Reviewed by E. B. Heath
‘Hawke was a vivid fellow; and entertaining by his very nature’.
Remembering Bob, edited by his eldest daughter, Sue Pieters-Hawke, is a compilation of one hundred and thirty-eight eulogies of praise for Australia’s 23rd Prime Minister. Reading it was akin to attending a long memorial service, while wondering, to paraphrase another Bob (Dylan), where have all the good leaders gone, (very) long time passing. I have to admit to shedding a tear more than once. But there is more to it than sweeping nostalgia; there are some laughs, personal and political insights, and an increasing understanding that Robert James Lee Hawke was an extremely accomplished and compassionate human.
An elegantly penned Foreword by Tom Keneally gives a brief overview of the paradoxes of Bob’s personality, and his belief that Australians should be ‘more than mere integers in an economy’; for Bob, entering the global economy did not mean that market forces should govern according to their own logic.
The Introduction by Sue Pieters-Hawke details the genesis of Remembering Bob. Originally Sue and Bob had planned a conversational and reflective book. With publishers on board and Sue armed with microphone, they were ready to start. It was then that Bob suffered a mini stroke; with Bob unable to continue, it was decided to compile a collection of memories by friends and colleagues. It’s easy to think that plan B had just become an exercise in raising revenue (cynical me), but, on reading it, it became clear that, intended or not, this collected commentary acts as a lesson in leadership from which many could benefit!
Sue gets the memories going by giving a brief account of growing up as Bob’s and Hazel’s eldest daughter. When she asked Bob about regrets, his response was unequivocal – his failure to stand strong and achieve a treaty with Indigenous Australians was the source of bitter disappointment. This was well known by his colleagues and is something that is mentioned several times as people give an account of him. Another recurring point is Bob’s daily cryptic crossword habit, often completed at speed, and much mentioned is Bob’s humour and love of people.
To be loved by friends and family is not unusual and there are many contributions from this cohort giving readers a personal perspective on Bob Hawke, as do the photographs featured from page 165. But, perhaps more telling are the comments from colleagues and employees. All tend to agree that Bob Hawke was a fair and encouraging boss. Adrienne Jackson, senior private secretary said: ‘Bob ran his office the way he ran his Cabinet – implicit trust and empowerment of his staff. Demanding, but not unreasonable … humorous, witty … great user of the full vocabulary, both the vernacular and erudite versions.’ Rod Sims, deputy secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and economic adviser: ‘Bob was an amazing individual. Extremely smart, outstandingly wise, and stunningly well organized.’
Compassion is another descriptor frequently used. Brendon Murley recounts feeling proud to be an Australian after Bob’s response to the Tiananmen Square massacre was to allow Chinese students to stay in Australia. Told by a public servant that he couldn’t, Bob replied ‘Well I’ve just done it.’
Bob’s reputation as a great model for a Left-wing politician and trade unionist was appreciated beyond Australia. Tony Blair remembers his father, a university lecturer, saying that Bob had an ‘instinct for the people with a high-grade intellect and common sense.’ Later Blair met Bob saying he received great insights and inspiration from him.
Bob’s ‘instinct for the people’ was backed up by a prodigious memory. Anne Summers gives a breath-taking example from the 1983 election campaign. Walking through a large crowd in Brisbane, a middle-aged migrant from Europe shook Bob’s hand effusively. Bob felt they had before, within seconds he said ‘George, I met you in Melbourne’. The man was flabbergasted, saying that was true but it was more than twenty years ago! Anne Summers, of course, also gives praise to Bob for his reforms promoting women’s issues generally and in the work force. The Liberal opposition to this at the time was hysterical – families would be destroyed, women would become sex maniacs or would be robbed of their femininity! Well, forward thinking not their strong suit, perhaps.
Remembering Bob reminds readers of Bob’s many political achievements, particularly those that promoted equality – a fair go! And that is exactly what he wanted to do. A concluding quote from David Bartlett, former premier of Tasmania:
‘… he filled me with courage, aspiration, energy and confidence. He explained to me that it is the catalytic decisions that change the place for the better for decades to come, and this is what leadership and politics are all about.’
Edited by Sue Pieters-Hawke
Allen & Unwin