Senator Mathias Cormann – speech acknowledging former PM Bob Hawke’s service to Australia

photo of Senator Mathias Cormann
July 3, 2019

I also commend his [Bob Hawke] firm commitment to the state of Israel—a position that at times earned him the ire of some of his colleagues but showed his commitment to our nation’s democratic fellow travellers.

Full speech

Senator CORMANN (Western AustraliaMinister for Finance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (09:31): by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 16 May 2019, of the Honourable Robert James Lee (Bob) Hawke AC, former Member for Wills and Prime Minister of Australia, places on record its appreciation of his long and highly distinguished service to the nation and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Australians mourn the loss of our 23rd Prime Minister, and, in so doing, we do not simply grieve the passing of a distinguished former leader; in many ways, we grieve the passing of a close and enduring friend. One of the great strengths of our democratic tradition is that, for all the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, we are all able to identify individuals, across all sides of politics, who love our country dearly and work to make it a better place. In the life of the Hon. Robert James Lee Hawke AC, GCL, we see a love for his country that burnt brightly and that was warmly returned by his fellow Australians.

Bob Hawke’s life was one of great purpose, steered by a sense of destiny from an early age. He was born on 9 December 1929, to Clem Hawke, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife, Ellie, a schoolteacher. Bob was raised in Bordertown, South Australia, before his family moved to the great state of Western Australia and settled in the suburb of West Leederville in 1939. That move followed the tragic death of his brother, Neil, at the age of 17. Bob almost died at the same age, in a motorbike accident, a near-death experience which had a profound and lasting impact on him.

His intellect and capacity for leadership were obvious from a very young age. He completed his secondary studies at Perth Modern School and graduated with degrees in law and arts from the University of Western Australia in 1952, after a year spent as the university’s Student Guild president. It was during that period that he joined the Australian Labor Party, which was hardly a surprise given the great Labor pedigree of the Hawke family. His father had served as General Secretary of the South Australian Labor Party, and his uncle, Albert Hawke, was the Labor Premier of Western Australia through much of the 1950s.

Bob won a Rhodes Scholarship and moved to the United Kingdom, where he abandoned his initial study plans, to write a thesis on the history of Australia’s wage-fixing system. The decision was vintage Hawke: turning his education in one of the world’s most ancient and august institutions towards practical issues that would help him shape the lives of his countrymen. At Oxford he famously set the world record for sculling a yard glass of beer in just 11 seconds. The completion of such a feat surely allows us to reflect on Bob Hawke as being worthy of the title of scholar-athlete—although not perhaps in the traditional sense of the term! He graduated from Oxford with a Bachelor of Letters in 1955 and returned to Australia the following year. Bob briefly moved to Canberra to begin doctoral studies at the Australian National University but those plans were not to last. He moved to Melbourne, where he settled in the beachside suburb of Sandringham with his wife, Hazel, and their young family.

He started work at the Australian Council of Trade Unions, quickly establishing a name for himself as its most effective advocate, including early successes in the 1959 basic wages decision. From there his rise within the union movement began in full force, culminating in his election as ACTU president in 1969 following the retirement of Albert Monk. Bob’s time at the helm of the ACTU raised his national profile and set him on an inevitable path to federal parliament. He unsuccessfully contested the seat of Corio in the 1963 federal election, defeated by long-serving Liberal member Sir Hubert Opperman. He continued to work for the ACTU, establishing a reputation for consensus and dispute resolution. He was also willing to give moral and social weight to the ACTU’s actions, as seen in his support for demonstrations against apartheid during the visit of the South African Springboks rugby team in 1971. Bob’s effectiveness at the helm of the ACTU saw him join the ALP’s national executive in 1971 before his election as the party’s federal president in 1973. He was a member of the Reserve Bank board and the Australian Population and Immigration Council. His electoral popularity became obvious as the Labor Party recovered from the demise of the Whitlam government in 1975. Many viewed him as an inevitable Labor leader and a prospective Prime Minister.

His parliamentary career began when he won the seat of Wills in north Melbourne in October 1980. When Bob took his place in the House of Representatives he was already a well-known figure with a formidable track record. He had been appointed as a Companion of the Order of Australia in January 1979, a year before he had even entered the parliament. His maiden speech in the House articulated his vision for the nation and his specific prescriptions for successful national leadership. He called for steps to be taken to ‘eradicate the canker of poverty in the midst of affluence’. The speech also made it clear that the collegiate consensus style that had become his trademark at the ACTU would not be left at the door. He stated his belief in the importance of ‘a preparedness on the part of government to plan, to coordinate and, on the basis of mutual understanding, to bring the legitimate elements of our society cohesively together’. In hindsight, few would doubt that Bob Hawke possessed that preparedness in full.

He initially served as shadow minister for industrial relations, employment and youth affairs under then Labor leader Bill Hayden, but in the eyes of many there was only ever one destination: the leadership of the Australian Labor Party and the prime ministership. In July 1982, during the ALP’s federal conference at Canberra’s Lakeside Hotel, Bob launched his first attempt to replace Bill Hayden and lost by just a few votes. After further rumblings—I guess that is how you best describe it—and further internal discussions, no doubt, Bill Hayden stood down to make way for his rival. Bob was elected to the Labor leadership on 3 February 1983 and went on to fight and win the 1983 election, becoming Prime Minister just two years after entering federal parliament.

In government Bob leveraged his electoral mandate, his remarkable and enduring popularity and his strong capacity for team-building and consensus to bring his party to the political centre on a range of issues. He worked with his Treasurer, friend and eventual rival, Paul Keating, on a formidable reform agenda. Those reforms helped lay the foundation stones for the modern Australian economy. I note that many of them at the time received the strong support of the then coalition opposition, reflecting a bipartisan commitment to important economic reforms in the national interest, which, decades later, the Australian people still rightly expect and deserve.

That period ushered in so many of the economic structures and settings that are taken for granted today: the floating of the dollar and the removal of controls on foreign exchange; dramatic reductions in tariffs in favour of free trade; the reduction of income tax rates, a number of times; and the removal of export controls on bulk commodities. Bob coaxed Australia’s unions into supporting significant industrial relations reforms, including the introduction of a new system of enterprise bargaining that reduced the level of industrial disputes that had been a hallmark of the previous periods.

Another unique trait of Bob’s leadership was the respect he earned from much of the nation’s business community, from the national economic summit of April 1983, which marked the beginning of his reform effort, through to the conclusion of his prime ministership. Few could doubt that Bob’s success came from bringing employer organisations and unions together. He deserves praise for his command and leadership of the cabinet. He’s highly regarded as a superb cabinet chairman, well briefed across the detail and courteous to all ministers at all levels. He afforded ministers broad latitude except in the key areas of economic reform and foreign policy.

Beyond Australia’s borders, Bob was also a highly regarded, well-grounded leader, prioritising the alliance with the United States and seeking to take advantage of the declining Cold War by promoting our nation as a responsible and active middle power. I also commend his firm commitment to the state of Israel—a position that at times earned him the ire of some of his colleagues but showed his commitment to our nation’s democratic fellow travellers.

Bob can be attributed with a range of significant reforms across a number of portfolios, from the establishment of the Australian Electoral Commission to the listing of many precious Australian wonders as World Heritage sites, as well as important progress on the way to gender equality. His legacy stretches beyond his policy brief. He was a great celebrator of our national life, a man whose leadership showed a deep personal affection for Australia and its people. The joyous minutes in 1983 that followed Australia winning the America’s Cup for the first time will be forever etched in our national consciousness. Bob, clad in that Australian flag jacket, spoke as the voice of Australian celebration when he declared, ‘Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum!’ And my staff were worried about whether I would be prepared to say that in the Senate chamber!

His genius was so often in his larrikin humanity and his willingness to share his full, unvarnished self with his fellow Australians—the good times and the bad, the laughter and the tears. In time, the nation’s weakening economy as well as rising tensions with Paul Keating took their toll. Having won an initial leadership ballot against Paul Keating, Bob refused to bend to mounting pressure and resign. He stood firm but ultimately was defeated in the second ballot, being replaced by Paul Keating as Prime Minister on 20 December 1991. Two months later he resigned from the parliament, having spent the majority of his nearly 12 years in this place as Australia’s leader. How remarkable: 12 years in parliament and such an absolutely remarkable, amazing contribution and impact on our national fortunes.

In 1994 he published The Hawke Memoirs and, following his separation from Hazel in 1995, he married Blanche D’Alpuget, with whom he shared the final decades of his life. At the same time, he delved into the business world, taking on a range of directorships. His political fire was never doused, and he would at times take to the public arena in support of causes that he believed in and supported. When on the hustings he had a remarkable ability, even in advanced age, to connect with the Australian people, to stoke that old fire, to draw a crowd and to enthral an audience. His larrikin antics continued to delight his everyday Australians, including very recently when he sculled a beer in front of ecstatic spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The honours that he accrued throughout his decades in public life continued into his later years. In 1997 the University of South Australia established a Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, a Hawke Research Institute and a Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library. Yet for all the accolades received, the policy reforms landed and the books, biographies and newspapers filled with the story of his remarkable life, Bob’s everyday Australian decency was the thing that shone brightest. In Bob’s remarkable life and transformative leadership we see so much of the promise and greatness of Australia.

I should just pause here. I was asked in recent weeks whether I had ever met Bob Hawke myself, and indeed I did and it was a very special occasion. At the Boao Forum in 2015, through some sort of coincidence, then Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Bob Hawke and I ended up sitting around the table having a cup of tea. There were lots of people behind the windows looking at us on the balcony, and the Governor-General took out three cigars. This was in March 2015, and I was carefully thinking about whether I should accept one of those three cigars. Bob didn’t hesitate. As much as I have been on the receiving end of some derisory commentary for being partial to the occasional cigar, he had no such hesitation and he got his cigar going pretty quickly. As I was thinking about the mobile phones with cameras on the other side of the window and what I should be doing, the other two cigars disappeared in Bob’s pocket, so the political dilemma was averted, for which I am eternally grateful! I think that he could see that there was an alignment of interest between he and I at that particular point in time.

During that particular trip I also experienced Bob’s singing of Waltzing Matilda, among other things, and it was just amazing. There were business leaders from Australia and from other parts of the world, and Bob was leading them in song. It was certainly very, very special to have been able to see firsthand and very directly the way he connected with people at all levels. It was very special indeed.

His beloved wife, Blanche, in the weeks following his passing revealed that Bob always saw his life in terms of its contribution to society. In peaceful rest, Robert James Lee Hawke leaves behind a legacy for the ages. He has earned a unique place in the history of our nation, which he loved so deeply and whose people loved him so very much in return. In closing, it is to his wife, Blanche—whose words at his recent memorial touched so many of us—to Bob’s family and friends, including his surviving children Susan, Stephen and Rosslyn and to his six grandchildren and his great-grandchildren that, on behalf of the government and in tribute to a truly great Australian, I join with my colleagues in this place in offering our sincerest condolences.

Link to parliamentary Hansard