Home » Reviews

Ross Fitzgerald on Hawke: The Prime Minister

7 August 2010 1,334 views No Comment

In 1982, Blanche d’Alpuget’s ‘ROBERT J HAWKE: A BIOGRAPHY’ was published to critical and popular acclaim. Her new book ‘HAWKE: THE PRIME MINISTER’ starts with Bob Hawke taking over as federal Labor leader from the unprepossessing Bill Hayden. In a matter of weeks, Hawke defeats Malcolm Fraser and, in the process, achieves his late mother’s, and his own, lifelong goal of becoming prime minister of Australia, our twenty-third PM in fact.

In the main, this four hundred page political biography of d’Alpuget’s silver- haired husband is well written and even handed. A hagiography it isn’t, which means that, as well as his achievements, a number of the PM’s mistakes are highlighted. These include the blatant ministerial mistreatment, after the 1990 election victory, which he largely engineered, of the NSW Right numbers man, Senator Graham Richardson, who as a result then became a strong supporter of Paul Keating’s long-held aim of supplanting Hawke in the Lodge.

Actually, d’Alpuget reminds us that, for all his personal and political weaknesses and venalities, Richardson was a fine, and passionately committed, Minister for the Environment, who after helicoptering “over some of the Tasmanian forests that both the Liberal and Labor parties in Tasmania were keen to log, had been convinced by the conservationist (and later Greens senator) Bob Brown of the urgent need to protect them. By the time they arrived back in Hobart, the Senator was a convert, intending to become a warrior for Brown’s cause. In his memoir, ‘Whatever It Takes’, Richardson wrote: “That was a bad day for the logging industry in Australia but a very good one for me, the environmental movement and the Labor Party. It didn’t take too long to work out that we had a perfect convergence: what was right was also popular.

Indeed it was Richardson who realised that, by the time of the 1990 federal election, electoral politics had to be done differently and in a particular way, namely that the votes to win were the green preferences. According to d’Alpuget, this election would “collect people’s dreams and unconscious wishes, as elections always do, but quietly, in marginal electorates. Slowly and silently, the tens of thousands of people in ‘the holding paddock’ of the marginals were about to push the (Hawke) government back into office by voting Labor second.

d’Alpuget is spot on in her analysis of Richardson who “always promoted himself as a tough operator, which the Left took at face value, and loathed. But, she argues, there was “a softer, genuinely empathetic side to him, best seen when he was Minister for Health and became, in the words of the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mike Codd, “passionate about Aboriginal health. Genuinely passionate. He could have achieved an awful lot in that portfolio, but he had to resign. His resignation was due to scandal and, as d’Alpuget aptly concludes, “the shadow of scandal seemed to be Richardson’s kismet, pursuing him into his seventh decade.

Although she cannot hide her sympathies, it seems to me that d’Alpuget is extremely insightful comparing Hawke and Keating – the self-described ‘Placido Domingo of Australian politics’. It is hard to disagree with her contention that much of the latter’s problem as a politician was his introversion. Thus while with intimates Keating was “warm, affectionate and funny, with strangers he was shy and even nervous. d’Alpuget tellingly recounts how a journalist, walking with him through a crowd, heard Keating mutter, ‘Don’t make eye contact! Don’t look at them. Just keep going.’
By contrast, Hawke was “forever eager to meet people, to stop, shake hands, tell a joke, ruffle the hair of a child. He loved ‘the mob’ and exuded the disarming conviction that every stranger would like him. In contrast, Hawke believed that, for many years, Keating “not only did not love the Australian people, as he, Hawke did, but actually rather despised them.

It is a sign of the power of her analysis that d’Alpuget convinces this reviewer that Hawke’s huge strength as PM was that he deeply loved the Australian people, and believed in their goodness. At the time, this was reciprocated in spades. Thus even during the economic crisis of 1986 he was still so popular “that at one Sydney shopping centre a crowd gathered in such a surge that a Hawke staffer feared there had been an accident. Inquiring what had happened, the staffer was simply told: ‘We’re here to see the Prime Minister!’

When asked to explain Hawke’s great election victory in 1987, the s unrivalled Labor Party chronicler and speechwriter , Graham Freudenberg, remarked that “there’s never been a prime minister who enjoyed the job, had sheer joy in it, as much as Bob. He exuded the spirit of fun and sheer zest for it. Freudenberg explained it thus: “I don’t mean having power and the appurtenances, which of course he enjoyed, he loved. But just the sheer joy of being prime minister for THIS PEOPLE. The Australians.

In this rivetting book on Hawke, there are the occasional inaccuracies. For example, in chapter 7 Douglas Sturkey, a long-time member of the diplomatic staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who in 1990 succeeded Sir David Smith as Official Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia is wrongly referred to as Doug Sterkey.

More than balanced against this is that d’Alpuget’s biography is a genuinely fine read. Fittingly perhaps, some of the best writing in ‘HAWKE: THE PRIME MINISTER’ concerns the fundamentally ludicrous Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen for PM campaign. d’Alpuget deftly explores the way in which Joh and his ‘white shoe brigade’ played right into the PMs hands and against the fortunes of John Winston Howard who, in a later incarnation, was to rival Bob Hawke’s populist appeal.

Blanche d’Alpuget, ‘HAWKE: THE PRIME MINISTER’, Melbourne University Press, 2010, 401pp, $54.99.
By Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney Morning Herald, August 7-8, 2010, Spectrum pp 32-33.