Few politicians in Australian history will be remembered as fondly as Robert J Hawke.
‘The Silver Bodgie’ – as he was known in the press for his silken salt-and-pepper-with-a-bit-more-salt head of hair – led the nation from 1983 to 1991 and passed away peacefully on Thursday at the age of 89, less than 48 hours out from the federal election.
In an era of increasingly divided and acrimonious public discourse, Bob Hawke’s legacy is one that transcends party politics, with tributes flowing in from political figures of all stripes. As a leader he advanced causes dear to both the socialist and neoliberal traditions of the 20th century.
Here’s what you need to know about his life and times.
1. Bob Hawke was a true national figure
Australian politics can be a tribal sport. But when it comes to geographic tribalism, Hawke had unique life experience that connected him to communities across the country. Born in Bordertown, South Australia, to a Congregational minister father and teacher mother, he moved to Perth with his family as a 10-year-old boy and spent his formative years in the Western Australian capital. He attended the University of Western Australia, his uncle Albert was premier of Western Australia in the 1950s and in 1953, he represented the state as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England.
Returning to Australia in 1956, he and his wife Hazel lived in Canberra for a time before moving to Melbourne, the city he would call home for much of his adult life and where he would become the Member for Wills, a position he held for more than a decade.
Following his retirement in 1991, Hawke called Sydney home, settling in Northbridge on the shores of the harbour before downsizing in his final months to the CBD, where his public memorial will be held.
2. He floated the Aussie dollar and opened up the economy
Along with his treasurer and successor Paul Keating, Hawke is one of the people most responsible for opening Australia’s economy to the world. In 1984, he deregulated the nation’s currency so that global financial markets – and not the Reserve Bank – would determine its value. He also helped privatise the state-owned banking sector and reduced tariffs.
On his passing he is being honoured not just by labour movement figures but also by business leaders.
Bob Hawke left behind a legacy of reform and consensus that not only had a transformative effect on the Aus. economy but set the benchmark for collaboration between gov. and business. We would like to express our deep condolences to the Hawke family. https://t.co/njy4hDNvrZ pic.twitter.com/rBVoluwllR
— CCIQ (@CCIQLD) May 16, 2019
3. He was a Labor man and proud unionist
Despite being remembered as a centrist and economic reformer, he is undeniably cut from the Labor cloth. He joined the Labor party in 1947, at the age of 18, and was a union organiser and president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) before he entered the parliamentary party.
Decades later, at the ACTU Congress in 2012, Hawke famously belted out a rendition of labour movement ballad ‘Solidarity Forever’.
4. He furthered Australia’s Asian identity
In 1989, he founded the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and was seen as a vocal advocate of Australia embracing a modern identity as part of the region. He fostered relationships with Australia’s neighbours, but was also unafraid to criticise human rights abuses.
Members of the Chinese-Australian community paid homage to Hawke for his extension of asylum to refugees in the wake of the Tiananmen atrocity.
30 years ago he granted asylum to all #Chinese students in Australia after #Tiananmen Sq massacre. My mum was one of them. My family are forever grateful for this opportunity to live and thrive in this beautiful and democratic country. #BobHawkeRIP pic.twitter.com/y0WF90GLAL
— Maree Ma (@maree_jun) May 16, 2019
5. He was a cricket tragic like political rival John Howard
Throughout his life Hawke was a regular at test and local cricket matches in Australia and abroad, an astute analyst of the game and an inspiration to players.
He was also willing to put his body on the line playing the sport, famously copping a ball to the face in a match against journalists in 1984.
6. He unilaterally declared an unauthorised national holiday
When, in 1983, the Australia II vessel owned by media and property magnate Alan Bond won the America’s Cup, Hawke was as pleased as any of his countrymen.
In a live TV interview he declared the day a “national holiday” in jest before going on to deliver what was arguably his most famous line.
“Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum,” he said.
7. He married his biographer, Blanche d’Alpuget
In 1995, Hawke divorced his wife, Hazel, having fallen for Blanche d’Alpuget, the author of ‘Robert J Hawke: A biography’. The two remained a committed couple right up until the end, with the former writer issuing a statement on behalf of the Hawke family on Thursday.
She told the ABC in February 2018 that Hawke had no fear of death.
— Justin Stevens (@_JustinStevens_) May 16, 2019
8. He claimed that Australia would eradicate child poverty by 1990
Going off script at a campaign event in 1987, the then-prime minister pledged that no child in Australia would be living in poverty in just three years’ time. While the outcome of the pledge did not eventuate in the timeframe – and still hasn’t – a number of academics have said his comments will continue to inspire action in pursuit of the goal.
9. He stayed active in politics and loyal to Labor
While in more recent years, some former prime ministers have become a thorn in the side of their successors, Hawke seemed to know when to pick his moments.
Just days before his death, Hawke penned an open letter to Australian voters endorsing Labor leader Bill Shorten.
Honoured and humbled to have the support of one of Australia's greatest Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke.https://t.co/lXXqHFSIbk
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) May 14, 2019
10. He was a world-champ beer-skoller and even had a cold one named after him
Of all his lasting legacies in politics and industrial relations, arguably it was an achievement from his university days that he will be best remembered for. While at Oxford he downed a yard glass of ale in record time, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.
He was forced to repeat the feat on many occasions in public well into his 80s, especially at the cricket. And in 2017 he officially launched Hawke’s Lager at The Clock Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
Sales will no doubt skyrocket in coming days, as Australians reflect on the life and legacy of a legendary larrikin leader.
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