Former Prime Minister of Australia

Born: December 9, 1929;

Died: May 16 2019

BOB Hawke, who has died aged 89, was a long-serving, highly effective and popular prime minister of Australia, and almost the embodiment of the stereotypical “larrikin” Aussie. Blokeish, bumptious and blunt-spoken, Hawke was hard-drinking, sport-crazed, and an inveterate gambler and womaniser; he was also a remarkably astute political operator, who led his party to victory in four consecutive general elections, becoming the most successful Labor leader ever.

Nominally a figure of the centre-Left, and with a background as a formidable fixer in the country’s union movement, his time in office was characterised by pragmatic, largely pro-market reforms which ended the recession he had inherited and led to a considerable boom in the economy. He deregulated the financial sector, ended protectionist tariffs and subsidies, floated the currency and set in train a series of privatisations; internationally, he backed the US-led military action to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, helped to broker a halt to the Cambodian civil war and set up the Cairns Group of Free-Trading Nations, and was a forceful advocate for an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In much of this he anticipated New Labour in the UK. Hawke’s eventual fall also pre-figured that of Tony Blair; like him, he had struck a deal with his ambitious finance minister, promising to hand over power, attempted to renege on it, and had then been pushed out.

Robert James Lee Hawke was born at Bordertown, Southern Australia, the son of Arthur “Clem” Hawke, a Congregationalist minister, and his fanatically teetotal wife, Ellie; his uncle Albert was premier of Western Australia in the 1950s. The family moved to Western Australia, and Hawke attended Perth Modern School on a scholarship and then the University of Western Australia, from which he graduated in Arts and Law and won a Rhodes scholarship to attend University College Oxford, where he wrote a thesis on Australian wage-bargaining. He won a Blue for cricket and set what was then a world record for the yard of ale in 11 seconds. Hawke later cited this feat as perhaps the most important factor in his later political success.

In 1956, he married Hazel Masterson, with whom he was to have four children. He embarked on a doctorate in Law at the Australian National University in Canberra, but dropped his studies after a year to become a research officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. A forceful negotiator, he rose quickly, becoming president in 1969. He was extremely effective, despite (or possibly in part because of) his increasingly heavy drinking, which went down well with blokeish union leaders, but became so extreme after the death in infancy of his youngest child Robert that he once vomited on live radio. His constant philandering also created significant family tensions. When he was voted Victoria’s Father of the Year in 1971, his wife declared that the jury must have been on drugs.

He had failed to be elected to parliament in 1963, and passed up several opportunities to stand during the 1970s; he was eventually elected to a safe Melbourne seat in 1980, after declaring on TV that he was giving up drink. Less than two years later, he challenged Bill Hayden for the leadership, and narrowly lost, but Hayden resigned in 1983, and Hawke took over. Labor won a landslide victory in March 1983. He repeated the feat with a snap election in 1984 (when his popularity ratings were at 75 per cent approval) and again in 1987. His liberalising economic policies transformed the economy, but led to tension with the Left of his own party. Hawke also enacted a number of “progressive” measures on Medicare, Landcare and pensions, as well as ending the UK’s oversight of Australian political control. By the late ’80s, recession and high interest rates had returned, and Hawke faced an internal challenge from Paul Keating, his finance minister. In the “Kirribilli Agreement”, he agreed to hand over to Keating if he won the 1990 election, which he subsequently managed, though with a greatly reduced majority.

Hawke failed to give up the reins, however, after what he regarded as a disloyal speech by Keating, and in 1991 Keating resigned as Deputy Prime Minister and stood for the leadership. He lost, but at the end of the year tried again, successfully ousting Hawke as leader and prime minister; two months later, Hawke quit his parliamentary seat.

In retirement from politics, Hawke started drinking again, though moderately, and went into business, with interests in property, gambling and consultancy. In 1994, he published his memoirs, in which he claimed to have saved Australia, ended apartheid and taught Shane Warne to bowl. The following year, he divorced his wife and married Blanche d’Alpuget. This caused a rift for some years with his surviving children, Susan, Stephen and Roslyn, though they later reconciled. Hawke avoided politics during Keating’s premiership, but campaigned again for the Labor party after John Howard’s election.