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Bob Hawke, Australian Prime Minister for much of the 1980s who embodied his country’s ebullient and self-confident spirit – obituary

Hawke: 'essentially a dinky-di Australian'
Hawke: 'essentially a dinky-di Australian' Credit: Pearce/Fairfax Media via Getty 

Bob Hawke, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who has died aged 89, fought his way up the beer and smoke ladder of Australian union politics to the top of his country’s Labor Party, then drank, bragged, bullied and charmed his way into the affections of the Australian people, who elected his party into office an unprecedented four times.

If there was a political leader who embodied the stereotypes most commonly associated with his nation, then Hawke was that leader. His harsh nasal voice, clear, challenging gaze, salty vocabulary and penchant for folksy metaphors (he described an old-style trade union leader as “preparing to deposit his lead in the saddlebag” of the party, and on another occasion observed that it was “time for the parliamentary party to fish or cut bait”) were all defiantly Australian.

So was his capacity for drink and his habit of getting into scrapes. When he was kicked out of office in 1991, he said he would like to be remembered as “a bloke who loved his country … the larrikin [rowdy] trade union leader who perhaps had sufficient commonsense and intelligence to tone down his larrikinism … but who in the end is essentially a dinky-di Australian.”

Hawke heading off on a cruise in 1972 when he was  president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Credit: Geoffrey Bull/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Most of all he personified Australian self-confidence – to an astonishing degree. In his memoirs, published in 1994, he single-handedly took the credit for almost everything his government achieved and made breathtaking claims for his influence on the world stage.

It was he, for example, who had led the way to the ending of apartheid in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela later visited him in Canberra, he allegedly told Hawke: “I want you to know, Bob, that I am here today because of you.”

Hawke even claimed to have taught the young Shane Warne (“a real beaut kid”) how to bowl. “National hero status,” he admitted, “is not the easiest thing to handle.”

The bluster may have been over the top, but it was forgivable, for Hawke was a formidably astute politician. He understood, long before the British Labour Party, that political principle is pointless without power.

When in 1986 Neil Kinnock and Denis Healey asked him the secret of his success, he explained, bluntly, that he really could not be bothered to tell them. “I said, ‘If you go into an election on a policy of unilateral disarmament, then you’re wasting your time.’ ”

Hawke’s self-confidence went with a surprising propensity for tears. He wept on television confessing to his infidelities while he was with his long-suffering first wife Hazel, whom he left in 1995 for Blanche d’Alpuget, author of his authorised biography. The plight of his daughter Rosslyn, a heroin addict, also caused him to break down in front of the cameras. He broke down again embracing a refugee from the Tiananmen Square massacre.

But it was Hawke’s identification with his own country that ultimately proved his downfall. The economic crash of 1987 affected Australia badly; Hawke’s ebullient optimism began to grate and he found himself under pressure from his party treasurer, Paul Keating, for the leadership.

Somehow Keating persuaded Hawke to promise that if Labor won in 1990, Hawke would make way for him. Hawke then ratted on the agreement, so in 1991 Keating forced an election and Hawke was voted out.

Hawke never forgave his rival and, in his memoirs, sought to settle the score by claiming that he (Hawke) had backed out of their deal in patriotic disgust after Keating had described Australia as “the arse-end of the world” and threatened to emigrate to Paris if he failed to become Prime Minister.

It was an allegation that Keating hotly denied, and, on the whole, people seemed to prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then as Hawke once said: “F--- history or it will f--- you.”

Robert James Lee Hawke was born on December 9 1929 at Bordertown, South Australia, the younger of two sons of a Congregational minister and his evangelical wife. His ancestors were Cornish tin miners who had migrated to the free colony of South Australia in the 19th century.

A precocious youngster, at the age of three, accompanying his father to visit a bedridden parishioner, young Bob decided to jump up on to a stool and preach her a sermon.

To begin with his mother Ellie focused her ambitions on Bob’s elder brother, Neil, but when Neil died of meningitis aged 18, she poured all her energies into her 10-year-old younger son.

The family moved to Perth, where Ellie coached him for a scholarship to Perth Modern School and devoted her spare time to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, touring the countryside with a sinister assortment of body parts pickled in alcohol.

After winning the University of Western Australia prize for best third-year Law student, Hawke won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he was known – inevitably – as “Digger”. Away from his mother’s supervision, he distinguished himself less for his academic achievements than for his prowess on the cricket field and for his heroic feats of ingestion of alcoholic beverages.

He won a cricket blue, toured with the university side under Colin Cowdrey, and was 12th man against MCC at Lord’s. He also made it into the Guinness Book of Records by downing a yard of ale in 11 seconds at the behest of a sconcemaster.

A cricketing weekend spent at Ampleforth is still spoken of with awe. He always admitting being “a bit fond o’ the sauce”.

Abandoning his planned degree, Hawke submitted a thesis on the history of wage-fixing in Australia. On his return to Australia in 1956, he became the advocate of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, achieving national fame in the Fifties and Sixties as “Houdini Hawke” because of his prowess as a muscular political fixer in a number of wage cases.

By the age of 43 he had worked his way up through the blokeish world of Australian union politics to become leader of the ACTU and president of the Australian Labor Party. His slogan was: “If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus.”

Hawke entered the federal parliament in 1979. Two years later, in July 1981, he challenged his party’s leader Bill Hayden – and lost. In 1983 the country’s Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, fearing Hawke might try again, called a snap election – too late. Hayden resigned the same day, and under the slogan “Bringing Australia Together” Hawke swept to power.

With Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He immediately called a summit between business and union leaders, which led to a succession of wage accords – providing Australians with welcome relief after many years of industrial confrontation.

Then, to the disgust of his party’s Left wing (he was excoriated by the novelist Patrick White as a joke figure “screeching political clichés from beneath a cockatoo hairdo”), he set about deregulating the economy and attracting big business.

In foreign policy, his government’s initiatives in getting the UN involved in Cambodia were instrumental in bringing an end to the bitter civil war, and he supported sanctions against South Africa. His government also initiated the Cairns Group of free-trade nations.

Such policies put him firmly into the Right-of-centre camp in world affairs and he got on well with Ronald Reagan and even Margaret Thatcher (who found him “like me, blunt and direct”), while remaining sardonically aware of their human frailties.

His memoirs include an amusing description of Mrs Thatcher’s literal-mindedness at international summits: when Brian Mulroney of Canada referred to someone “pulling the fat out of the fire”, the Iron Lady demanded to know “What fat? What fire?”

Hawke with Ronald Reagan, 1983 Credit: Bettmann

Hawke also disclosed that Reagan, during meetings, read from cue-cards, producing folksy observations on any subject raised from a pack he kept in his hand. There was, he observed, “a refreshing candour in Reagan’s approach. He did not pretend to have knowledge or expertise he didn’t in fact possess.”

Hawke fought a running battle with alcohol. From Oxford onwards his drinking was famous and he kept up his prodigious feats of consumption while working his way up in the trade unions.

In the late 1970s listeners to an on-air interview on a Sydney radio current affairs programme were startled to hear a groan of “Oh, Christ,” and then the unmistakable sound of Hawke vomiting into the handset.

He swore off it for a while in 1977, lapsed, tried again in 1978 – successfully for five months – but lapsed again when his mother died in 1979. After becoming Prime Minister, he kicked the habit of heavy drinking, and apart from a relapse in the early 1990s, embraced moderation for the rest of his life.

His family problems were less easily solved. He suffered a fearful emotional battle with his own children over Australia’s export of uranium, and plagued his long-suffering wife, Hazel, whom he had married in 1956, with his alcoholism and serial philandering.

Bob Hawke in 2017 launching a beer part of the profits of which would go to an environmental charity he had set up Credit:  Mark Metcalfe/Getty

When he married his second wife Blanche d’Alpuget in 1995, Hazel Hawke held a “freedom party” in the home where she and her former husband had planned to spend their retirement.

After Hawke was ousted from the party leadership, he turned his back on politics and launched himself with characteristic aggression into a business career, reputedly becoming a multi-millionaire.

He invested in property in Australia and a gambling enterprise in the Pacific islands and worked as a consultant for business ventures in Asia – including, most controversially, in Burma. At his wedding in 1995, demonstrators confronted the happy couple with placards which read: “Now Hazel is free, what about Burma?”

Bob Hawke was created Companion of the Order of Australia in 1979. He is survived by his second wife, Blanche, and by two daughters and a son from his first marriage. Another son of his first marriage died in infancy.

Bob Hawke, born December 9 1929, died May 16 2019