But Bob Hawke is gone, and this would stand as his memorial.
Forms and rituals were to be observed as only the Labor Party, which has had near a century and a half to practise, can do it.
This, however, was no mourning.
This, said his widow, Blanche d’Alpuget, was a memorial service marking “the transition from the grief of loss to the celebration of a life triumphantly well-lived”.
“We smile again,” she said. “We glow with pride for the presence among us for almost 90 years of a great human being.”
It was something more, too.
It was a gathering of tribes.
The old and powerful men and women of Hawke’s time gathered, in the shadow of a fresh election failure, beside the newly disappointed, and there were no harsh or accusatory words spoken, at least not aloud.
The word love was used until, if it had been a less powerful word, it might have felt almost worn out.
It meant many things on this day – the love Hawke was declared to have had for Australia and its people; the love Australia’s people were declared to have had for him, the love his family and longtime comrades wished to express.
It signified the laying aside of weapons – ideological, factional or personal – that have been used with near abandon forever in politics, and within the Labor Party especially.
All those who had come, the thousand invitees inside the concert hall and maybe a thousand, ordinary Australians without tickets out on the steps, watching on a giant screen, were there to pay homage to a leader felled by age, and they were not about to allow animosity to trivialise the ritual.
Even opposing political party chieftains laid down their swords.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, so recently triumphant in an election that Hawke had wanted Labor’s Bill Shorten to win, stood in the Opera House’s great concert hall and declared that he was speaking “on behalf of a nation [Hawke] loved, and that deeply loved him in return”. It was judged a generous, humble address from a prime minister who conceded he had known Hawke only from a distance, but who was convinced, he said that Hawke’s life as a great Australian was a record honoured and a legacy assured.
Hawke’s old nemesis and sometimes friend, former prime minister John Howard, and former PMs Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, came to pay respect. Only Julia Gillard was missing from among living ex-PMs, and she sent a message from Stockholm, where she is chairing an international conference on education. Hawke, she said, would understand.
Paul Keating, the Treasurer who tore down Hawke’s leadership in 1991 after eight and a half years, replacing him in The Lodge and leading Labor in government for another five years, spoke of a friendship renewed just 12 months ago.
“When Bob invited me over to see him, the better part of a year ago, he and I were again joining the circle on the great friendship and partnership that drove the longest reform period in the country’s history,” said Keating.
No word was spoken about the two and a half decades of estrangement. Not here. Not now. But Keating wanted this congregation to know that even in the fire, his and Hawke’s had been a special relationship, regularly misconstrued.
“In a perpetual contest of ideas, inevitably egos clash,” said Keating. “Bob and I would have private skirmishes over this policy or that, even criticise one another to immediate staff, but by instinct and a large dollop of friendship, we always remained welded to the same objective – a point even the closest of our staff sometimes failed to comprehend.”
You could very nearly hear a sigh of relief through the concert hall, for here had been a partnership that no-one in attendance had wanted to see go to the grave in enmity.
Anthony Albanese, the Opposition Leader following Shorten’s failure to take Hawke’s old party to government those few weeks ago, echoed the Prime Minister’s theme of love.
Hawke, he said, was “Australia amplified”.
“He loved Australia and Australia loved him back.”
It was, said Albanese, edging towards danger of gilding the lily, “a national romance”.
Yes, and “just because you didn’t vote for Bob, you weren’t beyond his love.”
Even Bill Kelty, former ACTU boss and one of the signatories to the Kirribilli Agreement that eventually brought Keating and Hawke to their showdown, spoke of love.
Kelty said Hawke as still thinking deeply about the big issues facing Australia – including the unfinished business of a treaty with Indigenous Australia and properly addressing climate change – when he last saw him.
“When I saw talking to him, here was a bloke who recognised he was dying, and these were the major issues to him,” Kelty said.
“I saw him and I said I loved him. I did love him, we loved him and he knew Australians loved him.”
Kim Beazley, an opposition leader who never became prime minister, was handed the honour of making the official eulogy.
Hawke, who made Beazley his Defence Minister in the 1980s, spoke of the big man often as a surrogate son, and you couldn’t imagine anyone else being given the job of delivering the final, official farewell.
“I loved Bob,” Beazley started. “He was my mentor. He was my friend.”
Hawke, said Beazley, understood the essence of power was to be conscious of what it could do for others. He had used his mastery of administration to govern, with his ministers, in a way that served his nation as none had managed before in peacetime.
Beazley recalled that Hawke’s father, Clem, a Congregationalist pastor, had taught that “to believe in the fatherhood of God, you must believe in the brotherhood of man”.
Hawke had chosen to set aside the first part of that admonition, and to practise the second.
Beazley, however, a man long on a religious quest, was sure that in death, however much he might have denied the possibility, Hawke was “in the arms of a loving God”.
The symphony orchestra leavened the mood with a performance of the serene Pachelbel’s Canon in D. There is a joy in the piece – it is often overlooked that it was written as a dance – and you could almost imagine Hawke turning to it after, say, a win at the races, or an election.
Hawke and his first wife Hazel both had personal history in the Opera House, memorial and musical. Hazel – who was granted a splendid memorial service at the great institution after her death in 2015, performed a piano concerto in the concert hall in 1990.
Hawke himself once conducted the Sydney Symphony’s performance of the Hallelujah Chorus.
And glory be, here he was doing it again at his own memorial service, a video recording of his first effort playing on a huge screen as the orchestra and choirs swept into Handel’s great work.
This may have been a national farewell, but it was a family’s moment to celebrate a patriarch’s life, too.
Hawke’s daughter, Sue Pieters-Hawke, spoke of being unable to quite comprehend his sudden absence.
“He was so powerful and present in our lives, I don’t fully get that he’s gone,” she said. Families, this daughter of a sometimes turbulent and frequently absent father noted, were complex beasts. There had been tough times, though love and laughter had prevailed.
“He’s gone, but the essence of who he was shines on,” she said, speaking on behalf of her sister Rosslyn and brother Stephen.
One of Hawke’s grandchildren, Sophie Taylor-Price, recalled sitting on her grandfather’s knee when she was 4 in 1989. It was the year Hawke was told the world had stitched up a deal to allow mining in Antarctica. “Bugger that,” said the then PM, and set about undoing any such deal. By 1991, the Hawke-Keating government had ensured Antarctica would remain free of mining, available only for peaceful and scientific purposes.
Finally, hauntingly, magnificently, didgeridoo player William Barton joined the symphony orchestra in a rendition of Men at Work’s Down Under.
It brought to mind the day Hawke cemented his larrikin image, declaring in the wake of Australia II’s America’s Cup win that “any boss who sacks anyone today for not turning up is a bum”.
The crowd in the concert hall rose as one, clapping and stomping in time to the music. It was possible to recall the mood of wild optimism in this very place in 1983, when Hawke launched his campaign for government.
Hawke’s family filed out. Keating turned, gave a cheery wave, and followed the procession.
A circle had been closed.
How Bob Hawke would have loved it.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.