Bob Hawke: Australia’s ambitious and charismatic former PM

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Bob Hawke
Bob Hawke dominated Australian politics in the 1980s

In 1952, Bob Hawke had an experience that led him to abandon his Christian faith.

The university student was attending a Christmas Eve party at a mansion in India at the end of the World Christian Youth Congress when he looked out towards the front gates and saw a group of starving people watching the guests eat.

“I thought, ‘There’s something wrong about this’ and I left the party and went back to my room and got some clothing and wandered around the streets where these kids were lying huddled in poverty and gave them some clothing and that was a turning point for me,” he recounted years later.

It was a telling gesture. As prime minister more than three decades later, facing his second national election, Hawke declared he wanted to create a country where there were “no second-class Australians”.

More ambitiously, he declared also that by 1990 no Australian child would be living in poverty.

He failed on both counts but used his eight years in office improving the position of society’s most vulnerable – the poor, single mothers, war veterans and the elderly – at the same time overseeing some of the country’s most radical market reforms.

Robert James Lee Hawke was born in Bordertown, South Australia, on 9 December 1929, the second child of Clement Hawke, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife Edith Lee, a school teacher.

When Hawke’s older brother Neil died, the family moved to Western Australia, where Hawke would graduate from the University of Western Australia with degrees in economics and law.

Ambitious and confident and with a political model in his uncle Albert Hawke, who would eventually become the premier of Western Australia, Hawke declared, at the age of 15, he would one day lead the country.

A near-death experience in a motorbike accident at the age of 17 heightened his determination to succeed.

He joined the Labor Party in 1947, aged 18, but put his political life on hold when he won a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford in 1953.

Family rupture

There he undertook a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics, before transferring to a Bachelor of Letters, writing his thesis on wage-fixing in Australia.

He married Hazel Masterson in 1956 in Perth, they later moved to Canberra and had four children.

The couple were both popular with the public and stayed together until just after Hawke lost the prime ministership in 1991 and publicly confessed to a 20-year affair with his biographer, Blanche d’Alpuget, whom he later married.

He enjoyed a great deal of popular support

His public popularity took a beating and the rupture in the family took decades to repair.

Like many Labor leaders, Hawke rose through the ranks of the union movement, which was a major player in and financial backer of Australia’s Labor Party.

Working first as a research officer for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Hawke was soon successfully presenting the ACTU’s annual case for higher wages to the country’s wages tribunal.

By 1969, he had risen to the top job of ACTU president but did not enter parliament until 1980, when he won the safe Labor seat of Wills in Melbourne. He was immediately appointed to the shadow cabinet by Opposition leader Bill Hayden.


It was a move Hayden would come to regret when Hawke toppled him in February 1983, one month before then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap general election.

To the horror of the conservatives, Hawke secured a landslide victory, becoming Australia’s 23rd prime minister.

He unified a divided Labor Party, which had held office for only three of the previous 34 years, and went on to win three more elections in 1984, 1987 and 1990, making him the most successful Labor leader in Australian political history.

Sometimes emotional, always charismatic, Hawke was an accomplished communicator, connecting both with workers who approved of his down-to-earth manner and love of sport and beer, and with the business class because of his pragmatism when it came to industrial relations and market reform.

Over the years, Hawke had earned a reputation as a heavy drinker who was popular with women, prompting him to give up alcohol in 1980 as he entered parliament in case he disgraced the country with “bad drunken behaviour” while in office.

Even before he entered politics, he understood the value of a popular public persona – appearing regularly on TV shows, inviting journalists to his home for casual briefings and declaring a national holiday in 1983 when Australia won the much-coveted America’s Cup yacht race.

“Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum,” he famously said at the time.

Social change

An emotional man, Hawke cried publicly a number of times. Six days after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he wept with hundreds of Chinese students and other mourners at a memorial service at Parliament House, offering an immediate, one-year extension to visas held by Chinese students who feared returning home.

Dedicated to reform and believing politics was a contest of ideas, Hawke and his Treasurer Paul Keating were responsible for sweeping economic and social change in Australia in the 1980s.

They introduced a universal free medical system, known as Medicare, floated the Australian dollar and deregulated the financial sector.

Hawke fostered Australia’s relations with the US

A republican at heart, Hawke also replaced God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as the nation’s anthem.

On the international stage, he maintained a productive relationship with the United States and was responsible for developing a strong partnership with China.

He strongly opposed apartheid, introducing investment sanctions against South Africa and banning racially biased sports teams from entering Australia.

Although the public would not learn the full story until some years later, in 1984, Hawke came close to resigning after he publicly and tearfully revealed the anguish he and his family had gone through because of one of his daughter’s drug problems.

But the end came much later, in 1991, when Paul Keating narrowly defeated him in a leadership challenge.

In 2014, Hawke told ABC TV: “One of my happiest memories in politics was my very last day. And one member of the opposition said, ‘You were a prime minister for all Australians.’ And that certainly warmed the cockles of my heart.”

Bob Hawke: Australia’s charismatic former PM

In 1952, Bob Hawke had an experience that led him to abandon his Christian faith. The university student was attending a Christmas Eve party at a mansion in India at the end of the World Christian Youth Congress when he looked out towards the front gates and saw a group of starving people watching the guests eat.

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