The view from Billinudgel

Remembering the Silver Bodgie
Bob Hawke’s ability to build consensus reshaped Australia

AAP Image / Dan Himbrechts

Bob Hawke did not suffer from false modesty. He always knew he was the smartest person in the room – and, unlike many egoists, he was usually right, which is saying something, given the stellar ministry over which he presided for most of his time as prime minister.

His colleagues called him Little Caesar – the cartoonist Patrick Cook often portrayed him as lugging a statue of himself wherever he went. But such was his insouciance he simply accepted it as his due, as did so many of the public.

Hawke frequently spoke of his love affair with the Australian people, and the boast was a true one – he loved, and he yearned to be loved back. And by and large he was, and still is.

And he will be remembered not just with affection but with deep gratitude for his achievements, which were, like Cook’s statue, monumental. However, he was not the founder of modern Australia – the credit for that goes to Gough Whitlam, who dragged the country out of the long twilight of the Coalition years.

Whitlam’s huge program of reform covered almost all the bases – health, education, welfare, foreign policy environment, the legal system, consumer protection, urban renewal, Indigenous rights, women’s rights and human rights in general, communications, the arts… the list goes on. And perhaps most importantly of all, he laid the framework for the multicultural society that is Australia’s greatest and noblest postwar legacy.

Hawke developed and renewed that agenda after eight years of Malcolm Fraser, and cemented them into our culture. And he added the crucial piece that Whitlam missed: the economy.

Whitlam had belatedly embarked on a program of tariff cuts, but that was about it: as an issue the economy both mystified and bored him. Hawke and Paul Keating grabbed it with something like delight and moulded it into a completely new image. And for that, they can justly be called the founders of the modern Australian economy, surely a sufficient feat in itself.

But unlike Scott Morrison, Hawke was not a one-dimensional obsessive: he was, in his own a way, both a polymorph and a political genius. Which is where I get personal.

Like nearly everyone who knew him, I got on well with Hawke, at least most of the time – he became a bit bristly when criticised. But we drank and yarned together in the old days, shared a love of sport and literature and held similar views about politics. Our major confrontations came later as respective captains of the journalists’ and politicians’ teams at the annual cricket match.

But I did not support him in his relentless quest to become prime minister; I thought he was too ego-driven, too erratic and too impulsive, and would not work with a team of ministers, some of whom were almost as ambitious as himself.

But I was completely wrong: Hawke became a superb leader in cabinet, and the finest political tactician I have ever met. His big strategies were bold and visionary, but he never sought to emulate Whitlam’s crash through or crash approach: in fact he was the one who had to restrain the over-eager Keating.

Many of his signature policies were bitterly resisted by political insiders, especially the diehards within his own Labor Party, but he persuaded them that they would work, and the public agreed, re-electing him three more times as prime minister. This in itself was an abiding legacy – the idea that Labor could be, at least for a time, the natural party of government.

When I left Canberra in 1988, he took me into is inner sanctum for a cup of tea (!!!) and a farewell chat. I think he was genuinely sorry to see me go. And now, I am certainly sorry to say goodbye to him. It is a cliché, but a true one: we will not look upon his like again.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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