Hawke hagiography: getting over the Prime Larrikin

Could Australia be the only nation where, when we’re asked to name our ‘greatest leader’s’ key to success, we say: ‘he could certainly scull a beer’? So it is for Bob Hawke; the Prime Larrikin’s capacity for drink is the well-worn symbol of his ‘love affair with the Australian people.’ Indeed, punters are more likely to remember that he once held the Guinness World Record for downing beer, than that he floated the Aussie dollar.

This image is rehashed in the national broadcaster’s new two-part series, The Larrikin and the Leader, which is (yet another) lush tribute thrown at Hawke’s aging feet. But all this might be yet another sign that we’ve too long had the beer goggles on when it comes to Bob Hawke.

The series’ themes are familiar: the most popular PM we ever had; union leader, ladies’ man; ‘bottomless self-belief’ (Hawke’s mother’s messiah complex for the boy Hawke); the flawed humanness of the leader (something of a typically twentieth-century Australian euphemism for alcoholism, sexist philandering and paternal absenteeism); and the darkly brilliant Keating, Brutus in the shadows. Keating was wonkier on policy, had a cutting wit for enemies and frenemies alike, though he is seen to be missing, crucially, Hawke’s magnanimous spirit, broad as the Great Southern Land (or ‘consensus style of government’).

This mythos was there in the Channel Ten biopic Hawke (2010). In the literary mould, hagiography is more self-conscious in last year’s baby-boomer Christmas gift Wednesdays with Bob (2017). It begins (albeit unintentionally perhaps) with his writer second wife, Blanche D’Apulget, also his first biographer. D’Apulget’s Robert J. Hawke: A Biography (1982) turned D’Apulget into Hawke’s confessor. The upshot of his coming clean on the girls and the grog was an uptick in his popularity. The powerful leader of the then-hugely powerful union movement now had a bridge to the Labor Party leadership, knocking the stuffier Bill Hayden off his perch.

The biography also set the template for the Hawke myth, not least for its extra-textual details. Though Bob Hawke was then married to Hazel Hawke, as he was throughout his Prime Ministership, he was having an affair with D’Apulget at the time of writing. In The Larrikin and the Leader D’Apulget speaks, candidly enough, of her (failed) attempt at biographical objectivity. However D’Apulget went on to publish several Books On Bob, thus insisting on the righteousness of the subjective biography. Indeed, it is interesting and telling perhaps that the preamble of Wednesdays includes a strange ‘meta’ hagiography. Derek Reilly narrates D’Apulget gate-guarding the Hawke legacy, as though ‘Bob’ were her greatest character.

So much grist to the mill. Though we should not flinch from the fact that Bob had Hazel, the respectable Kirribilli House Wife, to present to socially conservative Australia, and the undeniable poetic spark of D’Apulget both on his side. Behind every great man are two greater women.

With The Larrikin and The Leader, it is not so much, as one reviewer suggested, the sentimentality of the series or its false impartiality. Hawke hagiography is, like beer-swilling, an Aussie tradition. Rather, it is that Australia’s political class feel they must continue to populate the national mythos with Hawke Reloaded. It seems that what helps the Prime Larrikin’s legacy is the left’s propensity to coddle ourselves via dreamy hagiographies of him. Yet, if we look hard at the political climate now, isn’t our general reverence for the Hawke-Keating era a throwback, or even an albatross around our necks?

And beer swilling is an interesting characteristic to single out in today’s Australia. Recent surveys suggest Australia’s youth are drinking much less than their forebears. What’s more, Australia has one of the highest rates of alcohol taxation in the world. If, as Wilde quipped, working is the curse of the drinking classes, we’ve made sure they pay for their burden on Bob’s Medicare.

If we take the beer goggles off, we can see that the Hawke-Keating legacy is mixed. The flipside of Hawke’s ‘consensus’ is the relative impotence, today, of the industrial wing of Australia’s labour movement. The Price and Income Accords corralled the boisterous unions. Reduced to an appendage of the government, their representation of workers was qualified and compromised. The decline in union membership (fifteen per cent today, down from forty-six per cent in the Hawke era) reflects this. And the weakening of labour power reflects in the worsening of labour conditions. The unions bow a knee to the ‘independent umpire’ of the Fair Work Commission. The FWC returns the favour by cutting penalty rates and undermining strike action which, when Hawke was ACTU boss in the 1970s, would have been child’s play.

If we need any further evidence of how this legacy acts as a block now, witness how Scott Morrison uses the legacy of Keating’s cuts to corporate tax to paint Shorten (whose actions as union boss hardly indicate he’s a working-class warrior) as somehow hard-left.

A more fascinating and telling document of the Hawke-Keating era is the series Labour in Power. The timing of the series’ making, not long after Hawke’s ouster, is excellent. The Hazel-Bob charade has not yet been dispelled, and Hazel has some clipped, if retrospectively revealing, comments about Bob; the haze of sentiment has not yet blown in. D’Apulget is absent. The best of the talented Hawke-Keating era cabinet gripe and grieve. Keating emerges triumphant, if also complacent, showing the signs of the pride before the fall that would undo him in ’96, leading Australia into the long winter of Howardism.

What we miss in our fetish of the larrikin stereotype is hidden in the title of the ABC series: The Larrikin and The Leader. The forthrightness of Hawke’s, then Keating’s, exercise of power is the last time Australia had ‘left power’, before the ‘me-tooism’ of Kevin 07, and the always-compromised authority of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period.

Ironically, this exercise of power, in turning the union movement into a government appendage, set the terms of the current malaise. Let’s take the beer goggles off: it will take a similar exercise of power, coming perhaps, in part, from a renewal of the labour movement’s industrial wing, to show left power again.


Image: Bob Hawke / Tracker – How Bob Hawke Killed Land Rights

Ben Kunkler

Ben Kunkler is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His poetry, criticism and non-fiction has been published in TEXT, Rabbit and Overland, among other publications. He was the winner of the 2016 Affirm Press Prize for his unpublished manuscript, "Frankness."

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Au contraire, the Hawke-Keating years put a stop to ‘left power’ by introducing Thatcherist neo-con corporatism and economic principles.

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