By Catherine Taylor
In Bob Hawke — 23rd prime minister, true moderniser and Labor giant — Australia found a political leader the likes of which we’d never seen before.
It was 1958 when Bob Hawke — lawyer, Rhodes Scholar, larrikin and record-holding beer drinker — found himself at a crossroads.
He threw in his PhD scholarship and headed to his first full-time job at the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The plan was to show off his legal skills in a fight for higher wages.
The following year Hawke had his wish. He was promoted to a central role in the annual wages case being heard by the national wage tribunal.
Flamboyant and aggressive before the bench, the case allowed Hawke to give full flight to his legal training and passion for workers’ rights.
The case delivered a 15-shilling pay increase for workers, three times the result of the previous year, and his career — now officially on fire — had turned him into an “overnight rock star” according to his biographer (and future second wife) Blanche D’Alpuget.
A decade later Hawke held the ACTU’s top job. As union leader he had a national platform and he grabbed it with both hands, revelling in the profile and the power that came with it.
By the early 1970s Bob Hawke was a household name and it seemed clear that politics would be the next step.
A religious upbringing
Robert James Lee Hawke was born on December 9, 1929, into a religious family in remote Bordertown in South Australia, 250 kilometres from Adelaide.
His father, Clem, was a Congregationalist minister and his mother, Ellie, a schoolteacher. It was a loving and moralistic environment in which to be raised and young Bob, aged just nine, was urged by his mother to sign a certificate promising to commit to lifelong abstinence from alcohol.
When Hawke’s elder brother Neil died suddenly in 1939, aged 18, after contracting meningitis, Clem and Ellie funnelled their grief into smothering their surviving little boy with love.
Hawke described the impact of this “total love … you could feel them grabbing hold of me and I was the only thing they had left.” Clem and Ellie were protective and upstanding parents. Hawke remembers his mother cautioning him to use his intelligence — “Bob you’ve been born with brains, but you’ve got to use them and develop them”.
His father instilled in him a sense of social obligation, telling him: “Son, if you believe in the Fatherhood of God you must necessarily believe in the brotherhood of man.”
Soon after Neil’s death the Hawke family moved to Perth. It was a turning point in Hawke’s young life: from within this religious and loving home, shadowed by loss, and now forced to make his way in a new city, Hawke went on to win entry to Perth Modern School — an academically selective public high school — and then the University of Western Australia where he studied Arts and Law.
Hawke had a deep belief in his own ideas, instilled in him from a young age. “I have always felt indebted throughout my life for the sense of love and security with which I was surrounded as a child. I can remember my parents always insisted that I have my say, there was none of this be seen and not heard,” he has said.
It didn’t take long for Hawke to put this message into practice. He became president of the student representative council and watched on with interest as his uncle, Albert Hawke, rose to premier of Western Australia.
Notwithstanding his indebtedness to his parents, Hawke used his university years to kick free of their influence.
By his own account Hawke was a distracted student, impatient with the discipline required of study, and instead threw his energy into sport and socialising.
It was inevitable that Hawke would throw out his childhood pledge of sobriety and he became an enthusiastic drinker — the pinnacle of which came a few years later while on his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University — when he set a world record for skolling the equivalent of 1.4 litres of beer in 11 seconds.
Hawke has credited the feat with cementing his image as a man of the people in the minds of Australian voters.
A brush with death
One weekend, mid-way through his first year of university in Perth, came another turning point.
Hawke planned to ride his motorbike to the library to catch up on study, but he was unwell that day and passed out on the bike.
The result was a catastrophic crash that ruptured his spleen and left his life hanging in the balance.
He has recalled remembering the fear in his parents’ eyes as he lay in the hospital — surely, they could not lose both their treasured sons.
Coupled with the religious beliefs that lingered from his up-bringing, Hawke had an epiphany:
“God had spared my life and … I had an obligation now to make sure that I made the very most of it. And that meant pushing myself to the limits.”
Family and work at odds
As ACTU president Hawke built a reputation as a workaholic, and an alcoholic.
His national profile was enormous, and he appeared to veer seamlessly from championing workers’ rights, to carousing in front of cameras at the races, or finding refuge in alcohol, beginning with brandy at breakfast time. He had created himself as a man of the people, a leader who could relate to the average Aussie.
But as his bond with Australians strengthened, his lifestyle began to tear at his family life; he was rarely home and his first wife and childhood sweetheart, Hazel Masterton, was left to raise their three children — Susan, Stephen and Rosslyn — largely alone, while smiling and supporting his career in public. The couple lost their fourth child, Robert Jr, as a baby.
But Hazel had been scarred by her husband’s ambition before.
The two had met as teenagers and were a couple before he began studying at Oxford University in 1953.
By all accounts it was a deep and passionate love.
But Hazel fell unexpectedly pregnant before they had married and just as Hawke was about to embark on his Oxford adventure.
The couple decided that a baby would compromise Hawke’s Rhodes scholarship which was conferred only to unmarried candidates.
The pregnancy was terminated, illegal at the time, and the experience caused Hazel great distress. It was not until Hawke returned from Oxford in 1956 — where he had researched Australia’s arbitration system — that the two were married at last.
But family life continued to come second to Hawke’s career. He joked in the media about his sleep deprivation, not from child rearing but from late nights at work and was famously filmed signing ACTU documents while recovering in bed from a back injury. He raised eyebrows, and infuriated Hazel, when he inexplicably won a father of the year award in 1971.
Stories of infidelity continued to follow Hawke, most notably Blanche D’Alpuget — who he met during a trip to Jakarta in 1970 and got to know six years later as she researched his biography.
The two married shortly after his divorce from Hazel in 1995, following a romance which he confessed had begun many years earlier. He had hoped, he told Australian Story, that “one day we could really come together permanently”, and when they did, their deep love and connection lasted for the rest of his life.
Hawke had known his relationship with D’Alpuget must take second place behind his ambition: just as a baby would have compromised his Oxford scholarship, a divorce would not serve him well as an aspiring prime minister. “Nobody said to him you can’t be prime minister when you get divorced. But he was savvy enough to know that himself,” D’Alpuget has said.
Of the hurt that love caused Hazel and his children, Hawke confessed to a friend at the time of his divorce: “I’ve got the next 20 years to go and I want to live it with the person I love.”
The remaking of Bob
After a decade with the ACTU, Hawke’s boisterous personality and heavy drinking had become a liability.
Still ambitious for politics — he made a failed attempt to win the seat of Corio in 1963 and passed up other opportunities through the 1970s — Hawke knew it was now or never. And he also knew to have a chance at winning a seat, his image and lifestyle had to change.
By 1979 newspaper stories were already starting to cast doubt on his ability to make the transition to Parliament but in the end, ambition trumped his love of the bottle. Hawke gave up drinking and announced he planned to stand for the seat of Wills in the 1980 election.
Hawke won Wills comfortably but his drive to reach the top was far from satisfied.
Next stop was the leadership of the Labor Party which he attempted twice, shunting Bill Hayden from the job on his second go in 1982, after less than three years in Parliament.
Prime minister Malcolm Fraser failed to anticipate Labor’s transition from Hayden to Hawke. He had been hoping to face Hayden at the federal election, and had sought an early poll that very day, unaware of the Labor changes.
Hawke didn’t miss a beat and just 36 days after winning the Labor leadership he carried the party to an election.
And as the votes were tallied it became clear: the job of Australia’s 23rd prime minister, the position Bob Hawke had believed was his destiny, was his indeed.
With years of economic and industrial relations experience behind him and a stint as industrial relations minister in Parliament, Hawke said he felt “completely ready” to be prime minister.
He was a political leader of the likes Australia had never seen.
Alcohol free but with all of his brash charm and deep self-belief intact, hysteria followed him almost everywhere.
The public wanted to touch him, he danced, he was an eloquent and charismatic speaker.
He was the kind of leader no-one could ignore.
His relationship with journalists was often combative and entertaining. His lawyer’s training made him a tough subject to interview and he didn’t hold back when questions entered territory with which he disagreed .
As PM Hawke lived out his image as a man of the people. He sat in the front seat next to his driver and insisted he be called Bob. “Don’t think you’re any different from me,” he reportedly told his driver. “I’m PM but I’m working for the government same as you.”
Hawke’s first term in office was marked by significant and symbolic change.
His government stopped the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania and uranium mining at Jabiluka, produced a landmark wages accord with the unions and proclaimed Advance Australia Fair the national anthem. Hawke’s government established Medicare, first introduced as Medibank by the Whitlam government. With Paul Keating as treasurer, the Hawke government’s lasting achievements included floating the Australian dollar, dismantling tariffs and deregulating the banking system.
But his government ushered in unpopular changes too: charging for tertiary education and an assets test on age pensions.
Hawke walked all over a divided Coalition in the 1980s, seeing off challenges from Andrew Peacock, John Howard, Peacock again, and even the Joh (Bjelke-Petersen) for Canberra campaign.
In all, there would be four election victories — 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1990 — making him Labor’s longest-serving prime minister and the third longest-serving Australian PM of all time, behind Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard.
His personal exuberance continued to win over the Australian public. Just six months after taking office he claimed Australia’s win in the America’s Cup as his own — famously declaring on television that: “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up to work today is a bum.”
For all his aggressive and argumentative ways, Hawke’s sensitive side was never far from the surface. He left many Australians baffled by crying on television when revealing the extent of his daughter Rosslyn’s heroin addiction, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the hurt his infidelities had caused his first wife, Hazel.
Hawke’s views on social justice emerged in his vocal opposition to Apartheid in South Africa and his support for racial vilification laws, stating in 1984: “We will not allow to become a political issue in this country the question of Asianisation.”
But his habit of speaking off-the-cuff would also cost him credibility. His famous pledge that “by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty” after veering off-script, proved undeliverable.
By 1991 the economy was suffering the effects of a severe recession and very high interest rates.
The environment was ripe for a leadership challenge, and Hawke’s ambitious treasurer Keating — who had struck a private deal with Hawke, which the PM delayed honouring, to transition to the leadership after the 1990 election — delivered that challenge.
Keating failed on his first attempt at a leadership coup on June 3 and resigned as treasurer, stating plainly that: “I wanted his job and I tried to take it off him. It’s as simple as that.”
Hawke favoured a consensus approach to leadership and some of his key ministers — including Gareth Evans who was foreign minister in Hawke’s cabinet — have reflected on the quality of his leadership style: “He had a very strong sense of policy direction, he was an excellent communicator to the public, the world at large, he was charismatic to go with it and he was a terrific manager of people.”
Yet Hawke’s close, productive and consensual working relationship with Keating had been broken by the leadership tussle.
Economic woes, coupled with a lacklustre response to the Liberal Party’s proposed goods and services tax (GST), gave Keating the numbers he needed to take on the Labor leadership.
In December 1991 he challenged Hawke again and won, becoming Australia’s 24th prime minister.
Accepting defeat, Hawke told the media: “If this was 11 years ago, I’d be getting pretty thoroughly drunk, but fortunately for me and even more fortunately for others that is 11 years ago, and the only beer that will be passing my lips will be the totally non-alcoholic variety.”
He resigned from Parliament in February 1992.
The rift with Keating was far from over. Hawke once reflected on Keating’s capacity to hate: “[He] was an outstandingly good parliamentarian. He had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. And I suppose it’s also important in that he really hated his opponents. He had a great capacity for hatred.”
With that hatred apparently now directed towards his former boss, Keating and Hawke were rarely seen together again.
It was only this month that the famous Hawke-Keating combo cooperated once again, delivering a co-authored opinion piece to make a stamp on the federal election campaign.
“I would like history to talk about Paul and myself in terms of the great things we were able to do together,” Hawke has said. “And his ambition to become leader was perfectly justified and, in the end, he had his opportunity and he did some good things. So I.. I…I hope history will look at the positives and not the occasional, ah, tiffs.”
Is a post-political life possible?
In the years after he left politics Hawke remained vocal on political issues and continued to campaign for the Labor Party and the election hopes of Labor leaders.
He supported an Australian republic and before the start of the war in Iraq in 2002 Hawke lobbied hard against Australia’s involvement, saying later: “My point was that the war was intrinsically wrong, and as a result of our participation we haven’t improved Australia’s security but created a greater danger at home and abroad.”
Hawke never lost his irreverence or passion for a party. In 2009 D’Alpuget hosted an 80th birthday party for her husband, featuring a stripper dressed as John Howard.
Hazel died, aged 83, in 2013 after a long fight with Alzheimer’s disease. Hawke was called to her bedside in her final days.
“I sat with her and held her hand and one of her favourite songs was Danny Boy so I just quietly held her hand and sang Danny Boy to her,” Hawke said.
“I think he’s a man who has made amends where amends need to be made mostly and is at peace and is happy and in love,” Hawke’s eldest daughter Sue has remarked. “It took a bit of time to come around I think but it’s a matter of real satisfaction to me that the family has reformed.”
Of his own death, Hawke has consistently said he was unafraid: “I’m quite conscious of my mortality but I don’t think about death and I’m not frightened of death. Am I a happy man today? I have a lovely, beautiful woman as my wife who I love dearly and she loves me. I’m still doing things which I think still are useful to other people and I’m about to become a great grandfather. I mean what more can a bloke want?”