Bob Hawke: A fair-dinkum Aussie who was premier four times

19 May 2019 - 00:00 By the daily telegraph

Bob Hawke, a former prime minister of Australia, who has died aged 89, fought his way up the beer and smoke ladder of Australian union politics to the top of that country's Labor Party, then drank, bragged, bullied and charmed his way into the affections of Australians, who elected his party into office an unprecedented four times.
He embodied the Australian stereotype with his harsh nasal voice, clear, challenging gaze, salty vocabulary, a large capacity for drink and a habit of getting into scrapes.
When he was kicked out of office in 1991, he said he would like to be remembered as "a bloke who loved his country ... the larrikin [rowdy] trade union leader who perhaps had sufficient common sense and intelligence to tone down his larrikinism ... but who in the end is essentially a dinky-di Australian".
Most of all, he personified Australian self-confidence.
In his memoir, he single-handedly took the credit for almost everything his government achieved and made breathtaking claims for his influence on the world stage. It was he, for example, who had led the way to ending apartheid. When Nelson Mandela later visited him in Canberra, he allegedly told Hawke: "I want you to know, Bob, that I am here today because of you."
Hawke even claimed to have taught a young Shane Warne ("a real beaut kid") to bowl.
The bluster may have been over the top, but it was forgivable, for Hawke was a formidably astute politician. He understood, long before the British Labour Party, that political principle was pointless without power.
Hawke's self-confidence went with a surprising propensity for tears. He wept on television, confessing to his infidelities while he was with his long-suffering first wife Hazel, whom he left in 1995 for Blanche d'Alpuget, author of his authorised biography. The plight of his daughter Rosslyn, a heroin addict, also caused him to break down in front of the cameras. He broke down again embracing a refugee from the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Hawke's identification with his own country proved his downfall. The economic crash of 1987 affected Australia badly; Hawke's ebullient optimism began to grate. He found himself under pressure from his party treasurer, Paul Keating, for the leadership. Keating persuaded Hawke to promise that if Labor won in 1990, Hawke would make way for him. Hawke ratted on the agreement, so in 1991 Keating forced an election and Hawke was voted out.
Hawke never forgave his rival. In his memoir, he sought to settle the score by claiming that he (Hawke) had backed out of their deal in patriotic disgust after Keating had described Australia as "the arse-end of the world" and threatened to emigrate to Paris if he failed to become prime minister.
It was an allegation that Keating hotly denied and people seemed to prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then as Hawke once said: "F*** history or it will f*** you."
Robert James Lee Hawke was born on December 9 1929 at Bordertown, South Australia, the younger of two sons of a Congregational minister and his evangelical wife. His ancestors were Cornish tin miners who had migrated to the free colony of South Australia in the 19th century.
A precocious youngster, at the age of three, accompanying his father to visit a bedridden parishioner, young Bob decided to jump up on to a stool and preach her a sermon.
To begin with, his mother Ellie focused her ambitions on Bob's elder brother, Neil, but when Neil died of meningitis aged 18, she poured all her energies into her 10-year-old younger son. The family moved to Perth, where Ellie coached him for a scholarship to Perth Modern School.
After winning the University of Western Australia prize for best third-year law student, Hawke won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he was inevitably known as "Digger". Away from his mother's supervision, he distinguished himself less for his academic achievements than for his prowess on the cricket field and for his drinking feats.
He won a cricket blue and toured with the university side under later England captain Colin Cowdrey. He made it into the Guinness Book of Records for downing a yard of ale in 11 seconds.
Hawke entered the federal parliament in 1979. Two years later, in July 1981, he challenged his party's leader, Bill Hayden - and lost. In 1983 the country's Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap election. Hayden resigned the same day and under the slogan "Bringing Australia Together", Hawke swept to power.
He called a summit of business and union leaders that led to a succession of wage accords, providing Australians with welcome relief after many years of industrial confrontation. Then, to the disgust of his party's left wing (he was excoriated by the novelist Patrick White as a joke figure "screeching political clichés from beneath a cockatoo hairdo"), he set about deregulating the economy.
In foreign policy, he supported sanctions against SA.
His policies put him firmly into the right-of-centre camp in world affairs and he got on well with Ronald Reagan and even Margaret Thatcher. His memoirs include an amusing description of Thatcher's literal-mindedness. At an international summit, the Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney referred to someone "pulling the fat out of the fire"; the Iron Lady demanded to know: "What fat? What fire?"
Hawke also disclosed that Reagan, during meetings, read from cue cards, producing folksy observations on any subject raised from a pack he kept in his hand. There was, he observed, "a refreshing candour in Reagan's approach. He did not pretend to have knowledge or expertise he didn't in fact possess."
Hawke fought a running battle with alcohol. From Oxford onwards his drinking was notorious and he kept up his prodigious feats of consumption while working his way up in the trade unions. In the late 1970s listeners to an on-air interview on a Sydney radio current affairs programme were startled to hear a groan of "Oh, Christ", and then the unmistakable sound of Hawke vomiting into the microphone.
He swore off liquor for a while in 1977, lapsed, tried again in 1978 - successfully for five months - but lapsed again when his mother died in 1979. After becoming prime minister, he kicked the habit of heavy drinking, and apart from a relapse in the early 1990s, embraced moderation for the rest of his life.
His family problems were less easily solved. He suffered an emotional battle with his children over Australia's export of uranium, and plagued his first wife Hazel, whom he had married in 1956, with his alcoholism and serial philandering. When he married his second wife in 1995, Hazel Hawke held a "freedom party" in the home where she and her former husband had planned to spend their retirement.
After Hawke was ousted from the party leadership, he turned his back on politics and launched himself with characteristic aggression into a business career, reputedly becoming a multimillionaire.
He invested in property in Australia and a gambling enterprise in the Pacific islands, and worked as a consultant for business ventures in Asia, including, most controversially, in Burma. At his second wedding in 1995, demonstrators confronted the happy couple with placards which read: "Now Hazel is free, what about Burma?"
Bob Hawke was created Companion of the Order of Australia in 1979. He is survived by his second wife and by two daughters and a son from his first marriage. Another son of his first marriage died in infancy. 
- © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019

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