RIP Hawkie – The Punter’s Pal

Two weeks ago I was back in Canberra for the first time in twenty years to see my daughter and grandkids.  Visiting the Old Parliament House down by the lake was like walking among ghosts.  A place I spent five years from 1982-87 as a small cog in the Hawke Labor government.


Tiny offices with ancient technology.  Intercoms and typewriters.  No internet or mobile phones.  Single sheet copiers and fax machines that produced a sheet of waxy thermal images every three minutes.  They let you walk through the Prime Minister’s office and Cabinet Room.  It seems more the 1950’s than the 1980’s.  The past seemingly another country. 


I see the ghost of Jean Sinclair – Bob Hawke’s long time personal secretary and keeper of secrets – at the Cabinet door on Fridays – “Brian’s on the phone”.  Ministers joked that Cabinet meetings were only interrupted for World War III and Brian Mayfield Smith’s racing tips.  BMS locked in his struggle to eventually end TJ Smith’s (Gai Waterhouse’s father) thirty-three year run as Sydney’s premier racehorse trainer.


My boss, Health Minister Neal Blewett, and Hawke were never close.  Neal, a principled intellectual, gravitated to the policy substance of Bill Hayden over Hawke’s blokey populism.  By the late 70’s Hawke was the highest profile public figure in the country through his larger than life ACTU Presidency conflict resolution.  Desperate to fulfil his manifest destiny by gaining a seat in parliament as a necessary stepping stone to the prime ministership.


Hawke had a unique history having been born in South Australia; schooled in WA and then spending most of his working life in Victoria.  He scoured the country looking for safe seats and the sitting member for Bonython in the far northern suburbs of Adelaide had fallen ill.  The catch was that Blewett had been active in the seat for a decade since his time heading the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam.


Promises of future opportunity (and hinted threats) were offered but Neal held firm (fortified by his resolute wife Jill) and Hawke withdrew from the pre-selection.  Eventually arriving in parliament in 1980 as member for the Melbourne seat of Wills to begin the undermining of Hayden with loyalty promises and  leadership challenges that are now Ambition 101 in Canberra’s revolving doors.


Desperate to restore the stolen legacy of Whitlam, ALP powerbroker installed their supreme salesman Hawke as leader in February 1983 just as Malcolm Fraser was driving to Yarralumla to call the election.  Sliding doors – the rest is history.


There are few friendships in politics but many alliances.  The introduction of universal health insurance via Medicare was a central element in Hawke’s Prices and Wages Accord to deliver industrial peace and economic stability.  The whole Medicare program was delivered in less than 12 frenzied months on 1 February 1984.  But not without incident.


Conservatives had fought tooth and nail to dismantle Whitlam’s original Medibank and right wing medical specialists in NSW were particularly angered by measures to cap their private practice earnings in public hospitals.  There was protracted industrial action particularly in NSW hospitals with strikes led by wealthy orthopaedic surgeon Bruce Shepherd – his wife a daughter of real estate mogul LJ Hooker – to stop the passage of the Medicare legislation.


Hawke always had strong links to the big end of town through his mentorship by TNT Transport/Ansett head Sir Peter Abeles.  Backdoor channels lobbied for the removal of the “intransigent/extremist” Blewett in favour of a more conciliatory Minister.  


Nerves jangled and alliances were tested but in the end Hawke held firm to principles and Blewett was supported to get the legislation through the Senate largely intact.  Once implemented, the Medicare program was hugely popular and Hawke rightly basked in the achievement.  Success has many fathers.


The Hawke Cabinet was immensely talented with Keating, Beazley, Evans, Dawkins, Button, Walsh, Ryan, and Young all fierce intellects and tireless workers.  Hawke’s executive skills as a disciplined harnesser of talent came to the fore.  After the Cairns/Connor chaos of the Whitlam years Cabinet documentation and process was rigidly adhered to.


Hawke as Prime Minister was truly a First among Equals unlike the shallow one man band politics of “captain’s picks” and “back of the envelope” policies we hear today.


At the peak of his powers from 1984-88 Hawke was more the spiritual leader of the nation than a politician.  A confessor of personal failings we could cry with and our presidential cheerleader when we shoved it up the Yanks in the America’s Cup.


My strongest personal memory of Hawke is the opening of a new wing (funded largely by federal money) at the Walter and Eliza Hall Medical Research Institute in Melbourne.  There was a large marquee in the grounds with hundreds of the great and good of Melbourne seated for the occasion.  I doubted there were a handful of Labor voters among them.


The Prime Ministerial limo (a Ford LTD back when Australia made cars) arrived the obligatory 5 minutes late to enhance the sense of occasion, and Hawke flowed down the centre aisle like JFK raised from the dead.  Everyone spontaneously rose and turned to clap and cheer like they were seeing the Beatles arrive.


Hawke’s speech was received like Billy Graham’s to 130,000 at the MCG in 1959.  The son of a preacher and barely 5’8” he had a magnetic warmth that could captivate an audience and make everyone want to share a moment with “their mate Bob”.


Most politicians feign an interest in sport to present as a man of the people, but Hawke had a genuine love of watching and participating.  He worked hard and played even harder – the natural leader of any team.


Most politicians would go the opening of an envelope, but Hawke would go the final of a tiddlywinks tournament.  Randwick, Kooyong, Bathurst, The Lakes, the MCG or the Sydney Football Stadium all came easily to him.  But his biggest loves seemed to be horse racing and cricket.


Even as Prime Minister he eagerly joined in the annual Politicians and Staff v Press Gallery cricket match at Forestry Oval in Yarralumla.  Famously top edging a pull shot into his glasses and reluctantly retiring hurt to the dismay of his protective detail and the Sun spin bowler who thought he had just dismissed his last “senior sources say” story.



My sense is that he was a disciplined and informed punter who loved the social side of the races.  The new found discipline from giving up the grog for eleven years after he entered parliament seemed to carry over into business and financial success afterwards.


He supported Hawthorn in AFL/VFL but it seems not to have been his natural environment, which is unusual for an SA/WA/Vic boy.  His son Stephen wrote a biography of Polly Farmer and dedicated his life’s work to indigenous advancement, an area where Prime Minister Keating had to remedy Bob’s compromises.


My guess is that Hawke loved the occasion of going to the cricket and races where there was plenty of time to gregariously share time with mates.  We go to the footy to watch the game and there is no other centre of attention.


Hawke’s fierce intelligence, relentless work ethic and the discipline learned from earlier failings marks him as the greatest Australian of my lifetime.  We liked him because of his courage and achievements; we loved him despite his all too human failings.


He drove us toward being a bigger, outward looking country confident on the world stage in business, science and the arts.  I hope that we don’t regress into the fearful white island of my childhood – confident only on a sporting field.


We owe him that on Saturday.



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  1. Anne Cahill Lambert says

    Great piece and lovely reminiscing, Peter. They were certainly the days in Old Parliament House.

  2. Wally from Williamstown says

    ‘He supported Hawthorn in AFL/VFL’ – you sure about that? I remember him more as a South Melbourne/Sydney Swans fan and he was the Swans number 1 ticket holder in 1982

  3. Just a look through that Cabinet list sends a shiver down the spine (paraphrasing Keating!), with the intellectual horsepower there. There would scarcely be one Minister of the last 10 years who would get into that Cabinet. I agree with almost all except the greatest Australian line, I reckon anybody who treated his wife like he did loses some brownie points. Mind you, I don’t know who I would put up for the title and it is Saturday arvo in MacArthur, country Victoria, the sun is shining and deep thought is just too hard.

    Well written and great reminiscing, the list of his achievements makes the last 10 years look pitiful.

  4. Anne – We were so much older then. I’m younger than that now. Heady days.
    Wally – Fair point. I can find sources saying both. I went with this source
    In line with his chameleon personality I have read that he was Hawthorn when living in Melbourne in his ACTU days and then shifted to supporting Sydney later on. Goes to my point that he loved sports where he could hold court while watching. Didn’t like being #2 to anything. Races, cricket and golf later in life were his passions more than footy. But he revelled in big games and occasions like footy finals.
    Bucko – Yep there are a lot of aspects about Hawke that were not personally admirable. As a reformed punt drunk I do admire that he seemed to learn from his mistakes and got more likeable/loyal/honest as he aged. I was a Keating admirer more than Hawke, because of his turn of phrase and inquiring mind. But Hawke had a broader range of achievements. Got the runs on the board. Keating followed his instincts and wasn’t as good at taking advice he didn’t want to hear. Bit of a one man band. Keating was Stan McCabe to Hawke’s Bradman.

  5. Agree about Hawke and Keating in particular. Hawke deserves vast credit for leading the campaign which as good as finished apartheid and some of his other achievements make a very big pile, although HECS debt students may not agree. Greatest Australian still makes my brain hurt thinking about it, it’s late and I cannot think of a better one, so you win. There are certainly no politicians to consider for the list.

  6. Thanks for this PB. I really enjoyed your reflections.
    The first time I was old enough to vote was 1984, and I voted for Hawkey.
    I think we tolerated his imperfections, because we saw something of those imperfections in ourselves.
    I am glad that he did not live to see the May 18 election.

  7. Ian Hauser says

    PB, I appreciate your comments on Neal Blewett. Neal was Reader in Politics at Flinders University when I was an Arts student there in the first half of the 70s. He played a great foil to the Faculty head, Professor Corbett. I experienced Neal as both a lecturer and first-hand as a tutor in Politics I and, later, in Honours. A brilliant academic, a prodigious mind and an excellent tutor – in fact, the best tutor I ever had. I’ve retained some of my essays from that time solely to savour the pith, wit and wisdom of his comments. When I had to present my progress Honours thesis paper to the Politics Faculty, my supervisor, the revered psephologist Dr Dean Jaensch, said to me, “Ian, when you go in there, listen only to what Neal has to say. He has read your paper and his are the comments you need to take note of and act on.” Sage advice for a floundering candidate at that point. Without a doubt, Neal was the greatest intellect I ever has the privilege to experience. He was never short of self-confidence, polite but no sufferer of fools, gracious in his dealing with undergraduates of varying competencies, and a master of understatement who once described himself as ‘working class on a slightly higher salary’! His measured and sensible leadership of the CPV movement was in stark contrast to the manic and divisive rabble of the more leftist group led by Brian Medlin. Neal’s later Canberra efforts surely rank him as one of the best, if not the best, Federal Health minister this country has seen. It’s not hard to imagine that RJLH might have found Neal to be a force to be recognised/respected – and used for the PM’s own ends?
    Written from Barcelona where the Oz election result has made headlines on the various international news services.

  8. Yvette Wroby says

    Thank you as always Peter. Like Smokie, I am glad Bob wasn’t around to see the results today. I think many of us are in mourning for the humaness of Hawke and his ilk.

    Fear and divisiveness seem to have won the election this time around.
    Will there ever be another that can show some magic and class?

    Now to support the next generation of voters

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks for this insight PB including your additional details re Neal Blewett.

    Yesterday goes towards proving that your leader needs to be more relatable to enough of Australia’s widely dispersed and diverse population than the competition’s. The constant disparity in the Preferred PM polling went unheeded.

    I’m with Smokie and Yvette.

  10. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great tribute PB. Hawke was loved by the working class migrants who slaved in the factories to buy property in the 80s/90s.
    Those same migrants (many whom I’ve spoken to over the last few weeks) now vote Liberal. They’ve learned to negative gear and felt insulted that this Labor govt would want to ‘punish’ them for their hard work.

    Many are also conservative, religious people who will never read the science on climate change or dare contemplate that their children or grandchildren might be gay or trans. Did Labor turn its back on them or did they turn their back on Labor ?

    Wonder what Hawke would have done to bridge the gap? Would have found a way to reach consensus as opposed to the polarity we see today?
    Thanks for this Bald Eagle. Cheers.

  11. I’m just really happy that I won’t have to look at Bill Shorten jogging anymore.

  12. John Butler says

    Really enjoyed this PB.

    I think your assessments of Hawke and Keating ring pretty true. Anyone who leaves a substantial legacy also leaves paradoxes and contradictions in their wake. I don’t think the Labor Party has ever reconciled some of those paradoxes.


  13. Great assessment PB. I recall seeing an interview earlier this year in which Bob said without sadness or bitterness that he’d be gone by the election. I was and am unsure whether to laugh or cry at that. Thanks.

  14. Mickey – you make a compelling case for 4 year terms.
    Phil – the loudest and most strident voices are not the most compelling. Identity politics shits me.
    Dips – Hawke; Howard and Morrison – genuine sports fans. Electability and the common man – discuss. Tony Abbott – triathlon and narcissism?

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