How Bob Hawke came to be one of the best (and luckiest) PMs

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The rise of Bob Hawke to the prime ministership now seems to have been so unstoppable, so inevitable, that it is hard to imagine Australian political history might have unfolded differently.

But what if, instead of entering the House of Representatives at the 1980 election, Mr Hawke had retired from his leadership of the union movement into, say, a business career?

What if he'd not had willpower to give up the booze? What if he'd lacked the inclination to tone down his image as a larrikin union leader?

In that event, we might perhaps recall Mr Hawke as a gifted union leader — probably a bit of a "character" — but one who had lacked the personal discipline to fulfil his potential.

Perhaps we would remember him as epitomising those olden days when mighty trade unions imagined they were a kind of fifth estate, and when their big bosses were giants whose power rivalled, and sometimes eclipsed, that of leading politicians and capitalists.

Mr Hawke might have justly been recalled as a symbol of the pride before the fall.

Instead, he is recalled as one of our greatest prime ministers and certainly among the most influential.

It is a strength of the ABC's upcoming two-part documentary, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader, narrated by Richard Roxburgh, that it evokes the industrial world that gave Mr Hawke both a long and rich apprenticeship in public life and a remarkable celebrity status.

Some of the 1960s and 1970s footage is marvellous. You can almost smell the beer and Brylcreem.

But we are also reminded of the personal transformation that was needed before Mr Hawke could be seriously considered for national political leadership.

Reforming the larrikin

As the pollster Rod Cameron comments in the program, the public might have been willing to tolerate, while frowning on, a womanising prime minister, but they would not take a drunkard.

The larrikin side of the Hawke personality is now a popular favourite at events, where the octogenarian acquiesces to the urgings of an adoring public by sculling a beer — a reprise of his record-breaking student effort at Oxford.

External Link: Bob Hawke skols a beer at the cricket in 2012 (Glenn Brandon)

But the beer-swilling larrikin, who would still be there at closing time in the bar of Melbourne's John Curtin Hotel, had to be placed in the shade in the 1980s.

The reformed larrikin, of course, is a familiar type in Australian culture, most famously embodied in Bill, the protagonist of CJ Dennis's The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.

Bill gives up stoushing to become a properly domesticated husband and father, "Livin' an' lovin". Mr Hawke did a lot of both.

The program's discussion of his philandering is more coy than its handling of his drinking, but the expression on Hawke government minister Susan Ryan's face when discussing Mr Hawke's relationship with women paints 1,000 words.

The treatment of Mr Hawke in this series is rather generous. Mr Hawke was himself interviewed and all the talking heads clearly admire him to a greater or lesser extent — mainly greater.

There are occasional hints of a darker side. Graham Richardson says he did some pretty appalling things under the influence of drink, but will not tell us what; only that Mr Hawke would not have made it to the prime ministership in the age of the internet and the mobile phone.

Mr Hawke's 1971 Victorian Father of the Year award is treated ironically.

The news footage has Mr Hawke looking decidedly sheepish; the long-suffering Hazel privately wondered whether the judges had been on opium.

Neal Blewett, a minister in Hawke's government but a Bill Hayden supporter, thought Mr Hawke and the party's brutal treatment of Mr Hayden on the eve of the 1983 election did long-term damage to the Labor Party's morality.

The documentary does bring together many of the threads that help explain Mr Hawke's success as a politician.

There was the sense of destiny, instilled in this Congregational minister's son from childhood. His mother claimed that her Bible was forever marvellously opening at Isaiah 9:6: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder."

We are reminded of Mr Hawke's love affair with the Australian people, the "almost mystical bond" with voters.

Hawke's luck and skill

During that golden period of about 18 months after the 1983 election — as the drought broke, the recession ended and Australia II triumphed in the America's Cup — Mr Hawke was lucky, but he also knew how to exploit the brightening national mood to the full.

Mr Hawke did not just ride the wave of national pride and optimism during what Jim Davidson has aptly called the "Age of the Winged Keel". He embodied it.

External Link: Bob Hawke speaks after 1983 America's Cup Win (Labor Herald)

For a time at least. The 1984 election, in which Labor lost ground, took off much of the shine. Then there was the "banana republic" crisis of 1986, but the documentary does not pause long over economic policy.

It does recognise that Mr Hawke was immensely lucky in the depth and breadth of talent in his ministries, but that he was also skilled in bringing out the best in those he worked with.

His ego was colossal, but he had the wisdom to share power.

There would be more election victories — in 1987 and 1990 — but things were never the same once his relationship with his younger treasurer and natural successor, Paul Keating, degenerated into acrimony.

Yet, to the very end, as his approval rating plunged during "the recession we had to have", Mr Hawke clung to the idea that his relationship with voters was special. Like so many others, he failed to grasp the opportunity to leave office on his own terms.

Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader moves along rather breezily.

The episodes in Mr Hawke's career that reveal his attachment to high moral principle, such as his hostility to racism, or those achievements that rhyme with the present preoccupations of progressive politics — environmental protection and Medicare — receive loving attention.

Mr Hawke's failures are not ignored, but get more superficial treatment.

An exception is the abandonment of national Aboriginal land rights legislation and the proposal for a treaty, which figures in a melancholy few minutes towards the end of the second episode. But Mr Hawke always has good intentions.

This is a nostalgic program that begins by noting that Australians today "have never been so distrusting of politicians. But there was a time when things were different".

So, how did we get from there to here? On this question, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader is silent.

But it may be that for all of Mr Hawke's achievements, the era's narrowing of political possibilities — the equation of economic efficiency with good government, and of national productivity and competitiveness with national achievement — planted the seeds of both later economic success and political decay.

Hawke: The Larrikin and The Leader, a two-part series, airs February 11 and February 18 on ABC and iview.

Frank Bongiorno is a professor of history at the Australian National University.

Originally published in The Conversation

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