There Will Not Be Another Like Bob Hawke
It is easy to understand why Bob Hawke was a giant, much harder to imagine another like him.
Hawke had intellect, a will for a righteous fight and more than anything a genuine love for, and faith in, Australians.
In the 1960s and 70s, when he was making his name as a union advocate, the people who held power in Australia spoke in tones that still hinted of England. Listen to some old Gough Whitlam speeches, let alone those of a William McMahon.
Hawke cut through like a chainsaw, a Rhodes Scholar who drank like a drover and punted like a beast.
And when there was a fight on, he was at his finest. It was an age when a politician’s first task was to persuade. Hawke would frame and pursue arguments. He would dare Australians to put up their case against him. He took on so many fights: against employers, against apartheid, against the Soviet-loving hard left of the Labor party. He fashioned and deployed his arguments and he honed his craft.
He didn’t lack for ego. He could be foul-tongued and rude.
But by heaven he was passionate. His driving goal was a better Australia. He was Prime Minister just three years after entering Parliament but he arrived having spent decades thinking about the challenges the country faced.
He found in the brilliant, self-schooled young Paul Keating, the perfect foil. Keating would later seek credit for all the great economic reforms Labor pushed through in the 1980s. That fight for acknowledgment embittered both men and carved a rift between them. But there must surely be truth to Hawke's claim that he guided the lad who never finished high school through the early days of the big reforms.
They floated the dollar, established the wages accord that cut down Australia’s notorious rate of industrial action, opened the banking sector to competition and made the pension system more sustainable.
Hawke was a strong head of Cabinet, assured enough to let a fine team of ministers argue out the facets of a difficult issue before he would announce a decision. By this means, his Health Minister Neal Blewett fashioned Medicare and Hawke defended it against sustained attack from the medical profession and the Opposition. Major reforms came to universities and tariff-protected industries from car manufacturing to textiles.
The pace of change troubled many who had voted for him. By 1990, he squeaked home for his fourth election victory but his time was up. Keating, the dark and brilliant spirit, wanted his time and the following year he got it.
Bob Hawke wasn’t perfect. The public exposure of his daughter’s serious drug addiction made him -- Keating would claim -- ineffective through 1984 and for years beyond. Hawke disputed the length of his emotional struggles but conceded they were real enough. In 2010, he told me he had briefly considered suicide.
Like many Australians of my generation and older, I have memories that make “Hawkie” feel more like a family elder than a distant politician, long departed from the stage.
I remember him in the mid-80s sweeping through a shopping centre in Greensborough in the suburbs of Melbourne. He was soon invisible apart from fleeting glimpses of his silvery crown as crowds of shoppers abandoned their trolleys or their half-completed haircuts to rush after him, shrieking and oo-ing and calling his name. He struck me as being like a comet, trailing a tail of admirers like cosmic dust.
Who could imagine that today?
I also remember the night of his 1987 election victory. As the numbers came in, confirming that John Howard had been vanquished (surely to the fringes of history, all imagined at the time), Bob Hawke descended into the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne. The place was heaving. Hawke, fit, lean, an alcohol-free 57 years old, absorbed the cheers of the faithful and delivered the speech of the victor as Hazel gripped his hand.
As he left the stage, the crowd wanted more. Struggling to make his way through, he simply stopped and stood on a chair. The roar of delight bounced off the walls. He was the King. Both the source and the focus of the energy. A brilliant talent at the height of his powers.
From that point, bit by bit, things would fall away though he had four more years in office.
But that night, he really was the Messiah.
Many Australian eyes wept a tear last night as news came through that Bob was gone.
As well they might. There will not be another.