Nature dictated otherwise. He was robbed of that chance. No one would have wished it this way. Yet it’s also true that, even while the Labor movement is in mourning, the timing of his passing may give the party a final much-needed puff of wind to get it first over the finishing line.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was generous in his praise of the Labor legend on Thursday evening, as was Hawke’s former political adversary who matched him for longevity in the prime ministerial role, John Howard.
Yet behind the scenes, Liberal strategists acknowledged it was a setback. Their hopes had been to keep closing the gap with Labor in the final hours of the campaign.
“Our people are not happy about it,” one confessed on Friday. “The Labor Party has been doing well with the younger demographic, and the Coalition with the older. Now you will have a lot of people of that older age turning up to polling booths and they will be full of a bit of nostalgia for Bob Hawke the larrikin, and it might also allay some of their fears about what a Shorten government would do.”
Leaving aside that brutal political calculus, the nation is mourning the loss of one of its finest post- World War II leaders and, in the eyes of some, the very finest.
James Curran, professor of history at the University of Sydney, says Hawke’s greatest legacy was in opening up the Australian economy to the region and the world at a time when his Liberal predecessor Malcolm Fraser was resisting the winds of change.
“The globalisation of Australia has a Labor stamp on it,” Curran says.
“For Hawke, who was originally seen as being on the left of the trade union movement, to usher in this period of neo-liberal economic reform, but also to wrap a decent social safety net around it, it’s no wonder that a series of leaders around the world have come out overnight to express their admiration for him: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Brian Mulroney in Canada.
“He was an inspiration in many ways for the progressive side of politics. Thatcherism and Reagonomics were the talk of the town in the late ’70s and early ’80s and Hawke showed a way that Australia could embrace that but without losing its sense of fairness and equity.”
Former ministers who spoke with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age praised his ability to work through consensus, and consultation, to take brave decisions in the interests, not just of working people, but the nation as a whole and to then have the advocacy skills to sell the need for change.
Kim Beazley, who served as Hawke’s defence minister for six years, and developed a strong personal friendship with him, recalls his belief that “power had to be used courageously … yes polling was important, yes you should attempt to hone your argument in a way that garnered optimal public support, but you had to be in the business of convincing your fellow Australians of what needed to happen.”
At Hawke’s heart, Beazley says, was his conviction that “every human being mattered. That trips off the tongue of your average politician, but Bob lived it. He was just overjoyed at contact with people, and yes, he did often have around him adoring crowds. But I’ve seen him with people not so adoring and he never valued them less highly even if they were in disagreement.”
Beazley says he recalled Hawke telling him that the time he spent on the board of the Reserve Bank when he was ACTU president had been “a massive education for him. It was a time when the Reserve Bank was thinking about what needed to change in the Australian economy to make us more productive, and globally competitive.”
Former senator and environment minister Graham Richardson, who pursued an ambitious environmental protection program under Hawke, says, “the good thing about him was that he was never afraid of other people having a better idea. And that mattered. Cabinet was actually really used, as a cabinet should be”.
Richardson first encountered Hawke as a young Labor party organiser, who drove the then hard-drinking union leader around various campaign events during the 1972 and 1974 elections. Even then Hawke was a magnet for people, regardless of whether they voted Labor or not.
“You would take him into a pub and a massive crowd would gather, word would spread, and people would turn up just to be with him, touch the hem,” Richardson says. “Charisma is not something you achieve. It’s not something you learn. It’s something you have. And I don’t think there was ever a time in his life that when he entered the room, he wasn’t the centre of attention.”
The former Labor powerbroker says there were many reforms during the Hawke and Keating years but for him the one that “stands the test of time, for Labor people and for everyone, is Medicare. That was massive.”
Simon Crean, later a minister himself, was leading the ACTU when Hawke took Labor to the first of four successive victories in 1983. Crean worked closely with the new ALP government and with then ACTU secretary Bill Kelty to bring about the storied accord with the trade union movement, which put a cap on wage rises and inflation in return for an enhanced social safety net, including Medicare.
Crean says it was very much a “collegiate effort” among a group which included himself, Kelty, Hawke, Keating and then industrial relations minister Ralph Willis. “There were others too, including in the government and the trade union movement.”
“There were a lot of hands to the wheel. He understood the importance of the collective and he wanted to encourage that and he was very successful at it. It was more than just being a good chair of cabinet, it was an interactive discussion … he used the cabinet properly and he used the engagement with the labour movement properly through bodies like the EPAC [Economic Planning and Advisory Council], which was a tripartite body.
“The whole exercise was designed to ensure that we got control of wages growth”. In return for that restraint, Crean says, “we found creative mechanisms to increase disposable income … the tax cuts, the family payments, the trade-offs including super and Medicare.”
Medicare actually worked to put a brake on wage increases, he says, because it brought down the CPI.
Hawke’s knowledge of the union movement was integral to that achievement, Crean says.
“He was the first of the leaders we’d had in a long time that really understood and identified with the trade union movement. And sought to nurture it, not see it as a threat, not something you had to hide because it was an embarrassment, but something to be nurtured, developed and turned to advantage.”
Beazley makes a similar point about Hawke’s lifelong bond with his union roots. “He really believed the labour movement was a strong and legitimate part of the political process.”
Beazley recalls wanting Australia to contribute to allied efforts during the so-called “tanker wars” in the Persian Gulf of the late 1980s when US navy ships were providing escorts for oil tankers coming under attack during the Iran-Iraq conflict. In the end, Australia did not provide Navy assistance. But Beazley vividly remembers being told by Hawke: “‘Go and talk to the secretary of the Seamen’s Union and get his view. Bring it back to me and we will make up our minds’. So he automatically operated on the assumption that the union movement were fundamental to our democracy, beyond simply industrial issues”.
Craig Emerson, who later became a minister under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, was a young economist when he joined a group of key advisers in Hawke’s private office during his early years as Prime Minister.
Hawke came to regard Emerson almost as a son, calling him “the Kid”.
They played together as well as worked hard together, and Emerson later recounted becoming expert at marking up the racing guides for Hawke.
Emerson says it’s a “myth” that “everyone was on board for everything during this golden era … There was a lot of institutional resistance, but by continuing to appeal to what he described as the good sense of the Australian people over the top of those vested interests, we were able to prevail. But it was always a battle. And he won pretty much all of the battles alongside Paul Keating because they were a fantastic couple in terms of their shared values, and their advocacy. They were willing to explain why change was needed, then go on to decide the change itself and then get it bedded down, not just move on when a piece of legislation passed”.
James Curran says John Curtin was also an outstanding Labor leader, but he thinks that Hawke deserves a “mantle all his own … because of the sheer fact of the four election victories and transforming Australia’s place in the world, dragging it into the globalised world. I would rank him above Menzies. Menzies had a great post-war boom and a Cold War to keep Labor on back foot. The Hawke-Keating reforms were easily the most important taken by any Australian government since the end of World War II.” He cites Hawke’s initiative in helping drive the establishment of APEC as another part of that pattern.
Hawke is not only mourned by those he worked with as a leader, but as a colleague, as a mentor, and in many cases as a friend. Emerson says it was “just not within Bob to carry grudges. The people in the left who had a different view on uranium mining, for instance, were just some of his dearest friends in later life.”
Beazley says “he was my dear friend, I loved him and I will miss him forever. My feeling is one of terrible sadness and I think that Labor folk on the hustings and many other Australians will feel just as sad. In a way, it’s as if the father of the nation has gone.”
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.