MUNGO MACCALLUM – What Bob Hawke meant by aspiration.

Bob Hawke’s widow Blanche d’Alpuget summed it up best: his was a life triumphantly well lived. The state memorial service last week sent the silver bodgie off in grand style. It was a fitting celebration of a remarkable leader.

But for some of us older observers, it was also something of an exercise in wistful nostalgia – a memory of times when politicians took on issues that were important, and politics itself meant something relevant, exciting and even visionary.

When  Hawke’s friend and ally Bill Kelty spoke, he mentioned Hawke’s aspiration, a word since debased by his successors. When Scott Morrison praises aspiration, he means personal gain, the accumulating of assets – what was once called avarice and greed.

When Hawke and Kelty used the term they meant rising above ourselves, setting worthwhile aims for the nation, even the world, listening to our better angels. Hawke successfully opposed apartheid in South Africa and mining in Antarctica; Morrison is struggling to deliver tax cuts to his wealthy constituents.

Hawke struggled too, but for a far more noble purpose. Paul Keating graphically described the resistance mounted against the radical agenda of economic reform the pair devised in 1983. They had to convince the  cabinet, the caucus, the broad Labor movement and finally the general public that the changes were both necessary and desirable. And with immense effort they succeeded. Aspiration gave way to perspiration.

And the result was not a win over the 24 hour news cycle, but inspiration – not only for the present, but for the future. Julia Gillard mentioned it, but the most impressive speaker was Hawke’s granddaughter, Sophie Taylor-Price, who recalled her grandfather’s call to arms on climate change in 1989 and his despair at the end of his life when, a full generation later, nothing substantial had been achieved.

She perseveres, as Hawke himself would have if he had had more time.  He was never one for the too hard basket, the back burner. He would have explained, persuaded, demanded an outcome – not in the crash through or crash manner of Gough Whitlam, but with a stubborn perseverance. During one policy dispute, he famously warned the parties that they would not be allowed to leave the room without agreeing to a settlement – and he got it. One cannot imagine any of our last six prime ministers showing such determination. Rather than aspiration, perspiration and inspiration, they have generally shown prevarication, trepidation and more often than not desperation.

Kim Beazley, Hawke’s friend and colleague (and arguably the best Prime Minister we never had) said of his leader that it was never just about persuasion – although Hawke could be mightily persuasive; it was about trust. Hawke did not have to constantly tell people that he was  fair dinkum – they already knew it. No spin, no subterfuge: what you saw was what you got, and they loved him for it..

Probably no other Prime Minister has been accepted with so much affection – certainly none since Ben Chifley. And certainly none will get so grand a send off. Hawke may not have been perfect – but he was pretty bloody good.  And couldn’t we do with him now?.


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5 Responses to MUNGO MACCALLUM – What Bob Hawke meant by aspiration.

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    I have been deeply critical for many years (including in these comments) of Hawke’s Prime Ministership in one particular respect: his effective endorsement and emplacement of neo-liberal policies. Perhaps the worst of which was HECS.

    I suspect there were at lest two causes for that. 1. Hawke came from an established political family – his uncle – Bert – was Premier of Western Australia in 1947 (when Bob was 18); 2. Hawke was so personable he endemically related not only to workers but to their bosses; he did not seem to understand that such sympathy would lead to the vast divisions of wealth we now have. Even if he had, he would have said – “Well, it’s up to you guys to rein it back in.” – which I would agree with.

    Australia has a real problem and not even necessarily of Hawke’s making: we need a charismatic Labor Leader and we don’t seem to have one!

    (Any votes for Rose Jackson MLC?)

  2. Geoff Davies says:

    Enough of this hagiography.

    Hawke and Keating certainly had some ‘redeeming social value’, as we used to hear in Mr. Rylah’s Victoria long ago, whereas most of the recent PMs have had few or none.

    BUT, their main claim to fame, ‘economic reform’ undermined everything they claimed to stand for. As I wrote here recently
    “The problem is the economic ‘reforms’ imposed by the Hawke-Keating governments are a failure. Our anaemic economy and divided society are their continuing legacy.”

    I grant it was inadvertent, and compounded by John Howard’s deliberate turn to the dark side, but they have wrought immense harm on our society.

  3. No Bob Hawke was not perfect. As a friend of Hazel’s for more than 18 years I was appalled at his treatment of her . It is well known what he was like before he entered the lodge but perhaps not so well known after he left the Prime Minister-ship. Hazel was generous and loyal throughout. It is good to see the family apparently reconciled, but enough of the myth-making.

  4. Kien Choong says:

    Mr Hawke was the Australian Prime Minister when I first moved to Australia for higher education. Australian politics didn’t much interest me then, but I do remember watching Lateline (anchored by K O’Brien) with interest, especially when he was interviewing Ministers. I thought it was wonderful to see government ministers defend their policies on TV.

    Later on in my working life, I began to take more interest in Australian politics. I was often disappointed with the state of politics in Australia; particularly why the later Australian politicians seemed so poor compared to those I saw in my student days. For a long while, I put it down to my impressionable youth, thinking that perhaps I had been overly impressed with Australian government ministers.

    These days I just think that the Hawke government was really good, a government with courageous, articulate leaders*, who sought to remain in government to make Australia (and the world) a better place; and perhaps the politicians we have today are in fact not of the same calibre as the Hawke government.


    [PS: * Mr Hawke is right to regret the lack of leaders in the Western world. To my ranking, the best leaders we have today are China’s Xi Jinping and Germany’s Angela Merkel. There is plenty to criticise Xi Jinping for (especially his apparent lack of any successor planning), but at least he has articulated a global vision for a multilateral cooperation to address global economic development (via the BRI), elimination of poverty in China, and addressing climate change.]

  5. Barry Reynolds says:

    I still have the greatest respect for Mr Hawke but the one part of his legacy I don’t like was his destruction of the union movement. Having said that there were far more positives than negatives.

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