Bob Hawke obituary Labor 2019 federal election
(Image: AAP/Sam Mooy)

“What’s needed is a state funeral,” wrote Mungo Maccallum on the eve of a Gough Whitlam victory. “Could not Sir Robert Menzies be persuaded to perform one last duty for the party he founded?”

Bugger if Hawkey’s only gone and done it! Anyone who votes Liberal tomorrow is a bum! Would that swing it? What timing. Stupendous. The man was great, whatever great means, but anyone who ever worked with him knew him to be an always-on, all singing, all dancing extravaganza. For his demise to land forty-eight hours before the poll… well, the man went out as he came in.

The event has thrown everything into disarray. Poor old ScoMo, having spent weeks persuading us to settle for less — suck tea from a damp rag, walk to work in our clogs, etc — now has to eulogise a man who told us we could have everything, that it would all be wonderful if we worked this out together.

Poor Billy Shorten. He had just taken on the mantle of Gough. Now he has to switch to Hawke? He can’t be both, and he can’t be himself because he’s nobody to speak of. What sort of effect will this have? To remind us that Labor led us at a time when “we” were allegedly bolder, more courageous? Or will Morrison look like the closest thing we have to the exuberant, in-his-skin bloke Bob was? Or will it have no effect at all?

The political and media elite are straining to make Hawke’s passing a moment of mourning. For many of them it is a personal one, for a man who held court everywhere he went; from the John Curtin pub across from Trades Hall, to old Parliament House, to his bucolic afterlife harbour-side. They’ll remember a man of acute intelligence, who had come out of the labour movement (his uncle was premier of WA?) amid the Cold War. Its golden boy, with a real determination to think through a way to democratic socialism (initially), and then something more modest later.

There are others close in who will keep their counsel, having loathed him for decades. from the right, for what they saw as a union-first attitude when he was ACTU head, in a manner that history has erased. From the left, for a push towards reconciliation that was often coming up behind worker militancy; later, in government, for a “consensus” process that seemed to demand much from workers, little from capital.

Hawke’s close relationship with US power is a matter of record. Voluminous documents in Wikileaks’ “Plus D” archive show him more or less trying to manage the wave of strikes breaking out in the ’70s with the American alliance in mind. In the ’70s he had novel, European-style policies to create workers’ capital, with the ACTU running department stores and a petrol station chain (Solo). In government he was recognisably to the left of Keating.

All of that was abandoned to hand over society to the market with some backstop. Inequality yawned wide, wage power fell. The second round of tariff cuts destroyed inner-city working-class worlds, privatisation created the competition-free rapacious oligopolies that give us the highest service charges in the world. Keating let Rupert take over The Herald and Weekly Times and here we are in the Murdochracy.

Judged by what happened in Thatcher’s UK or Reagan’s US it was all a judicious management of globalisation. Judged by the social democracy of Germany and northern Europe — a system whose establishment we had been inspirational to — it was a wrong road. The individualisation of welfare, via superannuation, created a two-tiered society in which Labor’s duty to social provision — housing for all, full public health, education funding which doesn’t relentlessly pull towards the private sector — fell away.

Hawke loved to sing the union hymn “Solidarity Forever”. But trained in economics and disdainful of sociology, Hawke, like Keating, never really understood the forces of atomisation and individualisation they were unleashing. They were less cluey than the Marxist union bruvvers they often mocked about where this process would go.

Now, here we are in it. Labor never recovered a dynamic analysis and program after 1996; Kevin Rudd brought one in from outside. The country after Hawke and Keating is one now so individualised in form, and so Murdochised in content, that even the most modest and sensible social democratic programs struggle to get a hearing.

Labor, if anything, has gone backward, back to before Whitlam. It campaigns like a state party in a federal election, dealing with distribution only and with nothing much to say about production, even though it is obvious to everyone that the very core of working and living is being changed daily.

That has been the enthusiasm gap in this election. Labor has never been able to tell us where we should be going. Hawke came along at the end of a time when Labor did this. He inaugurated the period when it largely gave up on supplying an answer.

There will be plenty of people available to tell of the many good things he did, and to be 17 and leftish in March 1983 was to be in very heaven. He held a popular front, as it were, against racism; he had a progressive impulse on Indigenous affairs, expanded cultural possibilities, enlarged the ABC. Every point of praise brings to mind a brickbat — what about the fawning to the US such as allowing MX missile testing (something even the NSW Right were against) and the kowtowing to white shoe millionaires? But ehhh, government was for a time basically rational. Those of us who came to adulthood in that era have never really adjusted to the demise of such. 

But whether it’s close on Saturday, of if it isn’t to be at all, it will be in part because of the Australia we got from that process — an unequal, brittle and somewhat eviscerated place — and the failure of Labor to find a way to the different country that many, perhaps most would want it to be.

At any funeral it’s worth asking not only who, but also what, is being farewelled.

Do you think that Bob Hawke’s leadership marked a changing of Labor’s course? Drop us a line at [email protected] with your thoughts. Please include your full name if you would like to be included for publication.