Bob Hawke, Australia’s prime minister from 1983 to 1991, reshaped the role of a Labor leader.

By David Walker


Posted on May 17, 2019

Bob Hawke, who died yesterday at the age of 89, did more than anyone since World War II to transform both the Australian economy and the Australian Labor Party.

His death hangs over the closing stages of Australia’s election, which polls say could return Labor to power on Saturday for only the second time since Hawke’s 1983 ascension. Bill Shorten, Australia’s current Labor leader and a Hawke admirer, is expected to try to govern in his mould.

Hawke led a government that floated the Australian dollar, reduced tariffs, imposed a capital gains tax, protected wilderness areas, deregulated finance and introduced universal healthcare. He remains the longest-serving ALP prime minister.

He led the ALP into government in March 1983 under the slogan ‘Bringing Australia Together’ – and in a rare instance of truthful political advertising, actually did so. At a National Economic Summit just weeks after his election, the leaders of business, union and community groups endorsed his approach. This ‘corporatist’ tendency attracted critics, but bureaucrats, academics and community figures applauded his ability to ‘keep the ship together’ through a period of rapid change.

His ability to win business, as well as union support was crucial to his success. It surprised many voters after the turmoil of previous Labor PM Gough Whitlam, and redefined what Labor prime ministers might do. He was close to a number of business figures; some observers referred to transport leader Sir Peter Abeles as a father figure.

A Rhodes Scholar, Hawke led a cabinet that included not only two other Rhodes Scholars but also Paul Keating, who as treasurer would drive many of the Hawke government’s reforms before forcing him out in late 1991.

Monash University political historian Paul Strangio noted Hawke’s ability to run meetings, making every participant feel they had been listened to before taking a decision that captured the mood of the group. In Cabinet, not every participant welcomed this approach – finance minister Peter Walsh took to calling him “old jellyback” – but it allowed the government to function.

His government had two political high points. His first term featured a long series of reforms including the float.

And in the months leading up to a risky July 1987 election, he led the government through an unusual pre-election budget that cut spending and sold assets.

He once entered the Guinness Book of Records by drinking a beer in 11 seconds – an effort that many Australians of the time admired – but he swore off alcohol when he entered politics.

Hawke had an extraordinary talent for personal interaction: when he met people, he often made them feel it was the most important thing he could possibly be doing at that moment.

That charisma translated through the television screen as well. At his height, he had a 75% approval rating; he spent much of that in the pursuit of hard decisions with big pay-offs.