The moment that grabbed most of Australia this week was Bob Hawke’s memorial. He was a favourite Prime Minister, partly because of what he did while he was in power, but also because he represented an important element of our culture. He presented as a bit of a larrikin. Not entirely domesticated. He was the Rhodes scholar known best for winning a drinking competition. He was also a brilliant negotiator. He was a lot more than that, and so many people are writing about him this week because he changed so much in our lives.
At his memorial, there were a few minutes that showed us what Hawke was to Australia.
We’re not that country any more. Not the light mischievous place that produces Hemsworths by the dozen. I’m not sure we ever have been. We like to see ourselves as that. Hawke was a lot more than that, but we love to remember his lightness.
For many Australians, Hawke symbolises a time when we weren’t scared of becoming prosperous and educated and caring. There weren’t clear class divisions, and there was hope for human rights. Glamorous hope. Exciting futures. I came of age during that time and it was as if we had moved from being at the end of the world to belonging to the rest of it. We’ve changed a lot since then.
Hawke was a union leader at the beginning of the big changes. There was a particularly famous incident that caused Australia to respect him in a way that only Australia would and that shows one of the types of work he did as the head of the Australian union movement. It also shows a bit of what Hawke looked like to the public before he entered Federal politics. It’s not the most dignified of moments. Frank Sinatra was black-banned for insulting female journalists, and couldn’t get his plane fuelled, his hotel room serviced, or his concert staffed. Hawke got everyone out of it.
I participated at Jewish Arts camps when I was an undergraduate, a few years later. This was the too-short period when university was both free and well-funded. A student organisation found the money to hold a camp every summer for just a few years. Then there was no more money and no more camps, but I went to two of them, and they were amazing. Creative artists of all sorts shared their love for music and craft and writing with us, and gave us workshops. My first piece of published fiction was written at one of these camps, and was published by an editor who sat in on the workshops.
It was a moment when I was able to see people I’d otherwise only hear of. Free university opened many doors to learning, and this was a surprisingly magic one.
The first year I went was the year of Chaim Potok and John Bluthal. Bluthal told us about Spike Milligan and gave a surprising reading from a radio script for Dad and Dave (an Australian classic comic series of stories). After dinner on the Saturday night, all the Ultra-Orthodox young men, formally dressed, felt the need to dance the Time Warp on the trestle tables we’d just eaten dinner at. Midsummer often brings back memories of these camps. They didn’t last long and there weren’t many of them, but every moment created stories.
One of the guests in the second year was the Israeli writer, Amos Oz. Hawke came one lunchtime to give us a lecture. It was when he no longer led the union movement, but it was before he became a politician.
I saw a different Hawke then, and I saw the same Hawke. He had none of the charisma and carried none of the excitement that even six months later was part of his public appeal. He was quiet and careful and, despite the broad accent, very educated. He walked straight down the centre aisle, without looking at any of us or shaking our hands. It was as if he belonged in a different Australia to the one we knew. It was also not the big Hawke we’d seen in newspapers and on TV. Not the Sinatra-negotiator. A smaller man, with a smaller personality. As he talked, some of the charismatic leader returned, but it was very apparent that some of his gifts were taking leave of absence.
Oz was at the front of the hall. On his way out, Hawke clapped Oz on the shoulder and said “Ayyymos, we need to talk.” The two walked out the door together.
Oz came back when Hawke was gone, and sat a picnic bench in the shade, for it was midsummer and there was no cooling inside. He encouraged me to join him and we chatted. I didn’t have the courage to ask what was so important to talk about. Or maybe I didn’t care. What I really wanted to know was whether Oz gave words that helped replenish the shrunken man I saw.
In 1983, Malcolm Fraser declared an election, fairly certain of a win against the Labor leader, Bill Hayden. Hawke replaced Hayden and the cartoonists had a lot of fun drawing pictures of Fraser’s pants falling down. Hawke won.
The missing charisma and capacity were there the next time I saw him in public. He turned from a man who didn’t stop to greet students to the Prime Minister who celebrated Australia’s America’s Cup win with a particularly famous comment. I’m going to leave you with it, for he made that statement while Prime Minister and we loved him for it