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Bob Hawke: Cartoonists' Delight

Remarks to opening of Exhibition Drawn to Politics: Four Decades of Bob Hawke Cartooning Brilliance, Kurrajong Hotel, Canberra, 5 December 2019

I guess what made Bob such a cartoonist’s delight is that everything about him was so relentlessly and exuberantly physical: he had distinctive features, above all the silver bodgie mane of hair; he had distinctive gestures, like the ear tug that Max Gillies used to capture so brilliantly; and he had distinctive facial expressions for every passing emotion, and there were plenty of those – from cocky exultation America’s Cup-style, to withering, snarling invective (quite often directed to Cabinet colleagues, particularly me in my Attorney-General days when I embarked on yet another unwelcome frolic) to tearful sentimentality (most obviously on display over Tiananmen, but also the family stress which knocked him about so much in 1994).

And he loved action and movement. Bob didn’t do, at least all the time I knew him, quiet cerebral introspection, or spirituality, which are not usually the stuff of which great cartoons are made Although he was hugely intelligent, and no-one’s dummy on any subject, what he loved most was sport, sex, yarning over a beer, having a punt and making a buck, all of which create umpteen visual possibilities in a way rather harder to manage if your subject’s passions are less carnal pursuits like art, music, literature, philosophy or history.

All that said, I’m not quite sure that cartoonists ever really captured just how physical Bob really was, in particular the massive affection he had for his own body. They got the hair, yes, and Bob’s unrestrained delight in patting and stroking it, but I am not quite sure ever fully caught the extent to which he gloried in the rest of his anatomy. Philip Adams once described Paul Keating as ‘almost purring’ when he put to him that, in Tony Benn’s famous typology of political leaders, he was not a ‘straight man’ or ‘fixer’ but a ‘maddie’ – but I think it’s fair to say that whenever Bob oiled himself in the sun beside his pool, he actually purred.

It’s a bit surprising to me in that context that it is Tony Abbott rather than Bob who cartoonists routinely depicted as wearing nothing but budgie smugglers. Although I have to say that, for many of us who worked closely with Bob over the years, what we probably remember more than that image is the number of times we were confronted with the budgie without the smugglers – which would have been, I guess, a little trickier for cartoonists to depict.

Like all larger than life characters – or at least larger than life in most respects – there were quite a few ways in which Bob, as he would always himself acknowledge, fell a little short of perfection, He was famously sheepish (not that Hazel and the kids gave him much choice in the matter) about being designated in his ACTU days as ‘Father of the Year’. To drink with him, as I often did along with the trade union crowd in his pre-political boyo days, was to appreciate that he was an unusual anatomical and sartorial combination of short arms and deep pockets. To play tennis with him, as I often did at his home in Sandringham in the early days, was to learn that, when it came to line calls, his eyes saw things differently from lesser mortals. And to play golf with him, as I often did on cold early mornings in Canberra when he was Prime Minister, was to learn quickly that the basic laws of arithmetic worked differently for him than the rest of us.

But if Bob wasn't perfect, gee he was good. He had a remarkable hold over both his colleagues and his country, leading a government almost universally still judged – including on the other side of politics – as the Australian gold standard. And he had that hold for at least four good reasons.

First, there was Bob’s legendary ability to connect with people at all social levels, and to make others warm to him, both privately and publicly. Partly this was a function of his manifestly exuberant pride in and affection for all things Australian. Partly, in the Australia of the '80s, it was his uncontrived blokiness, and for the less blokey types his obvious intelligence. Partly it was the obvious genuineness of the beliefs he held, particularly on race. And partly it was – for all the lip-curling snarls along the way – his genuine grace in both victory and defeat.

Second, there was his great capacity to craft and articulate a grand political narrative, essentially the Third Way model subsequently embraced by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with its combination of very dry, pro-competitive economic policy; very warm, moist and compensatory social policy; and liberal internationalist foreign policy. Bob was a leader who led.

Third, there was the genuinely collegiate manner in which he led the government. His cabinets operated overwhelmingly on the basis of argument rather than authority, with practically no captain’s picks. Everything was contestable, and contested. The language used around the cabinet table was sometimes more like a wharfie’s mess than 10 Downing Street: ‘So up you for the fucking rent’ I record in my Cabinet Diary our nation’s leader bellowing at me on one occasion after he won some procedural argument. But the rough and tumble reflected everyone's willingness to fight for their corner, and Bob encouraged that.

The fourth and remaining major key to Bob’s success and longevity as prime minister was the personal and institutional discipline he brought to the role. If never quite a candidate for Mount Athos, his lifestyle became almost ascetic, certainly by comparison with the exuberance of his larrikin days at university and with the trade union movement. And he led his ministerial colleagues by example, working long hours, thoroughly reading his briefs, and maintaining a disciplined diary. He was determined to avoid the manifest dysfunction of Gough Whitlam’s wonderfully exuberant but very short-lived government, just a few years earlier, and he did.

For all these reasons, and probably others as well, Bob won the respect of his colleagues at home and abroad, his opponents, the wider public, and – it’s obvious as you look around this exhibition – that most sceptical audience of all, the cartooning profession. Caricatured unmercifully, yes of course. But ridiculed, no. For the very good reason that Bob Hawke at his best was as good as it gets for an Australian Prime Minister, and I suspect for a Prime Minister just about anywhere else in the world.