The death of a legend

I was sitting on my couch last night watching TV when the news came through that Bob Hawke had died. He was 89, I knew he’d been crook for some time, but the news still struck me hard. I think much of Australia, on both sides of the political spectrum, had the same reaction. It was only after he was gone that I realised I had loved him.

Bob Hawke will probably go down as the greatest Labor Prime Minister ever, though he himself idolised John Curtin. I think there’s a strong argument that he’s our best Prime Minister ever of either persuasion. Together with Paul Keating, Hawke transformed Australia. They were a bold, reforming government with a vision of Australia that was innovative and ambitious. Somehow they managed to deliver most of their agenda. No other government has ever done so much, and it set us up and left us in a stronger place.

The economic foundation they set has seen us through some dark places since, but sadly the social and cultural direction they set – liberal and enlightened – has been waylaid by successive governments since. It’s an argument for another day, but had Keating not been defeated in 1996 Australia today would be a different place, and a better one. Enough survives however, the legacy remains.

Many contemporary Australians wouldn’t know that, but despite having left office in 1993 Hawke remained a public figure and became a cultural icon. Pretty well everyone loved him because he was a good bloke. There was no pretence to him, his compassion was authentic, and he was as he seemed, a garrulous, charming larrikin who epitomised the attributes we Australians like to think we embody.

For me, I remember much more than that. When I heard of his death last night I sent a text to a friend I knew who would be similarly affected. We spoke for a while and for the rest of the night exchanged SMS as we watched the coverage on TV and remembered. There was some mighty nostalgia at work.

The first election of any kind I ever voted at was the 1983 federal election, the election which Hawke beat Fraser. If I remember right it was held on the day after my birthday. I don’t know how it happened, but I was already deep into politics. I think a personality like Hawke’s probably encouraged that. I’d grown up with him being the president of the ACTU. He was immensely popular throughout the country. He was tough and smart – people forget how smart he was – with the boundless, inspiring confidence of man who knows he’s smart. He was without pretence though. There were no airs or graces to him and I doubt anyone ever doubted his genuine passion for the cause. I think many Australians could see something of themselves in his unabashed Australian-ness. He gave us permission to be ourselves.

That carried through to his prime ministership, though by now he had progressed from open neck shirts to fine Italian suits. He went into government with the imagination to create a better Australia, and the will to achieve it. We were all lucky that he had a man by his side – Paul Keating – who had similar imagination and drive. Together, and with possibly the best cabinet in Australian political history, they forged a new Australia.

Throughout that time he was on our TV screens and in our collective imaginations. He lives on in vivid memories, in great moments we all recall. He was someone we liked, someone we could be proud of. For all his great abilities what I cherish most about him was his compassion and decency. He was a truly good man who couldn’t abide injustice or bigotry. He stood for good, as no leader for many years has. He opened Australia up and made us look outwards, and in so doing embraced others with less opportunity, or disadvantaged by circumstance.

I can recall him crying on national TV, which he did several times. He was an empathic, sensitive man, and that only endeared him more. They’re the best people.

I look back and I remember sunny days and good times. Australia was burgeoning, we had belief, life was sweet. And we were lucky – how lucky we’ve only come to realise – to have leaders of the finest quality. We live in an era of pygmies, but Hawke was a true giant and a fine man. I’ll miss him.

PS It was good to see Hawke reconcile with Keating in the last few weeks ahead of this election. They are an iconic duo. It’s sad to see Hawke depart before seeing Labor win on Saturday, but his timing is impeccable otherwise. He always knew how to milk the political advantage. Australia is awash with sentimentality today remembering the prime minister they had once and what he stood for. That will stand today’s Labor in good stead.

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