Today is fifteen years since the deposition of Labor’s longest-serving prime minister, Bob Hawke; an anniversary that might have gone unremarked upon were it not for a tribute by Norman Abjorensen in today’s Australian.

Abjorensen believes, I think rightly, that Hawke “will be remembered in the longer view as a great prime minister”, one “who carried the electorate through the most far-reaching changes any Australian peacetime government has implemented.”

But compared to Curtin, Menzies, Whitlam, even Malcolm Fraser, Hawke does not loom large in Australia’s historical consciousness. It is partly his own fault; since leaving office, he has devoted himself to business and private pursuits, rather than taking his place on the talk and op-ed circuit. Apart from his (quickly remaindered) memoirs, he has engaged in little self-justification.

Hawke also suffers, though, from Labor’s equivocal attitude towards his government’s record. As Abjorensen says, “The Labor Party’s own mythology remains curiously ambiguous.”

For some Labor traditionalists, Hawke will never be forgiven for his embrace of the free-market, deregulatory policies of the 1980s. Yet the supporters of those policies are more likely to direct their praise to Paul Keating, who was so much their driver. Hawke, who strove for consensus, is an unsuitable hero for either type of partisan.

Keating also makes a better Labor hero from the nature of his eventual defeat – martyred by the electorate, so the story goes, for his unpopular commitment to Aboriginal reconciliation, the republic, and the opening to Asia. Hawke’s rather squalid execution by his own party room is less the stuff of legend.

Unlike Abjorensen, though, I think that Labor’s move was the right decision at the time. Hawke’s 1990 victory was too close for comfort; his government was seen to be tired, and he would have done better to retire with dignity as he had originally planned. John Hewson had his measure, and it’s hard to imagine that he could have pulled off the victory that Keating did in 1993.

Great leaders need to know when to leave, although the right timing requires a lot of luck. Our luckiest leader, John Howard, may still be able to learn lessons from Hawke’s fate.

Peter Fray

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