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Robert James Lee Hawke

Robert James Lee Hawke

The Honorable Robert James Lee Hawke (born 1929) was first elected as a Labor member of the Australian House of Representatives in 1980. After becoming prime minister in 1983, he led the Labor Party government to reelection four times through 1990, a new record for Australia.

Robert Hawke was born on December 9, 1929. He earned his bachelor of law degree and bachelor of arts in economics from the University of Western Australia and was an honorary fellow at University College, having won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in 1953. He married Hazel Masterson in 1956 and had one son and two daughters.

He made labor his career. Between 1958 and 1969 he was research officer and advocate for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (A.C.T.U.), the peak and powerful organization of the trade union movement. He was its president between 1970 and 1980. As a union leader Hawke was committed to the trade union movement as an instrument for social reform. He began discount trading in Victoria with the acquisition of Bourke's Melbourne Pty. Ltd. in 1971 and the New World Travel Agency in Sydney in 1973. Between 1971 and 1973 he was a member of the National Executive of the Australian Labor Party, after which he was president until 1978. He was also a member of the governing body of the International Labor Organization (I.L.O.).

Ascending to the Labor Helm

After a false start in 1963 when Hawke unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Corio, he was elected as a Labor member of the House of Representatives for the Melbourne constituency of Wills in 1980. In that year he was awarded the United Nations Association Media Peace Prize for his series of Boyer Lectures: "The Resolution of Conflict." Hawke became leader of the Australian Labor Party (A.L.P.) in February 1983 and prime minister on electoral victory in March 1983. His rapid parliamentary ascent from first election to prime minister in three years was unique, reflecting both his own popularity and the pragmatism of the post-Whitlam Labor Party, which was willing to "parachute" him into the leadership in the belief that Hawke would lead the Labor Party to victory.

Hawke's political style made him an extraordinary politician. He remained popular between 1983 and 1990, despite the variable fortunes of the Labor Party and the unpopularity of most of its policies. He was a deeply committed Labor politician, yet counted among his closest friends some of the richest capitalists in Australia, to whom he was publicly devoted. He was also extremely friendly with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with whom he shared almost no ideological belief.

Prototype Australian

In many ways Hawke was seen as a prototype Australian male: before entering politics he was an extremely heavy drinker; indeed, he set a Guinness record for beer drinking while at the university in England. His accent remained broad Australian despite his Oxford degrees, and he specialized in portraying himself as "Australia's mate, " frequently appearing at the victory celebrations of sporting events. He liked to be "one of the boys." On the other hand, in defiance of the traditions of Australian mateship, Hawke was highly emotional in public, breaking down and crying on a number of occasions on television, once when discussing the drug addiction of one of his children and on another occasion when admitting to his marital infidelities. Despite such admissions, Hawke remained popular with the Australian electorate. He was frequently described as having two unintegrated sides: passionate and puritanical, Christian and atheist, scholar and sportsman, vulnerable and insensitive, sentimental and calculating.

Certain aspects of his policy commitments also reflected his passionate nature. He became committed to the cause of Israel and in particular to the plight of Russian Jews after a visit to Israel and a meeting with Golda Meir, whose humanity touched him. His handling of a pilots' dispute during 1989 and the compensation granted to the airlines by the government were also seen as a commitment on a personal level to his friends who owned one of the airlines.

Political Strengths

Hawke's great strength was generally seen as a mediator and a conciliator. On the A.C.T.U. his greatest victories were ones in which he could play the role of peacemaker, and as prime minister he acted, by and large, as first minister, but did not necessarily insist on center stage or his own way. He allowed ministers to run their own policy areas and to take the credit and the blame as appropriate. He attempted to run Australian politics by consensus, a dramatic change following the autocratic seven years of Malcolm Fraser and the chaotic crash through three years of Whitlam.

Despite a consensus style, dramatic reforms were enacted by the Labor government: the financial markets and banking were deregulated; the dollar floated; the public service was totally restructured; and the domestic budget was turned around to run in surplus rather than deficit. Definitions of policy areas were changed so that, for example, foreign affairs and trade were run as one "megadepartment" in an attempt to integrate their policies. Education policies, especially at the tertiary level, were also dramatically redefined and the Department of Education joined to Employment and Training, signaling a redefinition of the role of the universities.

Hawke's period as prime minister also saw a turnaround in the relationships between the parliamentary wing of the Labor Party and its organizational wing. Traditionally the extra-parliamentary party was able, when it so determined, to dictate policies to the parliamentarians. Partly due to the domination of the extra-parliamentary party by its conservative right faction, which supported Hawke, the parliamentary party in general and Hawke in particular were able to dominate the policy direction of the party. At times they successfully ignored the explicit decisions of the Labor Party Conference, which theoretically was the supreme policy-making body. More usually Hawke was able to gain conference endorsement of his policy directions. Altogether, Labor under Hawke—in contrast to the vacillating inconsistencies of conservative parties—showed a remarkable solidarity, which was reflected in electoral success.

The greatest achievement of the Hawke prime ministership was the successful establishment and continuation since 1983 of a wages accord among unions, government, and employers that reduced real wages and improved the potential for Australia's industries to become competitive with the rest of the world. While many other policy successes can be attributed to the skill of his treasurer, Paul Keating, the successful negotiation and implementation of the wages accord through the device of a summit at which the three relevant parties met was generally seen as a direct result of Hawke's particular style and ability to straddle the camps of both labor and capital.

Just one and a half years into a fourth term, however, Hawke's Labor party ousted him in December 1991 and replaced him with his former treasury minister and bitter rival, 47-year-old Paul Keating. In a nation beset by rising unemployment and a severe recession, Hawke's popularity rating had fallen to just 25 percent, down from a high of 75 percent in his first term.

Further Reading

Additional information on Bob Hawke can be found in Allen Patience and Brian Head, editors, From Fraser to Hawke (Melbourne: 1989); Blanche d'Alpuget, Robert J. Hawke, A Biography (East Melbourne: 1982); Paul Kelly, The Hawke Ascendancy 1975-1983 (Sydney: 1984); and John Hurst, Hawke, The Definitive Biography (Sydney: 1979). □

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