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The intellectual larrikin

by Barrie Cassidy, 5 August 2019

The Honourable Bob Hawke savouring a strawberry milkshake, 2017 by Harold David
The Honourable Bob Hawke savouring a strawberry milkshake, 2017 by Harold David

Bob Hawke wasn’t just a crowd favourite. He was number one with photographers and cartoonists as well. In fact, in May 2019 it became official, when he emerged in a survey of the nation’s cartoonists as the most popular Australian Prime Minister to draw, just ahead of Tony Abbott.

The Daily Telegraph’s Warren Brown explained: ‘In his prime, his face was broad, crevassed and suntanned, his mouth in a kind of permanent scowl, eyes laying aggressively beneath those eyebrows – great scimitars of disapproval – the whole lot topped with a luxuriant shock of immaculate silver hair.’ Paul Dorin from the Illawarra Mercury said he could draw Hawke with his eyes shut. ‘Hawkie had the best significant features. You only needed to draw his eyes and eyebrows to recognise who you were drawing.’

1 Bob Hawke caricature,. 2 Bob Hawke caricature,. Both © Paul Dorin.

Those same physical attributes made him a popular subject for news and portrait photographers. The Guardian’s Mike Bowers – host of the ‘Talking Pictures’ segment on the ABC’s Insiders since its inception eighteen years ago – is effusive about the Hawke presence: ‘I’ve photographed eight prime ministers and Bob Hawke was the standout. He was expressive and passionate, and wore his heart on his sleeve. Some of the most potentially mundane press conferences could, and often did, turn into a memorable moment for photographers. The last time I photographed him he let me know he was still in charge. It was late in 2014 and I was in his Sydney office for a portrait to run with the release of his cabinet documents dating back to 1983. I had done a few poses and was setting up for another when he said “Nah Bowers – that’ll do”. He was always himself in front of a lens and that’s what made him such an interesting subject. He never had to try. Current and future prime ministers, take note.’

For my part, I’ll remember Bob Hawke for very different reasons. First, from a media point of view he was a dream to work for. Because he was so genuine and authentic, and because he was so at ease with people, there was little for the image-makers to do. John Singleton often described him as an intellectual larrikin. It is the perfect characterisation. Hawke’s intelligence and self-confidence meant he could enter into long discussions with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and mix it with them. And, likewise, there was never any awkwardness when he met the Queen. In fact it was quite the opposite. During one Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, he turned up for the obligatory audience with Her Majesty, with me following behind at a discreet distance. As they shook hands, Queen Elizabeth said to him, ‘Hello Prime Minister; I hope I haven’t dragged you away from something important?’, to which he replied, ‘Well your majesty – Margaret Thatcher has just started speaking. You be the judge.’ ‘Oh Bob, you haven’t changed’, she replied with a laugh.

Equally, he could fold into the crowd at shopping centres, festivals or sporting events.

Long after he was prime minister I went with him to a big game at the MCG with a group of visiting American congressmen, journalists and business representatives, as part of the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue. After the match we were walking across the car park to a chartered bus, when he said, ‘I hate this bus business. You end up sitting there for ages waiting for the last bugger to turn up’.

Just then a couple of young blokes in a car called out ‘Hawkie you're a legend!’ He shot back ‘If I’m such a friggin’ legend then give me a lift back to the pub’. They did. He jumped into the back seat and away he went. The Americans were gobsmacked. They couldn’t believe that a former prime minister would allow himself to be driven away by perfect strangers without any security. The fact is, not many would. The next day I asked him how it had gone, and he said, ‘They were lovely blokes – though of course they had to get their mums on the phone to talk to me, but that was fine’.

Above all, the paramount influence Bob Hawke had on me was his absolute abhorrence of racism and bigotry in any form. He hated it, and called it out whenever it raised its ugly head. He did it most visibly when, from opposition, John Howard raised the prospect of reducing specifically Asian immigration, which would have meant an end to a non-discriminatory immigration policy. Hawke’s advisers at the time told him to be careful – that such a proposition might have significant community support. He shot back: ‘Then tell me what I need to say to change their minds.’ He was always up for the challenge.

1 Bob Hawke, 2012 Luke Cornish. © Luke Cornish. 2 Bob Hawke, 1987 (printed 2018) Gary Ede. © Gary Ede.

In fact his record in that sphere started in his days running the ACTU, when he led protests against the visiting South African Springboks rugby team over that nation’s apartheid policies. Once in government, he wasn’t satisfied to simply wait for discriminatory issues to arise, and then deal with them. He was proactive. At two consecutive Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, he secretly started putting in place – with the help of one of the world’s leading financiers, Jim Wolfensohn – a global plan to impose financial sanctions on the South African regime. Eventually the sanctions really bit, to the extent that the South African foreign minister described Hawke’s initiative as ‘the dagger that struck at the heart of apartheid’.

1 Bob Hawke, n.d. Louis Kahan AO. © Louis Kahan/Copyright Agency, 2023. 2 'awk' (Bob Hawke), 1972 Frank Hinder. © Enid Hawkins (nee Hinder).

So while ‘Hawkie’ will always be remembered for his part in transforming and modernising the economy, and for lifting retention rates at high school from 30% to 70% during his term in office, I’ll never forget his personal commitment to a more humane society, here and abroad. And, thanks in part to the numerous cartoons and standout photographs – including the wonderful portraits – I’m sure the country won’t forget him for a very long time either.

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