Larrikin and legend: Remembering the incredible life and legacy of Bob Hawke

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Former prime minister Bob Hawke died in his Sydney home on May 16, 2019. Source: Getty

Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, one of Australia’s most celebrated leaders, died on Thursday aged 89.

Hawke, who was Australia’s longest-serving Labor prime minister, held office from 1983 to 1991 and steered the country through its greatest economic transformation of the 20th century.

His policies were revolutionary: The introduction of Medicare and universal superannuation, floating the Australian dollar, lowering tariffs and reducing personal and company tax rates, and establishing the APEC multilateral trade forum. These policies paved the way for decades of economic growth that saw government spending slashed and produced four surpluses – the first since the 1950s.

He also introduced ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the national anthem and catapulted Australia onto the world stage, establishing it as a middle-power state more independent than ever from its British foundations.

His leadership style and personable nature endeared him to voters in a way no prime minister since has been able to replicate and he still holds the record for the highest ever approval rating at 75 per cent. Hawke set himself apart as a man who was deeply in touch with what the majority of Australian people wanted and didn’t shy away from laying bare his own personal demons and shortcomings.

Hawke, full name Robert James Lee Hawke, was born on December 9, 1929, in Bordertown, South Australia. He was the second child of Arthur Hawke, a Congregationalist minister, and Edith Emily (Lee) a schoolteacher. Hawke would later reveal it was his mother’s unwavering belief that he was destined for greatness that boosted his self-confidence and drove him to excel in his studies and his professional life.

He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in the 1950s, where he completed his thesis on wage-fixing in Australia and famously set the world record for sculling a yard of ale in 11 seconds. He later wrote in his memoirs that this feat may have contributed to his political success more than any of his other achievements by endearing him to a country that loved its beer culture.

While Hawke’s love of the drink was a hit with voters it was also almost his undoing. In 1979 his excessive workload and drinking led to his physical collapse and a reassessment of his dependency on alcohol. He had previously told A Current Affair’s Neil Mitchell in a 1975 TV interview that if he were to enter parliamentary politics he would give up the grog to lead the country. He stuck to his word and quit booze cold turkey in 1980, only taking it up again after he retired from parliament.

Although he wasn’t drinking, his love of a good time never wavered and his famous speech after Australia won the America’s Cup in 1983, when he said “any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum”, established him as a leader who wanted to revel in and share Australia’s successes with his countrymen.

This contrast between his larrikin persona and strong-headedness was evident in his leadership style and his policies, sometimes making it hard to predict which side of history he would stand on. He was opposed to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and campaigned fiercely to end apartide in South Africa, but at the same time supporting the US-Australia alliance and establishing the state of Israel in the Middle East.

His conflicts were also evident in his personal life and his infidelity made headlines around the country in 1995 when he divorced his wife Hazel (Masterson) and married his biographer Blanche d’Alpuget the same year.

Hawke and Hazel married in 1969 and had four children together, three daughters and two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Hawke’s infidelity was widespread throughout their marriage, but it was his relationship with writer d’Alpuget that would be their undoing.

The then union leader struck up a relationship with d’Alpuget after meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1978. He broke off their affair when he entered politics, but they later rekindled their romance in the mid-80s and Hawke eventually left his wife in 1995.

He was open about his infidelity and his shortcomings as a husband, but always maintained that d’Alpuget gave him the happiest years of his life.

Although the dissolution of their marriage hurt Hazel deeply, Hawke always maintained he respected her hugley and was by her side when she died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.

d’Alpuget later said of their affair in a 2017 interview with The Australian: “It took much more courage on his part than on mine. Because I was a single woman, divorced. But he was married. The whole country expected him to behave in this way and was unaware of what his true feelings were and so were bound to be shocked, angered and amazed when they discovered them. And they were [angered] and they expressed it, and still do, unfortunately.”

In 2017, Hawke revealed he had come close to losing his life to an illness two years earlier, but had defied his doctors’ predictions and recovered, going on to campaign for the Labor party ahead of the 2019 federal election.

He spent the last days of his life living with d’Alpuget in their Sydney home.

He is survived by his three children and d’Alpuget.

What are your memories of Bob Hawke?

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