The BBC reported yesterday that Australians will remember Bob Hawke for breaking a beer-drinking record and being a good bloke, which was a pretty feeble eulogy. Australians will remember him for a bloody sight more than that.
Bob was prime minister from the year I was 15 until I was 23, by which time I was a political science graduate, so he was a huge figure in the formation of my political worldview. (We always thought of him as Bob; he was only Hawke in the phrase “the Hawke Government”.) I remember reading Blanche D’Alpuget’s biography of him one summer back then, before they became an item; obviously it painted him in a good light, but it was a useful corrective to the view of him on the left as being too pragmatic and too accommodating to business. In student circles we saw him as residing over the reintroduction of fees, which was a huge disappointment, but a lot of the popular blame for that attached to his education minister rather than Hawke himself. Similarly, Paul Keating took a lot of the flack for the economic rationalisation that started under Hawke. Bob was teflon-coated.
But as well as attempting to introduce ID cards and a GST, neither of which warmed him or his government to the public, he did some undeniably good things. He saved the Franklin River, which would be under many feet of water now if not for Bob. He brought back universal healthcare, which Gough Whitlam had started but Malcolm Fraser and his treasurer John Howard had dismantled. His record as past leader of the ACTU meant that we had a decade of industrial calm. As Barry Cassidy has noted, his time in office saw major improvements in school retention. (At the end of Grade 10 in 1983, I was one of about one or two dozen kids out of a hundred in my country school who expected to go on to Grade 11 the following year. I think about half a dozen of us went on to uni in 1986, although some more followed later on.) His record on improving the rights of women in Australia was strong. And his response to the Tiananmen Square massacre was one of his finest moments.
The BBC could have better contextualised him for a UK audience by saying “imagine Tony Blair as if the Iraq War had never happened”, although that isn’t strictly fair, because the 1991 Gulf War started while Bob was still PM, and Australia was part of the international coalition that took part; the context of that war was pretty different, though, and there was no particular sense of lingering betrayal among the Australian people over it—more people turned against him (for a while) when he left Hazel for Blanche. Another Hawke/Blair comparison is that, like Blair and Gordon Brown, Hawke had an agreement with his treasurer Paul Keating to hand over power. (Keating became my preferred PM of the two, but that’s a story for another day.) There’s no question that Blair took a lot of inspiration from Hawke: the Hawke/Keating government was seen as a prime example of the Third Way.
I got to shake his hand once, at an event in Hobart. Got a personal split-second of that famous smile and those piercing eyes. Burned into my memory today.
Bob’s years as PM coincided with my peak years of cartooning, and when I was trying to break into The Bulletin I drew a lot of pretty weak gags featuring his distinctive coif. I’ve unearthed a handful of the least embarrassing from 1986 through 1988, which are a fairer representation of how I thought of him at the time than the rosy glow of memory—click on his grinning mug below to take a look. (I posted another when Gough Whitlam died.) But even at the time, with Reagan in the White House, Thatcher in Number 10, and Howard on the opposition benches, I knew, like most Australians did, that we could have done a lot worse. At many points during those years we couldn’t have done better.