Bob Hawke had an incredible work ethic, able to concentrate for long periods of time in dealing with an enormous diversity of policy and political issues. Never, as a young economic and environmental adviser, did I see him panic; he always remained calm and methodical. I soon learned his secret. Bob worked hard and played hard, while always separating the two. Well, almost always, an exception being those midweek horse races in which he had bet on what he called ‘a conveyance.’
The trick was to pick those conveyances that ran faster than the others on the day. My responsibility, as economic adviser, was to place the bets after Bob had done the form and spoken to his friendly trainers.
On one occasion, a minister was struggling to persuade his cabinet colleagues of the merits of his submission. When I slipped a note into the Cabinet Room to inform Bob that his chosen conveyance had won at long odds, he interrupted the Minister to announce: “Thanks mate, your submission is approved!”
But underlying Bob’s enormous energy was a beautiful, uncompromising set of values: he yearned for every young person to have the same opportunities in life, while vehemently opposing any form of racism or bigotry. Bob wanted our society to reward talent not privilege. His father, the Reverend Clem Hawke, had impressed upon him from an early age that if you believed in the Fatherhood of God you must logically also believe in the Brotherhood of Man. Later, Bob would add the Sisterhood of Women.
When I first started working for Bob he addressed me and other staffers as “comrade, fellow worker.” Imagine those words being uttered in a prime minister’s office these days. The reds weren’t under the beds; we were walking the corridors of power dressed in business suits.
But Bob and Paul Keating believed in markets, in the open, competitive model. Their shared ideals of equal opportunity, lifting up the underprivileged and non-discrimination would be pursued through the capitalist system. Wealth and work would be generated through competitive markets and out of the market’s proceeds, social reform would be pursued – Medicare, high-school completion by children in poor families, and the early years of equal opportunity for women.
In Paul Keating, Bob had a powerful advocate of their shared program of opening up and modernising the Australian economy. Mostly they were very good friends, encouraging and supporting each other and their cabinet colleagues.
Before each cabinet meeting, Bob and Paul would meet with the purpose of coming to a common position. Policy disagreements between them were rare: telecommunications reform and a subsidy for Kodak being the only two that come to mind.
A great myth of the Hawke-Keating reform era was that it enjoyed widespread support within the business community and from the conservative side of politics. Vested interests were as strong then as they are today. Bob and Paul appealed over their heads, declaring their faith in the good sense of the Australian people.
Whether that approach is viable these days is unclear. Media outlets were vital to achieving reform in the 1980s and early 1990s. While they ran stories about disgruntled vested interests, most outlets did not necessarily side with them. Nowadays vested interests can readily find willing allies within the media.
Bob skipped class when they were teaching lessons in hatred. I remember him having fierce opponents, only to find a year or two later that they were his staunchest allies. Bob felt that hatred was energy sapping and pointless, an obstacle to his unrelenting desire to build a better country and a fairer world.
Finally, Bob in later life would tell me of his pride in his government’s environmental achievements. Setting out alone, Australia ultimately persuaded all members of the Antarctic Treaty to refrain from mining there for at least half a century. A renewal of that commitment in perpetuity was Bob’s dream and would be a wonderful tribute to the memory of a great man.