But the man who was the most successful and long-serving Labor prime minister in Australian history was not about to waste the time left to him: he devoted his very last days to giving Bill Shorten and his party a leg-up.
This week, just six days after putting aside old hard feelings and sitting alongside Paul Keating, his former Treasurer and the man who succeeded him as prime minister, to endorse Shorten’s economic agenda, Hawke released an open letter praising Labor’s latest leader for laying out a wide-ranging policy agenda rather than hiding away as a “small target”.
And he revised one of the most potent lines he had used as prime minister in the 1990 election campaign to skewer the divided Liberal Party of Andrew Peacock.
“As I said repeatedly when I was prime minister, if you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country,” he wrote in that letter, aiming it at the Liberal Party of Scott Morrison.
A day later, Thursday, May 16, two days before the election that will decide whether his wish for Shorten will be fulfilled, Hawke was gone.
Bob Hawke always was the consummate campaigner.
He had the rarest and most treasured of abilities as a politician: he could relate instantly to strangers, whatever their place in life, and he could remember their names.
Many years ago, undertaking a street walk in Brisbane, he astounded even his closest advisers as he walked past an elderly couple cheering and waving from the footpath. He walked on, deep in thought, turned on his heel and returned to the couple. “Hello,” he chuckled, and used their names. He had, it turned out, met them just once, briefly, years before.
He was perhaps the most determined candidate for prime minister in Australian history.
Having lived for years as if predestined to the nation’s leadership, he made it clear he wasn’t entering politics to be a mere parliamentarian.
Having become Member for the Melbourne seat of Wills in October 1980, the former chieftain of the Australian Council of Trade Unions was prime minister within two years and five months.
He had long been a famously hard drinker – an alcoholic, really, famed for achieving a lasting world record in chugging a yard glass of beer as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford – but the day he took the leadership in early 1983, he gave up the grog.
He drank not a drop of alcohol until late December 1991, after Keating had defeated him for the prime ministership.
In the end, Bob Hawke wanted another former union leader to lead Australia. He has not lived quite long enough to see whether that would happen.
But this most determined man with the gift of the common touch had done everything he could to assist.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.