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Bob Hawke

Bob Hawke

Robert James Lee Hawke (born December 9 1929), Australian trade union leader and politician, was the 23rd Prime Minister of Australia. After a decade as leader of the Australian union movement, he entered politics and was Prime Minister within three years. He became by far the longest-serving Labor Prime Minister, and the second-longest-serving overall. But critics continued to dismiss him as a populist who abandoned many traditional Labor values.

Early life

Hawke was born in Bordertown, a small town in South Australia near the Victorian border. His father was a Congregationalist minister. His uncle, Bert Hawke, was Labor Premier of Western Australia from 1953 to 1959 and was a close friend of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, who was in many ways Bob Hawke's role model. Hawke's mother, Ellie, had an almost messianic belief in her son's destiny and this contributed to his supreme self-confidence throughout his career.

Hawke was raised in Perth and completed undergraduate degrees in Law and Arts (economics) at the University of Western Australia. He joined the Labor Party in 1947. Selected as a Rhodes Scholar in 1953, he went to Oxford University and completed a Bachelor of Letters with a thesis on wage-fixing in Australia. His academic achievements were probably outweighed by the notoriety he achieved as the holder of a world record for the fastest consumption of beer, drinking 2.5 pints of ale in 11 seconds.

On his return to Australia in 1956, Hawke married Hazel Masterton, with whom he had three children. They moved to Canberra while Hawke started studying for a doctorate at the Australian National University. But Hawke abandoned the degree in 1958 when he was offered a post as research officer at the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) eadquarters in Melbourne. His ambition, self-belief and larrikin nature were already obvious. John Button, Industry Minister in the Hawke Labor government, recalled Hawke holding court in the bar of a dingy pub that served as a Labor and union hangout, and, deadpan, offering him the post of Attorney-General in a future Hawke government.

Part of Hawke's work at the ACTU was the presentation of its annual case for higher wages to the national wages tribunal, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. He attained such success and prominence in this role that in 1969 he was encouraged to run for ACTU President, despite the fact that he had never held office in a trade union, or indeed ever worked for a wage. Hawke was easily elected President on a modernising platform, and retained this position until 1979.

Trade union leader

Hawke was elected with the support of the left of the union movement, including those unions controlled by the Communist Party, but he was never an ideological socialist and did not share the anti-American views of the left. Although he opposed the Vietnam war, he was a strong supporter of the US-Australian alliance, and also an emotional supporter of Israel.

In industrial matters, Hawke soon demonstrated a preference for and considerable skill at negotiation, and was generally liked and respected by employers as well as the unions he advocated for. As early as 1972 speculation began that he would soon enter Parliament and become Labor leader. But while his career continued successfully, his heavy use of alcohol and his notorious womanising placed considerable strains on his family life.

In 1973 Hawke became Federal President of the Labor Party. When the Whitlam government was defeated in 1975, Whitlam initially offered the Labor leadership to Hawke, although it was not within Whitlam's power to decide who would succeed him. Hawke decided not to enter Parliament at that time, a decision he soon regretted. The strain of this period took its toll, and in 1979 he suffered a physical collapse.

This shock led Hawke to make a sustained and ultimately successful effort to conquer his alcoholism - John Curtin was his inspiration in this as in other things. He was helped in this by his relationship with the writer Blanche d'Alpuget, who in 1982 published an adulatory biography of Hawke. His popularity with the public was unaffected, and polling suggested that he was a far more popular politician than either Bill Hayden, the new Labor leader, or the incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Indeed Hawke had the most popular man in Australia for nearly ten years by the time he entered Parliament.

The Challenger

Hawke was elected to the House of Representative for the Melbourne seat of Wills at the 1980 election, and was immediately elected to the Opposition front bench. Hayden's failure to defeat Fraser at that election gave Hawke his opportunity. He enlisted the support of the powerful New South Wales right-wing Labor "machine" to undermine Hayden, whom he famously described as "a lying cunt with a limited future." In July 1982 Hawke made his first challenge for the Labor leadership, losing by four votes.

By the end of 1982, however, it was obvious that Fraser was planning an early election, and Labor MPs began to fear that with Hayden as leader they would lose. In February 1983, on the same day that Fraser called an election for 3 March, Hayden was persuded to resign and Hawke became Labor leader without opposition. He went on to win the election in a landslide, becoming Prime Minister less than three years after entering Parliament.

Prime Minister

Hawke used his great authority to carry out a substantial set of policy changes. Accounts from ministers indicate that while Hawke was not usually the driving force for economic reform (that impetus coming from the Treasurer (finance minister) Paul Keating and Industry Minister John Button), he took the role of reaching consensus and providing political guidance on what was electorally feasible and how best to sell it to the public, at which he was regarded as highly successful.

Among other things, the Hawke Government floated the Australian Dollar, deregulated the financial system, overhauled the tariff system, privatised state sector industries, ended subsidisation of loss-making industries, and sold off the state-owned Commonwealth Bank - all reforms that in other Western countries were performed by right-wing governments. The tax system was reformed, most notably through the taxation of capital gains - a reform strongly opposed by the Liberal Party at the time, but not reversed when they returned to office.

Hawke benefitted greatly from the disarray into which the Liberal opposition fell after the resignation of Fraser. The Liberals were divided between divided between supporters of the dour, economically and socially conservative John Howard and the urbane Andrew Peacock. The arch-conservative Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, also helped Hawke with his damaging "Joh for Canberra" campaign in 1987. Exploiting these divisions, Hawke led the Labor Party comfortable election victories in 1984 and 1987.

On social policy, the Hawke government saw gradual reforms. The Whitlam government's universal health insurance system, which had been dismantled by Fraser, was restored under a new name, Medicare. A notable success for which the government's response is given considerable credit was Australia's public health campaign about AIDS. In the latter years of the Hawke government, Aborignal affairs saw considerable attention, with an investigation of the idea of a treaty between Aborigines and the government, though this idea was overtaken by events, notably including the Mabo court decision.

The Hawke government also made some notable environmental decisions. In its first months in office it stopped the construction of a dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania, responding to a groundswell of protest about the issue. In 1990, a looming tight election saw a tough political operator, Graeme Richardson, appointed Environment Minister, whose task it was to attract second-preference votes from the Australian Democrats and other environmental parties. Richardson claimed this as a major factor in the government's narrow re-election in 1990.

Decline and fall

This was to be Hawke's last triumph, however. A severe economic recession in 1991, caused by a credit blowout requiring the application of very high interest rates, saw the government in considerable electoral trouble. Although Keating was the main architect of the government's economic policies, he took advantage of Hawke's declining popularity to plan a leadership challenge. In June 1991 Keating resigned from Cabinet. He revealed that Hawke had promised to resign the leadership in his favour (the so-called "Kirribilli compact"), but then reneged. Hawke defeated Keating's challenge, but he was clearly a wounded leader.

Hawke's demise came when the new Liberal leader, Dr John Hewson, released a proposal for sweeping economic change, including a goods and services tax and deep cuts to government spending and personal income tax, in November 1991. Neither Hawke nor his new Treasurer, John Kerin, could mount an effective response to this challenge, and a rattled Labor Party turned to Keating. At a second challenge, on 20 December, Keating defeated Hawke in a party-room ballot.

Hawke resigned from Parliament shortly after, apparently with few regrets, although his bitterness towards Keating surfaced in his memoirs. After politics, Hawke entered the business world with considerable success. Hazel Hawke, who for the sake of the Labor cause had put up with the open secret of Hawke's relationship with d'Alpuget while he was Prime Minister, divorced him, and shortly afterwards he married d'Alpuget. He had little to do with the Labor Party during Keating's leadership, but after the electtion of the Howard Liberal government in 1996 he became a close supporter of Opposition Leader Kim Beazley.

Hawke occupies a curious place in the mythology of the Australian labour movement. He cannot be denied the title of Australia's most successful Labor leader, and by 2001, when Howard won his third election, the Hawke years had come to seem like a vanished golden age to Labor voters. On the other hand the left blamed Hawke for betraying Labor policies and traditions for the sake of easy populist success, and of laying the foundations for Howard's conservative agenda.

Further reading

Preceded by:
Malcolm Fraser
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Paul Keating

Preceded by:
Bill Hayden
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
Paul Keating