Bob Hawke obituary
(Image: AAP/Sam Mooy)

A world without Bob Hawke seems impossible. Yet here we are. His frailty, the imminence of his passing, after a long and extraordinary life, has long been apparent. Yet his death is still a shock, a stunning blow even.

He has been a fixture in public life for so long: the ripple-haired ACTU president of the late 60s and 70s; the reformed, sober leader of Australia’s greatest and most reforming government, the embittered former PM of the 1990s and then the icon of his senior years. How could such a figure vanish?

If you weren’t around in the 1980s, it’s hard to explain just how extraordinary a politician Hawke was. All that stuff about his love affair with the Australian people was, amazingly, ridiculously, true. Despite the demands of the role, many politicians are introverts who find the public nature of the job emotionally exhausting. Some few cope or even thrive on it. But Hawke was unique: he visibly drew energy from being with ordinary Australians.

I watched him do a shopping mall walkabout with Labor’s David Bradbury out at St Mary’s in Sydney in the 2010 election campaign. Here was an 80 year man; for most people there he would have been a figure from political prehistory. And yet people flocked to him and he glowed and grinned and laughed and middle-aged women crammed around him. In his ninth decade, he still had it — whatever it is.

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That wasn’t just some weird facet of Hawke’s character — it was central to his political persona. Paul Keating referred to it flippantly — dismissively even — as “tripping over TV cables in shopping centres” but what Hawke brought to the Hawke-Keating government was the reassurance that the grand national experiment on which Keating, Button, Walsh, Dawkins et al were taking the Australian economy was safe.

Bob the union leader, the consensus builder, the charismatic politician, was as crucial as Keating, even if never as ideologically driven or hellbent on using up every bit of Labor’s political capital in the pursuit of reform, because Hawke reassured Australians. Australians trusted him, because even if they disagreed with him, they knew he adored them and would do the right thing by them. The result was a radical program of reform, sometimes reform that undermined the labour movement from which Hawke himself had emerged, that transformed Australia.

The transformation was a uniquely Australian combination of neoliberalism — then in the first bloom of ideological youth — and social justice. Hawke’s signature achievement was Medicare. Gough had established Medibank only for it to be gutted by the Liberals; Medicare would last to become so entrenched in Australian public policy that John Howard went from promising to “gut” Medicare to boasting he was its greatest defender.

Compulsory superannuation (another of the many Hawke-Keating reforms opposed bitterly by the Coalition) was introduced through the Accord process, providing the basis for modern Australian retirement incomes policy. Family payments were increased for low-income earners, leading to Hawke’s famous 1987 campaign launch mistake of declaring that no child would live in poverty. There was also the Franklin, and Kakadu and the Antarctic Treaty. All while wages growth was being pegged back under the Accord, protectionism was being wound back and Paul Keating was teaching Australians to expect budget surpluses.

The result was that neoliberalism was implemented in Australia, but came with a set of protections — ones retained even when Paul Keating and “Dangerman” Laurie Brereton pursued industrial relations reform after 1993 — that looked after ordinary people even as the traditional economic protectionism that guaranteed them jobs was wound back and the economy was opened up to competition, industries were deregulated and the dollar was floated — providing the basis for decades of real income increases that would last until the death of neoliberalism in the 2010s.

He and Keating, inevitably, fell out over the leadership and the famous, or infamous, Kirribilli Agreement to hand over power. The Hawke government without Keating — after Keating fired the “one shot in my locker” in 1991 — was never as good as the Hawke-Keating government. And while Keating delivered three more years of high-quality reform from 1993-96, despite the lingering effects of the early nineties recession, without Hawke, he could never provide the same sense of reassurance to voters about the bold reforms he wanted to pursue.

The shock of his passing will be amplified by the media. Any journalist or commentator dealing with public affairs who is over the age of 40 is a child of the Hawke-Keating years. We covered it or watched it unfold, and we were sold on the story of neoliberal reforms. Many of us, decades later, have watched as neoliberalism tottered and fell, killed by the greed of corporations and the soft corruption of politicians who served their interests, and the rage of voters who have seen the promise of neoliberalism — higher incomes and more opportunity — stolen by powerful interests. In Australia, that rage has been significantly softened by the social justice framework Hawke and Keating ensured — a universal healthcare system, superannuation, family payments, a more flexible industrial relations system that provided basic protections for workers.

It’s a lasting gift from that formidable pairing. And it means Hawke will forever be the co-architect of 21st-century Australia, a rare figure who divides the history of his country into the time before him, and the time after him.