strengths rarely seen in combination – a peerless ability to win the affection of the people and great managerial and negotiating skills.

He had two careers with the first, in the ACTU, providing the platform for the second in parliamentary politics. He was unique in having led Labor’s industrial, organisational and political wings.

Yet despite his unmatched electoral record, he was dumped undefeated by a party that usually allowed its leaders a couple of losses.

Robert James Lee Hawke, who died on Thursday, aged 89, was born on December 9, 1929 in Bordertown, South Australia.

His father Clem, a Congregational minister, had been an ALP member and uncle Bert was to be a Labor premier of Western Australia. The family’s faith was in the puritan tradition. Mother Ellie hated the sin of not fully using one’s talents.

Blanche d’Alpuget, later his second wife, recounted in her mid-career biography of Hawke that when Ellie was pregnant with her second son, her Bible kept falling open at the verse in Isaiah: ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder.’

Ellie said he was called Robert because it would sound good when he became Sir Robert.

An active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Ellie pledged the future compulsive drinker to a life of abstinence.

In 1939 after elder brother Neil died of meningitis, all his parents’ love and aspirations were turned on their remaining child, and the family moved to Perth.

Hawke matriculated from Perth Modern School, the government school that was the springboard for so many bright kids, and started law at the University of Western Australia.

Cricket, the church and Labor politics were his main interests. Some contemporaries thought he was brash. He’d already started talking about himself as a prime minister.

Then he almost killed himself in a motorbike accident.

According to d’Alpuget, the family was convinced that God, by sparing him, had given a sign. And Hawke himself now believed that he was an instrument chosen by the Lord.

The self-belief remained, but not its theological underpinnings.

Legends were already building about his drinking – although he tried to hide it from his mother – his successes with girls, and his politicking.

According to one possibly apocryphal story, when he wasn’t selected for the first grade cricket team, he stacked a meeting, had the selectors sacked and installed new ones who picked him.

A visit to India, where he was appalled by the poverty, ended his belief in God.

By then he was engaged to Hazel Masterton. The engagement was to last five years and survive a major crisis.

As Hazel revealed in her memoir, she became pregnant. But he had applied for a Rhodes scholarship, which was then open only to single men. After guilt-filled agonising, she had an abortion.

Hawke won his scholarship and left for Oxford, with Hazel following. The next two years were the most carefree of their lives – though chiefly remembered for his making the Guinness Book of Records for downing two and a half pints of beer in 12 seconds.

At Oxford he did a research degree on Australia’s arbitration system, an unusual choice.

Neal Blewett, another Rhodes Scholar who became a minister in the Hawke governments, said this meant the dreaming spires left little imprint on him, intellectually or culturally. But it was typical of a man who believed learning was for practical purposes.

In 1958, having returned to Australia and finally married Hazel, Hawke joined the ACTU as a research officer.

Starting with the 1959 basic wage hearing, he built up a formidable reputation as an advocate, often leaving employer representatives and the bench behind with his grasp of economics.

He overcame union prejudices against his university education and developed a formidable labour movement network, partly through drinking sessions.

Tales of his heroic drinking helped his larrikin image. But Hazel’s memoirs make it clear that it was obsessive and destructive. While she was struggling at home to bring up three children and wrestling with the grief of losing a fourth baby, he was out drinking or womanising. She contemplated divorce.

In 1969 Hawke, after forging a temporary alliance with the left, won the ACTU presidency.

He used this position to become Australia’s best known politician outside parliament.

Hawke gradually shifted to the right, his natural place on the Labor spectrum.

His negotiating skills were formidable, though critics claimed he would wait until an agreement was close, then parachute in to finalise it and claim the credit.

He developed important contacts with the big end of town, partly through membership of the Reserve Bank board and a major economic inquiry.

The contacts extended overseas, particularly through the International Labour Organisation and in the United States and Israel, to which he had an emotional attachment.

His platform widened in 1973 when he also became ALP president.

From the twin peaks of the party and the union movement, he watched the Whitlam government unravel. Hawke learnt from its excesses and determined not to repeat them when his time came.

In 1980, having finally stopped drinking, he entered federal parliament and went straight to opposition leader Bill Hayden’s front bench.

Hawke, convinced that only he could beat Malcolm Fraser, targeted Hayden from the start. His great allies were the polls, which showed he was prefered to both Hayden and Fraser, and the unions.

Hayden called a leadership vote in July 1982 and won by five votes. It was not enough, especially after a disappointing by-election result.

In the new year Hayden was persuaded by old allies to abdicate. At the same time Fraser – believing he could beat Hayden but not Hawke – called an election. It was a pre-emptive strike that failed by hours.

The dour Fraser, troubled by high unemployment and inflation, was no match for a confident Hawke who behaved as if he was already prime minister.

On March 5, with a swing of almost four per cent, Hawke was swept to power with a 25 seat majority.

Electorally, that would be his high point. Next year, in beating Andrew Peacock, the majority was cut. This was Hawke at his lowest, largely because of daughter Ros’s drug problems.

In 1987, benefiting from Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s destructive Canberra campaign, he beat John Howard despite being outpolled by the Coalition on the primary vote. In his fourth victory, against the recycled Peacock in 1990, he didn’t even win a majority of the two-party prefered vote.

He owed that win partly to the Howard-Peacock rivalry and partly to a Green preference strategy in marginal seats.

From the start of his prime ministership, the essence of Hawke’s inclusive leadership style was clear.

There was no public service bloodbath. Nor was there the obsessive interference with ministers that marked the Fraser years. He claimed, with some justice, that he had the most talented team of ministers in Australia’s history and, generally, he let them get on with it.

Hawke reduced the size of cabinet, over which he presided with skill and courtesy – a chairman rather than a despot. However, cabinet often was effectively subordinate to its key committee, the Expenditure Review Committee.

He imposed cabinet solidarity, which reduced the opportunity for caucus revolts. So, too, did the the high degree of factional discipline which he developed with the help of trusted right, left and centre left leaders.

His style was corporatist and he was not a great parliamentarian. The unsurpassed deal-maker was not at home in parliament’s fiercely adversarial atmosphere.

He preferred to work through big interest groups – the ACTU, the major employer and industry organisations, the peak farm, ethnic, indigenous and conservation lobbies.

The transformation of Australia’s economic life dominated his governments.

Dealing with industries featherbedded by tariffs, the distortions of subsidies, inefficient public enterprises, the dead hand of financial regulation and rigid labour markets as the unforgiving new demands of globalisation emerged was particularly difficult for a Labor government.

Blewett believed Hawke was the ideal leader for the times. He was a supreme optimist, convinced of his ability to negotiate through the most intractable problem; and a complete pragmatist, unburdened by ideology.

It became fashionable, to Hawke’s irritation, to speak of the Hawke-Keating government.

Paul Keating, his Treasurer, rival and successor, was the second most important figure.

During their years of productive, if rarely personally close, partnership they were complementary. Hawke could deal with the interest groups, internal Labor sensitivities and appeal to the people; Keating appealed to the financial elites and, with the feline savagery of his rhetoric, could dominate parliament.

But at the start it was Hawke who better understood the economic needs and it was he, with old ACTU mate and Employment Minister Ralph Willis, who negotiated the original accord, the trade-off with the unions that ensured wage restraint.

The floating of the dollar – and for many years afterwards Hawke and Keating sniped over who should get most credit – ushered in a host of financial deregulations.

The tax system was overhauled, with the base broadened and the rates cut. Privatisation started, despite deep misgivings within the party. Tariffs were slashed, with special industry plans for the most vulnerable industries. Free tertiary education was ended. The first steps in enterprise bargaining were taken.

This destruction of Labor sacred cows was achieved without fracturing the party. It’s doubtful if Keating could have done that.

Hawke’s other great interest was foreign affairs.

With first Hayden – before, in Hawke’s final act of atonement, he became governor-general – and then Gareth Evans as foreign minister, Australia was an initiator beyond its shores.

The most important was APEC, very much Hawke’s personal project. The most worthy was bringing peace to the killing fields of Cambodia.

Hawke made Australia an active player in world disarmament forums and, through the Cairns group, an influential advocate for free farm trade during the protracted Uruguay round of world trade negotiations.

The ending of mining and oil drilling in Antarctica was a personal initiative.

He was quick, despite misgivings in the party, to commit Australia to the first Gulf war.

He initially delighted environmentalists by blocking the Franklin dam in Tasmania and was usually ahead of the coalition on matters green, especially during the years Graham Richardson was environment minister. And he established Medicare, a new version of Whitlam’s Medibank that Fraser had undone.

Sometimes he over-reached. His promises to end child poverty and to negotiate an Aboriginal treaty came back to mock him.

Through it all, until the sad, dying days of his last government, Hawke was, to the public, good old Hawkie, the leader with the common touch, if often wreathed in cigar smoke or, occasionally, tears.

No-one else could turn a shopping mall walk into a triumphal progress, as he greeted shoppers in his distinctive voice; even when he snarled at a ‘silly old bugger’ in a Whyalla supermarket.

He could toss off a tip for the races, which sometimes won; or barge into a game of carpet bowls and roll down a good one.

His love of sport and delight in Australian victories were impossible to counterfeit.

In the euphoria of Australia’s America’s Cup triumph, Hawke, champagne-soaked and flag-jacketed, declared ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.’

That was 1983, with it all in front of him. By the end of the decade it was going wrong.

In late 1988 he and Keating, each with a trusted witness, signed the secret Kirribilli House pact in which Hawke promised to hand over to his increasingly impatient treasurer after the 1990 election.

He reneged, ostensibly because of Keating’s December 1990 ‘Placido Domingo’ speech in which he implied that only he was a true leader. Hawke also believed he was the more likely to win in 1993.

Keating brought matters to a head in June 1991, revealing the Kirribilli pact – in truth, a deal which displayed the arrogance of both – and launching a challenge.

It failed by 22 votes and Keating retired to the backbench while his supporters nibbled away at Hawke’s declining support and confidence.

Neither John Kerin, the new treasurer, nor Brian Howe, the new deputy PM, performed well.

Worse, Hawke seemed unable to combat a reunited opposition under John Hewson and his economic plan Fightback! Worst of all, the polls said the people were deserting him.

In December, Keating challenged again and this time won by 56 votes to 52. Labor, for the first time, had voted out a serving prime minister.

After leaving parliament, he and Hazel – who’d been a major political asset – divorced.

He married d’Alpuget and, soon after, Hazel began her long battle with Alzheimer’s disease which ended with her death in 2013.

Hawke remained active as a business consultant, company director, visiting professor – and lead singer at party functions. His ‘Solidarity Forever’ was much admired.

He wrote his memoirs and co-authored a major report on the ALP.

His political instincts were still acute – he lobbied unsuccessfully against Mark Latham during the 2003 Labor leadership battle and campaigned vigorously in the 2007 election that finally brought Labor back to power.

And his place in the Labor pantheon was formally acknowledged in 2009 when he became only the third person to be awarded national life membership of the party.

 Source: Australian Associated Press

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Written by Angle News

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