Tribute to Bob Hawke

House of Representatives, Parliament of Australia


When JFK was killed in 1963 Bob Hawke was having his first crack at trying to win a seat here in the Australian Parliament.

He was running for the seat of Corio – the seat my friend Richard Marles now holds.

And apparently his breathless campaign manager rushed into his office and told him “Kennedy is dead”.

Bob’s apparently went white and said “Graham Kennedy is.. dead?

That’s Bob.  Typical Bob. 

All his innate Australianness captured in one sentence.

He loved a drink, and he was pretty good at it. 

Even held a world record for it.

In 1955 when he was at Oxford University he drank two and a half pints in 11 seconds.

About 50 years later he was back at Oxford University for an event with another Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton and he was asked to give it another go.

Bill and Hilary were both yelling out “Go, Bob. Go, Bob”. 

He apparently got it down in 20 seconds.

He was still doing the same sort of thing at the cricket until a few years ago.

Bob Hawke was no ordinary bloke.

He was as at home on the hill at the SCG as he was dining with Presidents.

He was a larrikin statesman.

A man with a big brain and an even bigger heart.

He wasn’t perfect, far from it. 

But he was honest about his flaws, and people loved him for it.

And without question he was one of the greatest Prime Minister’s this country has ever had.

Like some many others here I grew up in what we now call the Hawke era.

I grew up watching him on TV.

He was the man with the funny voice and the big wavy hair.

The man often with the tears in his eyes.

And the man with the lairy jacket on the day we won the America’s Cup.

As I grew up I saw a different Bob Hawke.

I realised he was the man that gave my mum the green card she used to pull out whenever we went to the doctors.

And he was the man that meant a lot more kids from working class suburbs finished high school. 

In 1983 only about 3 in 10 kids finished high school in Australia. By the end of that decade more than 70 percent did.

I was part of that 70 percent. 

Bob’s mum Ellie told him that education was the golden key that opened every door – and Bob knew it.

And for a kid like me, the first in my family to finish Year 10 let alone Year 12, I know what he did was life changing.

Bob was also the man that brought my wife’s grandparents from Vietnam and allowed them to start a new life here in the best country in the world. 

But he didn’t just change the lives of individual Australians. He changed the whole country. 

We are a very different place today to what we were forty years ago. 

In 1980 Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, said that Australia was destined to become ‘the poor white trash of Asia’. 

That didn’t happen – it didn’t happen because of a lot of things that Bob and Paul did. 

Things like floating the dollar and ripping down our tariff walls and opening up our economy.  Enmeshing ourselves with Asia.

None of that was easy. 

It’s easy to sit here today and think it was, but the truth is it only happened because Bob and Paul and great union leaders like Bill Kelty fought for it.

Not all of it was supported by the Coalition.

Not all of it was supported by our own side. 

They were called ‘sell outs’ by some. 

It’s not easy to hold your nerve and keep implementing big reforms that you think are needed when people are hurting and industries are buckling under the strain of all of it. 

But we are lucky they did. 

Because what they did remade Australia – one with more jobs and more businesses and more opportunities than ever existed when I was a boy. 

Bob abhorred racism.

He mercilessly shamed those who attempted to use it for political advantage here at home and he helped tear down what Robert Kennedy called the walls of oppression and resistance, overseas. 

The economic sanctions that Bob Hawke convinced other countries to sign up to helped to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa.

When Nelson Mandela visited here almost 30 years ago he was here, at this time, because of him.

For the party I love so much, Bob also taught us how to win and how to govern.

Something we need reminding of. 

As Paul Kelly said in his book the Hawke Ascendancy:

The great strength of the Hawke Government was its success in capturing that balance between reform and reassurance. Herein lay Hawke’s genius. He encamped squarely in the middle of Australian politics and constructed a coalition spanning business on the right and unions on the left….. the old Labor Party aligned itself with labour against capital; the Liberal Party was in alliance with capital against labour. But Hawke sought a compromise which would make the ALP under his leadership the natural majority party. 

In the last few years I got to spend a bit time with the man I grew up watching on TV.

Meeting your heros can be a scary thing.  But not Bob.

He was very kind to me. 

He always very generous with his time and with his advice. 

He was also very funny.  He used to tell a lot of jokes.

And he always asked about my wife Louise.

He used to remind me that the age gap between Louise and me was the same as him and Blanche.

We also talked about death.

And he always seemed very much at peace with it, whenever it came.

And I remember telling him that maybe that was because he knew that even after he was gone so much of him and what he did would live on.

And I think he knew that.

There are a lot of us who yearn for another Bob Hawke.

I can understand that.

But people like Bob are like Haley’s Comet. They don’t come around that often. 

I miss him terribly.  But instead of mourning what we have lost….

…or hoping somewhat vainly for some kind of political reincarnation…

Instead I think we should take a look around and be just grateful for what he has left us.

He is the green card in your pocket.

He is the superannuation you will retire with.

He is the architect of so much of what is Australia today.

His invisible fingerprints are all around us.

And we are a better country for it.

As Blanche d’Alpuget said in her book about Bob, even though his service to our country is at end “the long tail of its comet still shines”.