May 17, 2019

Opinion – Bob Hawke, my mentor, was a nation builder and our greatest PM – Sydney Morning Herald – Friday, 17 May 2019

On the wall of the Carlisle Castle Hotel in Newtown there is a large mural of a great Australian. He has the broadest smile. And he is holding a beer and a newspaper open at the crossword puzzle page. This is Bob Hawke, Australia’s 23rd, and greatest, prime minister.

It says a lot about Bob that artist Scott Marsh chose to represent Bob Hawke as a knockabout everyman.

Generations of Australians know Bob Hawke as a passionate, intelligent, fun-loving larrikin, a leader with the common touch who was just as at ease with battlers as he was around boardrooms or with presidents.

Bob really was one of us. His appeal crossed political and class divides. It was almost universal. Everyone loved him. They recognised his humanity and it reminded them of theirs.

But to those of us in the Australian Labor Party, Bob Hawke was more than a loved icon and a leader. He was an inspiration.
Bob’s greatest gift to the Labor Party was his demonstration of the discipline, focus and professionalism required to transform the raw passion of its social and political mission into genuine, permanent reform that became part of the Australian fabric.

His message was that it wasn’t enough to win office and shake up the world in a flourish of radical change. He showed that to secure real change in this nation, you must win election after election after election to set your reforms in concrete.

Bob was a keen student. As head of the ACTU in 1972, he watched Gough Whitlam lead Labor out of the wilderness and into power, where his government implemented a progressive and sweeping reform agenda including the introduction of universal health care, the opening up of universities, the Racial Discrimination Act and indigenous land rights. But Bob understood that the problem with the Whitlam era was its brevity.

Although the overdue changes Whitlam implemented transformed Australia, Labor lost office after only three years. The reforms had not been bedded down, so the incoming Fraser Coalition government was able to dismantle some of them, including the Medibank system of universal health insurance.

Eight years later, Bob led Labor back into power. He was also armed with an ambitious reform agenda, this one based on economic reform to open up the Australian economy to an increasingly globalised world.

This was not an end in itself. It was to lift living standards by expanding the social wage.
His master stroke was to build consensus. Bob was brave enough to offer visionary leadership – but smart enough to know that effective reform required bringing people with him.

Critically, he understood that aspiration in this country is not just about individuals, but is about the most basic aspiration of all – our desire to build a society where our children have more opportunities than we enjoyed ourselves.

Bob tapped into this human aspiration. He brought together unions and businesses, harnessing their goodwill so they truly worked together to advance the national interest.

Bob led an outstanding team of ministers into government. And he got results. The economic reform program he implemented with Paul Keating lifted Australian living standards and sparked a period of economic growth that is still going nearly three decades later.

He improved the environment for the future, stopping the Franklin Dam in Tasmania, saving the Daintree in Queensland, prohibiting mining in Antarctica and saving Kakadu.

He was effective on the international stage and played a determined role in the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

But the standout measure of Bob Hawke’s greatness is Medicare. He came to office determined to re-institute universal health care but acutely aware the Coalition still opposed the concept.

However, because Labor won five consecutive terms in office, the concept that all Australians should have access to health care regardless of their means was woven into the Australian social fabric.

Bob had won. By the time the Coalition took power in 1996, his Medicare dream was entrenched.
That is real reform – reform that lasts and makes a real, practical difference to the life of a nation.
Bob’s record will stand forever as a blueprint for successful progressive government.

Bob was a mentor to me and generations of Labor men and women. He was generous with his time and his counsel was always thoughtful and wise. His greatest advice was: “Be true to yourself and your values show people who you are.’’

One of the greatest honours of my life was Bob launching Karen Middleton’s biography of me. When Karen asked me who I  wanted to launch the book, I said without hesitation: “Bob Hawke.’’ She asked who would be my second choice. I replied: “Bob Hawke.’’

“Third?” “Bob Hawke.’’

Bob Hawke was one out of the box. He transformed Labor as a precondition to transforming the nation. He was truly one of a kind.

We have a more modern, more confident, more prosperous, more sustainable nation due to his contribution.

To Blanche, his family, his friends and his comrades, my sincerest condolences.


Anthony Albanese is the Labor member for Grayndler and federal opposition spokesman on infrastructure, transport, cities, regional development and tourism.