How 'Hawkie’s' potent mix of political and personal made him one of our greatest leaders


His outburst after the historic America's Cup victory helped cement his popularity, telling the country "any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum".

Bob Hawke, one of Australia's greatest prime ministers, embodied a potent mixture of political and personal qualities.

Labor's most successful federal leader, who presided over the modernisation of Australia's economy, was a larrikin with a narcissistic streak.

He could give and command great personal loyalty; a pragmatist with a sense of destiny; passionate yet calculating.

His success depended largely on two strengths rarely seen in combination - a peerless ability to win the affection of the people and great managerial and negotiating skills.

Bob Hawke
Former prime minister Bob Hawke and wife Blanche D' Alpuget.

His memorable outburst after the historic America's Cup victory in 1983 helped cement his popularity, telling the country "any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum".

During eight years as prime minister from 1983 to 1991, Mr Hawke was credited with visionary economic reform. He was proud of proposing the creation of APEC - the 21 member forum for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, launched in 1989.

A commitment to environmental protection bookended his time in office. The 1983 election win buoyed by federal Labor's promise to stop Tasmania's planned damming of wild rivers and the 1991 international Madrid protocol securing the Antarctic Reserve, banning mining indefinitely.

"The last great wilderness area in the world, which was a very useful area to have for environmental research being possibly polluted by miners - I found appalling," Mr Hawke told SBS News in 2014.

He led the Commonwealth fight against Apartheid in South Africa, famously clashing with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989.

Religious leanings

Robert James Lee Hawke, who died on Thursday aged 89, was born on December 9, 1929 in Bordertown, South Australia.

His father Clem, a Congregational minister, had been an ALP member and uncle Bert was to be a Labor premier of Western Australia. Mother Ellie hated the sin of not fully using one's talents.

Blanche d'Alpuget, his second wife, recounted in her mid-career biography of Mr Hawke that when Ellie was pregnant with her second son, her Bible kept falling open at the verse in Isaiah: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder."

In 1939 elder brother Neil died of meningitis, and all his parents' love and aspirations were turned on their remaining child.

Mr Hawke studied law at the University of Western Australia.

Bob Hawke on election night in 1983.
Bob Hawke on election night in 1983.

Cricket, the church and Labor politics were his main interests. He'd already started talking about himself as a prime minister.

Then he almost killed himself in a motorbike accident.

According to Ms d'Alpuget, the family was convinced that God, by sparing him, had given a sign. And Mr Hawke himself now believed that he was an instrument chosen by the Lord.

A subsequent visit to India, where he was appalled by the poverty, ended his belief in God, but not himself.

His fiancee Hazel Masterton, after much agonising, had an abortion so Bob could take up a Rhodes scholarship, then open only to single men.

Mr Hawke's time at Oxford is chiefly remembered for his making the Guinness Book of Records for downing two and a half pints of beer in 12 seconds.

In 1958, having returned to Australia and finally married Ms Masterton, Mr Hawke joined the ACTU and began building a formidable reputation as an advocate with a brilliant grasp of economics.

Tales of his heroic drinking helped his larrikin image. But Ms Masterton's memoirs make it clear that it was obsessive and destructive. While she was struggling at home to bring up three children and wrestling with the grief of losing a fourth baby, he was out drinking or womanising. She contemplated divorce.

Negotiating skills come to the fore

In 1969 he won the ACTU presidency and became Australia's best known politician outside parliament.

His negotiating skills were formidable and he developed important contacts with the big end of town.

In 1973 he also became ALP president. Mr Hawke learnt from the excesses of the unravelling Whitlam government and determined not to repeat them.

In 1980, having finally stopped drinking, he entered federal parliament and went straight to opposition leader Bill Hayden's front bench.

Bob Hawke
Bob Hawke, with Bill Shorten in 2016, when Hawke received an honorary degree from the University of Sydney.

Within three years he was party leader and weeks later became prime minister with a sweeping victory over Malcolm Fraser.

The next year he beat Andrew Peacock and in 1987, benefiting from Joh Bjelke-Petersen's destructive Canberra campaign, he beat John Howard despite losing the primary vote. He narrowly won his fourth election in 1990 against the recycled Peacock.

A transformed economy

Mr Hawke was an inclusive leader - a chairman rather than a despot. He claimed, with some justice, that he had the most talented team of ministers in Australia's history and let them get on with it.

He and Treasurer Paul Keating set about transforming Australia's economy.

He negotiated an accord with unions to reduce strikes and restrain wages. 

He floated the dollar and deregulated the financial system.

Tax was overhauled, tariffs were slashed, and enterprise bargaining began.

In foreign affairs, Mr Hawke was the driving force behind APEC and helped bring peace to the killing fields of Cambodia.

Bob Hawke and US President Ronald Reagan.
Bob Hawke and US President Ronald Reagan.

He made Australia an active player in world disarmament and an influential advocate of free agricultural trade.

He ended Whitlam's legacy of free tertiary education and introduced Medicare - a new version of Whitlam's Medibank.

Sometimes he overreached. His promises to end child poverty and to negotiate an Aboriginal treaty came back to mock him.

Through it all, Mr Hawke was, to the public, good old Hawkie, the leader with the common touch, often wreathed in cigar smoke or, occasionally, tears.

His love of sport and delight in Australian victories were impossible to counterfeit.

In the euphoria of Australia's America's Cup triumph, Mr Hawke, champagne-soaked and in a garish jacket festooned with flags, declared "any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum."

In late 1988 he and Keating, each with a trusted witness, signed the secret Kirribilli House pact in which Mr Hawke promised to hand over to his increasingly impatient treasurer after the 1990 election.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating
Paul Keating says he and Bob Hawke were able to forge a partnership with the Australian people.

He reneged and after one failed attempt, Keating toppled him in December 1991.

Labor, for the first time, had voted out a serving prime minister.

He and Ms Masterton soon divorced and Mr Hawke married Ms d'Alpuget. Soon after, Ms Masterton began her long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Mr Hawke remained active as a business consultant, company director and visiting professor.

He wrote his memoirs and co-authored a major report on the ALP.

His place in the Labor pantheon was formally acknowledged in 2009 when he became only the third person to be awarded national life membership of the party.

Rule breaker

As prime minister, he often broke with convention, such as giving an emotional speech on Beijing's Tiananmen Square massacre.

"Foot soldiers went through the square bayoneting or shooting anybody who was still alive," he told Australia, breaking down in tears.

It came with a unilateral decision that Chinese students in Australia could remain in the country.

"When I walked off the dais a senior bureaucrat said to me 'Prime Minister, you can't do that.' and I said I've done it," he recalled.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver in 1987.

Secret British files called him deliberately abrasive, even arrogant - studiously cultivating an ocker image.

He dismissed the claims later as just plain wrong - as he'd stayed teetotal while prime minister.

An emotional family man - when asked about allegations he'd tried to use influence to have his daughter cleared of a drugs charge - the nation again saw an emotional outburst.

"Like any father I love my daughter, I trust her, and she was completely exonerated by the processes of the law. I had no contact with the judge or anyone involved in it, and yet you have this insinuation that affects her of course I'm upset," he said.

'My most treasured childhood memory'

In 1985, Mr Hawke went beyond his official prime ministerial duties to help a young girl understand the death of her grandmother.

In a letter posted to Twitter on Thursday, Mr Hawke explained that sometimes "when we grow very old our bodies get worn out, or certain parts break down, like parts in an old car".

According to the tweet, the note - now yellow and aged but still bearing Mr Hawke's signature - was received in response to a letter sent by a young girl called Tracey, who was trying to understand why we die.

Tracey Corbin Matchett wrote that receiving the letter is "her most treasured childhood memory". 

The former prime minister's final line of advice to young Tracey is particularly poignant today.

"None of us can be sure of how long we will live," he said.

"Because this is so, I think you should try not to think too much about dying but think about all the nice things that make life so precious to us all."

Treated like royalty

After politics, Mr Hawke became a business consultant and elder statesman.

He made regular appearances at the annual Labor conference - where he was treated like royalty.

Bob Hawke
Bob Hawke allowed his name and image to be used on a craft beer, with all his royalties being donated to Landcare Australia.

Despite growing frailty in later years he supported party events.

He also called for legal euthanasia, revealing he'd discussed end of life options with Ms D'Alpuget.

She told the ABC, "he has no fear of death, and we've talked about it quite a lot and we've talked about his funeral and what he would like to happen at his funeral".

His final public appearances showed a man growing older and frailer - but the characteristic glint in his eye didn't disappear.

For a leader who never lost a federal election, he remained the popular larrikin prime minister who hadn't known when to walk away.

- with AAP

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