Bruce Hawker would be one of the first beneficiaries of a Kevin Rudd leadership win. As state Labor governments get swept from office across the country, having a mate in the lodge would be a godsend for the pot-bellied powerbroker.
Described by Mike Rann in 2010 as the “greatest political strategist in Australia”, Hawker’s influence in the Australian Labor Party has waxed and waned over the past three decades. But, like his trademark moustache, it has never disappeared.
Along with his former boss Bob Carr, Hawker has been widely “credited” with Labor’s obsession with the 24-hour news cycle. He’s helped win corporate interests a seat at the ALP table alongside the unions. And he’s been involved in almost every Labor state and federal election campaign for the past 15 years — including the current Queensland campaign.
“He’s very persistent in getting a seat at the table,” says a Labor insider. “He inserts himself through the leader which often causes friction with party officials. He will be involved in a campaign even if the party machine doesn’t want him.”
Sitting in the waiting room of Hawker’s Sydney office, it’s clear you’re about to meet someone with clout. The walls are covered with signed posters of Labor leaders past and present, thanking him for his help getting them re-elected. Peter Beattie, Anna Bligh and Morris Iemma are there. So are Julia Gillard (“To Bruce, you are a legend!”) and Kevin Rudd (“To Bruce — with my thanks for your friendship and counsel”).
In person, he’s laid-back, likeable, and not prone to self-aggrandisement, though he admits he’s influential.
“I get to speak to political leaders all the time,” he tells The Power Index nonchalantly, his legs stretched out on an empty chair beside him. “I don’t feel the need to be down on the floor of the parliament delivering a speech or voting on a bill.”
But all is not well in the Haus of Hawker. The glory days of 1997-2008, when he campaigned without a state or territory election loss, are becoming a distant memory. Labor — already out of office in Victoria and WA — was reduced to a rump at last year’s NSW election. It will take a miracle, not just a talent for marginal seat campaigning, to stop Queensland going the same way.
In Canberra, Hawker’s sway has dwindled since Rudd’s demise. Like Rudd, whom he has known since the late 1980s, Hawker has no close connections to the union movement. He was working in Rudd’s office the day he was rolled, and admits the transition to Gillard was “very challenging” for him.
He campaigned for Gillard during the 2010 election — and helped broker her deal with the rural independents — but hasn’t been rewarded with high-level access to her office. He’s not close to the PM, has had little to do with her chief of staff Ben Hubbard, and is yet to speak to Gillard’s new communications director John McTernan.
This is partly because Gillard’s office is dominated by operatives from Victoria, where Hawker’s influence has never been strong. And spruiking for Rudd hasn’t helped his cause.
Before Christmas, he penned an article advising Gillard to “do it PNG style” and appoint Rudd as “the other prime minister”. Yesterday, he was quoted in The Daily Telegraph saying the numbers were swinging behind Rudd and that continued talk of a challenge was inevitable.
Still, we’re not willing, as some are, to write him off as yesterday’s man. Hawker’s survival instincts are second to none.
A lawyer by training, Hawker began his political career as an adviser to Frank Walker, one of the founders of the NSW Left faction. It’s often forgotten he started out as a left-winger, angry at the Vietnam War, apartheid South Africa and the Joh Bjelke Petersen regime in Queensland. He gave up his factional plays — and ambitions to enter parliament — when Bob Carr, then leader of the opposition, appointed him his chief of staff in 1988.
“I had all the power I wanted as chief of staff and none of the extra responsibilities of having to represent an electorate and be out at functions every night of the week,” he says. “In many ways being a politician is a thankless task. I often wonder, in this day and age, why people put themselves through it.”