Bob Hawke: Demons and Destiny
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, 29 March 2022
The first time I met Bob Hawke in person, he shook my hand and looked directly into my eyes. It felt like the two of us were in a bubble, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Hawke was 70 years old, and eight years out of the prime ministership, but he still had his famous animal magnetism. The only other time I’ve experienced this magic trick was when I shook hands with Bill Clinton.
Troy Bramston’s new biography of Bob Hawke captures the energy and achievements of Australia’s longest-serving Labor prime minister. Raised by parents who often told friends that their son would be prime minister, Hawke made his reputation by winning substantial wage rises for workers. It earned him the admiration of the union movement and the epithet “Mr Inflation” from the conservatives.
As president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in the 1970s, Hawke increased union membership from 45 to 50 per cent. Less than three years after entering Parliament, he was Prime Minister. I remember going to see Hawke in his office not long after Labor’s 2013 election loss, and asking him if he had any advice for life in opposition. “No, I didn’t spend much time in opposition,” he wryly replied.
On the campaign trail, Hawke was a phenomenon. Former minister Wendy Fatin likened him to the Pope. In 1984, Hawke had a 78 per cent approval rating – a level of popular support that no other Australian prime minister has attained.
A key to the success of the Hawke government was his willingness to cede authority to his colleagues. Bramston quotes Hawke saying to his ministers, “I won’t be an intrusive prime minister. But there are two circumstances in which I will be involved. One is if you come to me and ask for my involvement. Secondly, if something arises in your portfolio which I think has significance for the government as a whole, beyond your portfolio, then I will become involved.” Hawke read every word of the submissions they brought to cabinet, but tried not to micromanage ministers with the talent of Paul Keating, Susan Ryan, Gareth Evans and Neal Blewett.
The achievements of the Hawke government reshaped Australia. Medicare was operating less than a year after the government came to office. The tax base was broadened, allowing personal income tax rates to be reduced while still delivering budget surpluses. Tariffs were reduced, making clothing and footwear more affordable for low-income families.
In 1990, the Hawke government set a target to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The government was accused of betraying Labor values (in 1989 alone, three books were published that castigated the Hawke-Keating “hijack”). Yet as Bramston notes, its commitment to equality and opportunity was pure Labor.
Internationally, Hawke formed effective working relationships across ideological lines. He engaged with China’s communist leadership on trade, which led to a 70 per cent increase in Australia’s exports to China in 1985 alone. He worked with US President Ronald Reagan to strengthen the ANZUS alliance. Under Gareth Evans’ leadership, Australia brokered a peace agreement in Cambodia.
Hawke was especially good on racial injustice. In 1971, as ACTU president, he was an early opponent of the South African apartheid regime, opposing the whites-only Springbok tour at a time when Liberal prime minister Billy McMahon vigorously supported it.
In 1985, as prime minister, Hawke pressed Commonwealth countries – particularly Britain – to consider using sanctions to accelerate the end of apartheid. Hawke was as far ahead of his time as his conservative opponents were behind theirs.
Bramston’s biography of Hawke follows a handful of others. The oldest Hawke biographies on my bookshelf were written more than 40 years ago. Past biographers have explored Hawke’s time as Australia’s top union leader (John Hurst, Robert Pullan) and his psyche (Stan Anson). Hawke wrote a 618-page autobiography that sits comfortably alongside Bramston’s 676-page tome. Blanche D’Alpuget produced two biographies of her husband: one published in 1982, the year before he became prime minister, and another in 2010 (later combining the two into a 996-page volume in 2019, released months after his death).
So what fresh angle can another biographer bring to the Hawke story?
Part of the answer is fresh research, based on new archival material and extensive interviews, including Hawke’s unvarnished views on each of his successors. Bramston also brings a fresh perspective, encapsulated in the first word of the subtitle: demons. In an era of #MeToo, Brittany Higgins and Kate Jenkins’ review of the parliamentary workplace culture, Bramston relentlessly scrutinises Hawke’s alcoholism and serial womanising.
Where previous biographers used euphemisms such as “wild” and “larrikin”, Bramston is unsparing in reeling off Hawke’s infidelities. Lovers are named. Liaisons are listed. During his time leading the ACTU, an account of Hawke’s days sounds like a scene from a Hunter S. Thompson novel (I’m thinking here of Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie). Hawke, who once drank 1.2 litres of beer in 12 seconds, spent his union days as a high-functioning alcoholic: truly the man who put the pub in pub test.
Hawke gave up alcohol when he became prime minister, but not the affairs. He also received considerable financial support from business friends, with transport magnate Peter Abeles paying Hawke’s mortgage, his children’s private school fees and the occasional gambling debt.
Bramston is especially good when he contrasts the ethical high standards that Hawke imposed on his ministers – sacking Mick Young for not declaring a Paddington Bear (Young was subsequently cleared in an inquiry) and accepting the resignation of John Brown for a potentially misleading answer in question time – with his own Casanovan conduct.
Yet the paradox of Hawke is that his government passed the Sex Discrimination Act, making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy. He strongly supported the Office of the Status of Women, and expanded access to subsidised childcare. His government appointed the first female High Court justice (Mary Gaudron) and the first female speaker of the House (Joan Childs).
Bramston’s biography is a reminder that all of us are made from crooked timber, and that the lives of our heroes are rarely unblemished.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.