Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond.

1789 words

The politician as hero

19 February 2018

Television | Bob Hawke was a remarkable politician — but what does that tell us about his impact?


History in the palm of his hand? Labor leader Bob Hawke greets the crowd at the National Tally Room, Canberra, on the night the party won government, 5 March 1983. National Archives of Australia/AAP Image

History in the palm of his hand? Labor leader Bob Hawke greets the crowd at the National Tally Room, Canberra, on the night the party won government, 5 March 1983. National Archives of Australia/AAP Image

“Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!” As he waits in his isolation tower for mortality to do its work, Samuel Beckett’s Hamm retains an addiction to narrative. The aged always love stories of the past, and this is true of generations as well as individuals. With the baby boom moving into retirement, the market for stories of the sixties and seventies — seen through the lens of nostalgia as a time of freedom, new energies and large vision — is growing.

The ABC’s two-part documentary Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader caters perfectly to this market. In an interview with Screen Australia, director Bruce Permezel said that lengthy conversations between Bob Hawke and his team had convinced “a lot of people” that “it was the right time to tell his story.” Hawke was, in the words of Max Gillies, “a leader we’ll never forget.” Public memory is a weave of narratives, and the more we retrace the same threads, asking the old questions and in search of the old answers, the less we learn. But nostalgia also has its complexities; the real test of this documentary at this time is whether it helps to reveal them.

And the old stories have ways of mapping onto the events of the present. In this case, the ironies were writ large. Part 1 of the documentary went to air on 11 February, just as the Barnaby Joyce scandal was breaking. Here we were, watching a celebratory account of the larrikin leader who drank too much, had an affair that broke up his marriage and family, was in his element exchanging yarns down at the pub. and was shielded from criticism by a carapace of “absolute self-belief.”

The episode opens with a voice-over from George Megalogenis. “We’ve had five prime ministers in five years…” he says. “That’s a revolving-door prime ministership.” By the time the second episode went to air a week later, the split between Joyce and Turnbull was threatening to make the prime minister’s own position untenable. How long before the revolving door gives us the next exit and entry?

But Permezel is more interested in what makes Hawke different. Former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, the first of a parade of contemporary witnesses, comes on screen to talk about how, even as a teenager, his own political instincts were galvanised as he watched Hawke speaking for union rights, “confident, tough, purposeful,” not giving an inch. “Bob was always a leader. A leader.” Kelty reinforces the word with a movement of his hands, as if to stress that he’s not just saying something about Hawke, he’s saying something about the defining qualities of leadership. Yet he was a flawed man, says another of the talking heads, Graham Richardson, and he did some appalling things. So what is it that makes him a glowing example of what contemporary politicians fail to be?

The easy answer is “authenticity.” There’s something in that, even if it is a hackneyed term. All through those years as a union warrior — what Greg Combet refers to as his “apprenticeship” for political leadership — Hawke genuinely stood for the rights and interests of those who voted for him. By focusing on the apprenticeship, the first part of the documentary does great work in portraying the dynamism of his language and manner. Close-ups of the younger Hawke’s face, already craggy in his forties, remind us of its expressive mobility. It’s as if you can see him thinking, and reacting, moment by moment. Expert archival sleuthing clearly went into tracking down this footage.

“You’d have to be out of your cotton-picking mind not to vote Labor,” Hawke yells across a smoke-filled room, and the crowd is right with him, not being worked or manipulated, just held on common ground. With his union audience, he was a king among equals, and he transferred that equalising effect to the media and politics with an easy bravado. We see him crossing swords with British interviewer David Frost, who offers a bromide: “I’m not trying to force you into a position.” “You will never force me into any position,” Hawke snaps back.

Once he assumes the role of prime minister, though, the abrasive point-scoring gives way to the more prevaricating talk we are used to from politicians. Hawke did mellow as he made the transition. In stark contrast to Joyce, he took the responsibilities of office seriously enough to stop drinking and to renew the commitment to his marriage. A succession of talking heads — Neal Blewett, Bob Hogg, James Button — testify to his extraordinary work ethic. There are clips of Hawke in his bathers, reading briefing papers by the pool. He showed no interest in using the floor of parliament as an arena in which to exploit his talent for put-downs. “I detested it,” says the older Hawke, reflecting on the time. “It was just a bloody charade.” He was happy to leave that side of things to Keating, whose gift for weaponising the English language was second to none.

Hawke became an extremely effective convener and bridge builder, whose command of the cabinet was based on a readiness to give elbow room to others with talent. Which is where the Keating narrative intersects with his, and introduces a contest of mythologies. Both were showmen who loved the political limelight, and ultimately Hawke was upstaged. Keating had a more sophisticated script, and a persona that hasn’t dated in the way that Hawke’s larrikin image has. Keating also has a more incisive way of recalling the flow of events, and his version of the Hawke years, recounted in Kerry’s O’Brien’s marathon four-part interview series for the ABC in 2015, has tended to dominate. As Keating would have it, the Hawke years in the Lodge were an arc that peaked in 1986, during his second term. After that, as his energies dissipated, it was Keating who led the momentum for policy change.

Keating is acknowledged but sidelined in Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader, and we don’t even hear much of his role in the Accord. This is Hawke’s story, and we are given the impression that the visionary idea of bringing unions together with the captains of industry was his alone. Laura Tingle describes the years of work on the Accord as one of the really creative periods of policy-making in Australian history. As the mythology would have it, it was also an approach that spared us from the social divisiveness and economic upheaval of Thatcherism.

The problem with this way of recounting political history is that it is all about the heroic individual. To an extent, Hawke deserves that status. He won four elections. He was a principled, innovative and highly effective head of government. His public persona was uncontaminated by spin doctors and image makers. Most significantly, he had a farsighted commitment to policy-making in the interests of Australian citizens. But history is something other than the sum of the stories we like to tell about it. A focus on the charismatic individual creates a kind of tunnel vision.

Most obviously, it means downplaying the weaknesses and exaggerating the strengths. There is an admission that Hawke fell well short of his goals in attempting to negotiate for national Aboriginal land rights. He went through a period of disorientation following the 1984 election, when he learned that his daughter was addicted to heroin. And he failed to resign when he should have, so that Keating was forced to choose between stagnation and a brutal contest.

Against this, we are reminded of his impassioned campaign to save the Franklin River in Tasmania, his adamant stand on the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and his peremptory response to John Howard’s first moves to bring race into the immigration debate. “He has released the most malevolent, most hurtful, most damaging, most uncohesive forces,” said Hawke at the time. The contrast with Howard, one of the documentary’s talking heads, could hardly be greater. Howard sits through the replay of these words looking relaxed and comfortable, as if it is all part of the game — which, after all, he himself won several times over by putting that card on the table with a handful of other uglies.

That’s the trouble with a tunnel vision of history. You don’t see what comes next, or how what you’re looking at contains the preconditions for something unforeseen at the time. Hawke and Keating were alike in their belief that they held history in the palms of their hands. In Kim Beazley’s words, the Hawke–Keating years “produced modern Australia,” but if they did so, it was in a form the two of them never envisaged.

The deregulation of the banks and opening up of international markets brought us an influx of corporate freeloaders. Permezel has no inclination to dwell on those scenes of Hawke cosying up to Alan Bond. Hawke was no neoliberal ideologue, and nor was Keating, but their early forays into laissez-faire economics paved the way for those who were. They brought the unions to the negotiating table with CEOs, but all that work was undone in the first term of the Howard government, when the wharf dispute created unprecedented levels of hostility between unions and industry.

During the Howard years, all the steps Hawke and Keating had taken towards reconciliation and restoring land rights for Aboriginal Australia were turned backwards with the bitterly divisive ten-point plan. Hostility towards migration was concentrated in a campaign of vilification against refugees and Middle Eastern “terrorists.” Policy-making in the interests of the people gave way to a culture of ruthlessly manipulative tactics to persuade voters to support a political agenda from which they could only ever be the losers.

New media ownership laws effectively handed a monopoly to the Murdoch empire. With that came a new era of tabloid politics. “Speaking from the heart” is now a skill practised in back rooms with spin doctors counselling on every statement, every intonation.

How did we come to this pass? That is a far more complex question than “Why don’t we have real political leaders anymore?” It’s a question not about individuals and personalities but about cultural change and how political tensions play out in the public arena. We have had so much television history based on periods defined by particular prime ministers. What’s really needed is some focus on the transitions between them, and the continuing undercurrents of policy and culture. British documentary-maker Adam Curtis excels at this, but his work, prolific as it is, is rarely shown here. We might have much to learn from it. ●

Read next

889 words

Why the ABC was right — eventually

The mystery is why Emma Alberici’s article was published in the first place


Undue pressure? Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during question time last Wednesday. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Undue pressure? Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during question time last Wednesday. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image