He rewrote the rules on image and masculinity in public, and dared to be open and emotional, way before men could get away with it and still be taken seriously. Labor leader Bill Shorten could not have responded the way he did to The Daily Telegraph‘s attack on his mother were it not for the example of Hawke before him.
Hawke was a man’s man but also a woman’s man, or at least how we imagined men and women back then. He could fit right in with the then very male-dominated union movement but could also engage women, both their brains and their hearts.
It was a lesson he could teach a few other politicians, even today.
But the best lesson he ever gave us, men and women, was in 1984. The then leader of the opposition, Andrew Peacock, attacked Hawke for hindering investigations into organised crime, in particular the heroin trade. In a press conference, he started weeping and revealed both his daughter, Rosslyn, and her husband, Matt, were heroin addicts.
We felt his pain. We understood he was responding as any parent would. We cried with him, even if we weren’t parents.
This was a natural response, unguarded, not stage-managed. Unashamed of his emotions and a new model for manhood. One who proved that big boys did cry about their families and no great unhinging of masculinity would follow. And that those who cried could still run their countries. That love of family extended to us.
It didn’t make him the best dad in the world. On Friday, his daughter Susan Pieters-Hawke said parenting was not her father’s strong suit but that he was “fabulous and inspiring”. Which is pretty much how the rest of us felt about him too.
You might not have wanted to be married to him (he was rumoured to have had affairs and then divorced his wife of 40 years), but, by God, you felt as if he understood you and would do the best for the country.
Look, I’m sure his reforms of the financial markets were important. And gee, I’m delighted he “outlawed” gender discrimination in the workplace (because God knows what it would look like now if he hadn’t).
But for me, as a woman, I’m most grateful for Medicare. And even more grateful because of the change he brought to the Australian image of fatherhood. It was OK to show you cared about your family. Australia was important, the national interest was crucial. But your daughter’s heroin addiction and your fear for her life and health? That was the most important of all.
I still can’t imagine what it would be like if a female prime minister cried in public. I watched Julia Gillard, the day she was knifed, struggle to ensure the lasting image was of a woman in control of her emotions. Imagine the backlash if she’d sobbed that day.
Since Hawke went, our leaders have returned to coolness and distance. Yes, we’ve had the pally backslapping of the Prime Minister, the grand paternalism of John Howard and the cool and capable Gillard. When Shorten cried about his mum last week, we had a little glimpse of what it might be like to have a human in charge.
And we have Hawke to thank for that possibility.
Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.