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Daughter’s loving portrait of a woman of substance

3 December 2011 1,869 views No Comment

TO a certain degree this lovingly one-sided book is an attempt to set the record straight as far as Sue Pieters-Hawke, the eldest daughter of Bob and Hazel Hawke, is concerned.

With that in mind I suppose it’s no surprise that neither Bob Hawke nor his second wife, Blanche d’Alpuget, were interviewed for the book; that no photograph of d’Alpuget appears; and that the final chapter is titled My Mother, My Hero.

This means this biography, written with the assistance of Hazel Flynn, is much closer to hagiography than to objective analysis and that’s understandable, in human if not critical terms. Admittedly, Pieters-Hawke says right at the beginning: “I make no claims for balance in this account of her life.”

As long as we take all this into account, ‘Hazel: My Mother’s Story’ presents some illuminating insights into the life of one of Australia’s most admired public figures. Indeed, her down-to-earth approach as the prime minister’s wife, one who pushed for social inclusion and support for the disadvantaged and underprivileged, including indigenous Australians, won her widespread approval from all sides of politics. But this was only one side of her complex personality.

In an early chapter, Pieters-Hawke recounts that Hazel, who was born in Perth in July 1929, had a backyard abortion before Bob, as a Rhodes Scholar, went to Oxford University, where she shortly joined him. After almost eight years together and a six-year engagement, they were eventually married on a very hot day in Perth, with a reception held in a church hall where there was no grog to drink, only warm orange juice.

Less than a year later, the author was born in Canberra in January 1957. Even then, Bob’s drinking problem seemed entrenched. When they moved to Melbourne, for Bob to work at the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Hazel was increasingly isolated and alone while her husband’s drinking started to spiral out of control. At the same time, Hazel became aware of his numerous sexual infidelities. To make things worse, their fourth child Robbie died when he was four days old.

Even when Bob was ACTU president, he and Hazel were still paying off a large mortgage and had children to educate, sometimes at private schools. In a key chapter, The Lowest Ebb, the author is frank about Hazel’s own, often solitary, binge drinking as a short-term “solution” for despair and loneliness; and also about how, in 1977, she had cosmetic surgery, which may have been an attempt to deal superficially with her own self-image.

Pieters-Hawke details the flows and ebbs of her parents’ difficult relationship, especially during Bob’s lengthy prime ministership (March 11, 1983 to December 20, 1991), when they had to deal with daughter Ros’s heroin addiction.

Pieters-Hawke also points to the fact that Hazel overcame her dependence on the booze and stopped smoking in 1983, which showed she had considerable strength of character.

However, it is in dealing with her beloved mother’s failing memory, increased disorientation and advanced Alzheimer’s disease, about which Hazel went public in 2003, that this tenderly written book hits its straps. This is not surprising, given the author is the inaugural national ambassador for Alzheimer’s Australia and co-chairs the federal Ministers’ Dementia Advisory Group.

Talking about Hazel moving into the fog of dementia, Pieters-Hawke poignantly puts it thus: “As we slowly and painfully lose her, I have had the privilege of spending a year immersed in her life, rediscovering the woman she was.” The author has done so “with real curiosity as to how the times in which she lived shaped her, how key people and events in her life helped form her character, influenced her values and affected the choices she made”.

Established in 2003, the Hazel Hawke Alzheimer’s Research and Care Fund is a lasting tribute to Hazel. Fittingly, donations to this important fund support dementia grants for research into quality dementia care, prevention and management.

Now 82, Hazel has since 2009 been living in a care facility for dementia patients. In telling the life story of her mother from this unique perspective, Pieters-Hawke has done so with love and with “an immense sense of gratitude” that Hazel is her mother. In this sense, Pieters-Hawke has done her mother proud.

‘Hazel: My Mother’s Story’, By Sue Pieters-Hawke, Pan Macmillan, 470pp, $49.99 (HB)
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.
The Weekend Australian December 3-4, 2011