Bob Hawke’s lasting monument is the Australian society of today. A modern open economy, which he skippered out of sheltered waters, for good or ill, mostly good, into the open sea. Reformed national institutions, some now, sadly, in poor shape again.
But just as much a community which built on reforms of the Whitlam and Fraser governments to produce a more open and tolerant society during which discrimination, particularly on sexual grounds, was banned, the protection of the environment became a mainstream value, and political argument became more rational and civilised.
Hawke had a larrikin personality, long involvement in the Australian economic engine room, in the ACTU and on the Reserve Bank board, and enormous communication skills and ability to bypass the media and go directly to ordinary Australians. He had very good instincts, aided by an adept private office, for the temper and the mood of the electorate, and the sacrifices it would accept as well as the payoffs it expected.
Those who ask why modern politics have seemed so unstable might reflect that Hawke was always asking more of the electorate and promising less in the way of short-term rewards than the opposition. He got assent because he levelled with voters. He did not shrink from acknowledging that change required pain and dislocation — as well as a permanent break from apparently more secure and dozy days to which the nation could not go back.
Like all of Australia’s leaders since Bob Menzies, he did not know when it was time to move on and had to be dragged out kicking and screaming.
The man who called time on him was Paul Keating, himself a key player in Hawke’s success but increasingly inclined to believe that Hawke was surfing on his hard work and seemingly ill-prepared to cope with an able opponent with an extensive reform agenda of his own. Memorably, Gareth Evans, who stuck with Hawke almost to the end, told Hawke that it was “time to move on. The dogs are pissing on your swag”.
Only in recent years did Hawke and Keating reconcile, and, right to the end, they disputed the credit for some of their joint achievements.
Hawke’s colourful personality, a roguish self-confidence, his background as an industrial peacemaker and his capacity both for finding a compromise and managing the timing with which he arrived to save the show, were the base ingredients for an entry into parliament that saw him as prime minister within three years.
But his survival as a statesman and an administrator came from something else. He was a superb chairman who could hear out all sides, and guide towards a consensus.
He gave most of his ministers a loose rein, though he maintained a very effective intelligence service warning him of when ministers were in trouble. When that happened, he did not dither applying the medicine. Generally Hawke focused on the bigger issues and the narrative.
He had an uncommonly able Cabinet, all economically literate, and mostly, more eager to make lasting impressions on the nation rather than sensations in the media. Many of them disliked Hawke, not least for his undermining of his predecessor, Bill Hayden, who had done much of the groundwork for Hawke’s 1983 election victory. Hawke’s leadership was at its best in getting this team to work together.
Hawke also had a very loyal and talented staff, many of whom had no problem, in private with Hawke, in giving him frank and fearless advice. That, and Hawke’s capacity to master a brief, could generally see him dominate the public argument, as well as maintain the confidence of key constituencies.
A senior bureaucrat of the Hawke-Keating era was reflecting yesterday – before Hawke had died – about the leadership skills of Hawke and Bill Shorten, both regarded as effective chairmen.
He commented that a problem of dealing with Hawke was his vanity and conviction that he was always the most intelligent.
By contrast, Shorten, whose style he also knew well, knew he was not the brightest in the room, but could use humility instead of arrogance to bring people to an agreement everyone can wear.