What I need to do is talk about how he governed because that, with what he did, is what cements him in history.
Was he our greatest PM, or our greatest Labor PM? Bob told me he was neither. His aspiration was to be our greatest peacetime PM.
He deferred always to John Curtin. Bob believed Curtin faced a national existential crisis and responded correctly, with a national strategy of alliance building, wholehearted national mobilisation and planning for post-war reconstruction. He saw himself pursuing that necessary complexity in peacetime conditions that also presented existential national challenges.
Bob exemplified Bagehot’s view of great prime ministers as men of commonplace opinions and uncommon administrative abilities. Perhaps with opinions not quite so common but he was certainly trusted by the public, whose values and characteristics he shared and he loved. But as an administrator he was unsurpassed. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of how this nation worked, how the system could be creatively deployed to achieve the necessary reforms.
So, first he governed with his ministers. He had a superb office, an engine of reform but they were not there to dominate his ministers and sideline them, so as not to dull the glow of the sun king. He told each of his ministers, “You know the policy, you know your resources, you proceed. I will interfere when you invite me. My reputation will rise or fall on the quality of my ministers’ performance.”
Second, and above all, he governed with the cabinet. As I sat weeping on my porch as I absorbed the news of his passing, the oddest memory came to mind. It was back at the time of the navy’s 75th birthday. I nagged Bob into taking the cabinet to sea for a meeting. The biggest ship, HMAS Stalwart, had enough space but no cabin table. One was duly put aboard. We call came aboard. The Stalwart passed through the Sydney Heads and began to roll. The table started to move.
It pinned the prime minister to the bulkhead, then it retreated and then it came back harder as momentum gathered. “F this,” he said repeatedly as he fought the beast and continued the meeting. Afterwards, pretty cross, he said to me, “You know, cabinet is the heart of our government, we cannot have the cabinet table running away and killing a couple of us on the way through.”
Peter Walsh, the late Peter Walsh, no great supporter of Bob said to me, “You know, only two ministers read every cabinet submission, myself and Bob.” On Sunday afternoon his senior public servants would come around to his home for a game of tennis. Then they would settle down for detailed consideration of every submission.
Third, there was the party and the Labor movement, the focal point of support for a Labor government but also, frankly, potentially a base for effective opposition. Bob accepted their legitimacy as major participants in the Australian democratic project, as had Curtin, of course, in seeking to overturn Labor opposition to conscription during the war. He did not move, Curtin did not move, until he had secured a federal conference decision.
Bob didn’t circumvent the machinery, he used it. He was particularly emphatic to me on that, when we focused on micro-economic reform. He had given me the key transport and communications portfolio at the beginning of his last term. He said this: “Your first job is to get this through the caucus and the union movement, then to a successful outcome at the federal conference.”
Finally, he governed with peak organisations, unions of course, but also the employer groups, Indigenous, environmental and rural groups, multicultural, arts, sporting, social, religious groups. For him, they were the transmission belts of change to the community, feedback and adjustment. Not all or even most of them Labor supporters but all part of the Australian community. So he loved them and many, despite themselves, requited it.
In all this, Bob never forgot who he was fighting for. He once said, “The essence of power is the knowledge that what you do is going to have an effect – not just immediate, but perhaps lifelong effect on the happiness and wellbeing of millions of people, so I think the essence of power is to be conscious of what it can mean for others.”
He was massively persuasive from his experience as ACTU advocate and president. He was deeply effective publicly. But at the heart of his ability to persuade was trust. Most people believed, as that quote indicated, that whether you agreed or not, your happiness was his motive. He could afford risk-taking in leadership. He was confident in the effectiveness of argument to succeed.
Yet there was some who were hurt and some who mattered most to him. We owe a deep debt to Hazel and their children – Sue, Ros and Stephen – and to Blanche. We owe Blanche for the joy she provided him and the care in his decline. Well, on behalf of all of us to the family, thank you.
Well, where is he now? Bob set great store by his pastor father Clem saying, “If you believer in the fatherhood of God, you must believe in the brotherhood of man.” We talked of his destination in our last conversation. He still firmly held the second part of Clem’s saying but no longer the first.
But for me, I am sustained by the belief he is in the arms of a loving God. He believed he would live in the hearts or at least the minds of those who knew him, then when we all pass, in the history books and stories of future generations. There he will reside while ever his nation abides.