Bob Hawke would never have been Australian prime minister today

Bob Hawke would never have been Australian prime minister today. By Paul Kelly.

In his biography Bob Hawke: Demons and Destiny, my colleague Troy Bramston salutes Hawke as Labor’s best prime minister since World War II — a judgment widely shared — yet he calls Hawke “a deeply flawed person” and adds the killer line that “his behaviour would not be tolerated today”.

Old labor: Would be cancelled today

Bramston’s right. Hawke’s private life means his prime ministership today would be untenable. It could not happen. It would be cancelled. …

It means Labor’s best prime minister for 75 years would not be a viable proposition today because of our changed standards. …

When Hawke first talked of “consensus” of “bringing Australians together” and getting business and unions to co-operate, he was mocked by the hard heads because he was looking outside Labor, reaching beyond narrow party politics. Yet he had the personal magnetism and self-confidence to govern this way for years. The contrast with today’s public disillusionment, character assassination, blame shifting and exploitation of social fragmentation could hardly be greater.

The Hawke story as told by Bramston is a reminder of what Australia has lost — leadership based on an uplifting vision, Hawke’s ability to persuade and reason, gifting co-operative agreement over ideological divisions, improving lives by pioneering innovative policy and prioritising the national interest before narrow, partisan self-interest. Hawke and Paul Keating took Australia on to a higher plateau as a better performing country. Hawke was a Labor man who possessed a vision that transcended Labor.

It is understandable that ALP leader Anthony Albanese says if elected he will promote consensus and take his lead from the Hawke-Keating era – that’s to be welcome. But none of the conditions that made the Hawke government successful exist today. Consensus and reform have been extinguished for nearly 20 years. Hawke-era invocations are a hollow gesture to a time long gone and not about to return. Only the foolhardy could think otherwise. …

Feminist bureaucrats had nothing in common with him:

Bramston shows that Hawke, in many aspects of his private life, was a nasty, self-obsessed, unpleasant, boring narcissist. For much of his life he was a shocking, savage drunk, an alcoholic despite his reluctance to admit it, a compulsive and reckless sex addict who would treat some women with contempt and a man who repeatedly failed in his obligations to his family. …

Hawke valued integrity in public life but discounted the same integrity in his private life. “Getting pissed and gambling and f..king other women was not something that troubled him,” [Gareth] Evans said. Former journalist and campaigner consultant Richard Farmer said Hawke loved casinos. “He would do anything to be at the blackjack table, smoking cigars and then have a root somewhere afterwards.”


His business friends, Sir Peter Abeles and George Rockey, paid his bills, gave him money, ran protection for his mass indiscretions. Bramston said: “They paid his hotel bills, picked up the tab at the Boulevard Hotel — Hawke normally occupied the Lady Nelson suite … Hawke relied on Abeles to employ several former girlfriends …Abeles also paid Hawke’s mortgage and his children’s private school fees. Hawke simply could not afford the lifestyle he was leading in the 1970s without other sources of income.”

In his life Hawke was compromised financially and sexually. …

The Hawke story reminds of the tough historical truth – great leaders aren’t always good people. If you demand your leaders be saints you won’t produce many leaders.

But there is no gainsaying that Hawke would have failed any Independent Commission Against Corruption type investigation, he would not have passed the current ministerial code standards, the ABC’s Four Corners would have destroyed him, he would have failed dismally on treatment of women in his private life. In the age of the MeToo movement, how many women would have come forward to name and shame him? How many moral guardians in the media would have claimed his political head? …


Hawke ran a non-ideological government that aimed to rediscover common national purpose. ..

He achieved this with superior judgment, an acute reading of the Australian disposition and, above all, because the ultimate source of his authority was the Australian public, not the caucus.

Hawke-Keating policies smashed the prevailing Labor economic orthodoxy — floating the dollar, deregulating the financial system, dismantling the tariff, restoring the surplus, promoting a competitive economy — then they restored Medicare, created a national superannuation scheme, created HECS, saved the Franklin and Kakadu, and campaigned against racism.

Hawke, in tandem with Keating, challenged Labor to reinvent itself. … Every Labor leader feels compelled to announce they follow in the Hawke-Keating tradition when it is apparent the party walked away from that tradition long ago and many ALP figures are clueless about what it even means. …

While complimentary of Keating and John Howard, Hawke was dismayed by the quality of subsequent prime ministers. He disliked Kevin Rudd, who he believed was doomed by his method of government. He liked Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott but called Abbott a “hopeless” prime minister. He told Bramston that Malcolm Turnbull lacked conviction and courage, and was the worst PM since Billy McMahon.

As Bramston said: “Hawke’s rise to power took place outside the political system.” Hawke became a celebrity, a television presence and a legend years before he became a parliamentarian. The sequence is fundamental. ….

Hawke enjoyed a hefty degree of media protection. His story cannot be comprehended without account of the self-imposed media standards of the day. These worked to Hawke’s immense benefit. In those days with a heavily male oriented press gallery the operating rule was don’t touch the private life unless it crosses into the public domain. …

Some PMs enjoy popularity for 12 months, even for a full three-year term but Hawke drew on a bank of popularity that lasted, in fluctu­at­ing degrees, for 10 years. He was gener­ous enough to attribute much of his success to the quality of his ’80s cabinet, probably the best or second best since Federa­tion. But that comment invites more judgments about Labor today.

Hawke, an ex-union-leader, ruled when Labor was still a party that championed the working class.

But starting about when Keating overthrew Hawke in 1990, the Labor Party dropped the workers as deplorable. Like centre-left parties throughout the west, Australia Labor instead adopted diversity and building a coalition of all the identity groups except straight white men. They also switched to feminist tactics, preferring to cancel and ostracize their opponents rather than argue with them.

New Labor: Mean girls