WOODFORD FOLK FESTIVAL
TUESDAY, 31 DECEMBER 2019
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When Bob Hawke died, one of the bits of footage that kept doing the rounds was of his reaction to our America’s Cup victory in 1983.
You can all picture it, I’m sure. That mad cloud of hair. That jacket emblazoned over and over with the name of our great country.
Bob making his famous declaration to the bosses of the land.
That great explosion of Hawkie laughter.
Right now, you can probably feel the jukebox in the back of your mind starting to play Men at Work’s “Down Under”.
Strictly speaking, that moment wasn’t one of the big achievements that marked Bob’s time as Prime Minister.
But Australians love turning back to that moment because it reminds us of something good.
It reminds of what we have been, and what we can be.
And it reminds us what it’s like to have a true leader.
A leader totally connected to his people.
A leader working to bring us together as a nation.
Bob Hawke knew how to relate to all people. That’s why I was so proud to have been asked to stand in for him at Woodford last year.
Bob wasn’t well enough to mingle with the crowd, but came with Blanche and sat with the “true believers” afterwards over a drink.
Talk about big shoes.
I am equally honoured to be here today to discuss the legacy of the great man.
It was a legacy that was partly born of time.
Bob understood that successful Labor Governments need to govern over multiple terms.
Only that way can you cement reforms so it becomes impossible for subsequent conservative governments to dismantle them.
Think of that Medicare card in your wallet.
You may be fond of that important bit of green plastic, but not everyone elected to Parliament over the years has been.
Gough Whitlam first introduced universal health care in this nation with Medibank.
Malcolm Fraser abolished it.
In 1983 Bob Hawke re-introduced it via Medicare.
And thanks to the longevity of his government, we still have it.
Bob won a remarkable four elections.
Remember when prime ministers lasted that long?
He didn’t do it single-handed, of course.
Bob was blessed with a ministry of rare breadth, depth and talent, the political equivalent of a greatest hits collection.
A music festival without a single dud band.
You could indeed make the argument that Bob Hawke was the Woodfordia of governments.
Bob, his Treasurer, Paul Keating, and their team formed Government with what – in hindsight – is starting to take on an aura of novelty.
They had a clear and urgent agenda.
They had the imagination and energy to implement change and the courage and application to bring people with them on the journey.
It was all the more important because Australia was in a moribund state after seven years of conservative government.
Their energy was coupled with pragmatism.
Their courage with intelligence.
Their impatience with clear heads.
They were united in the quest for an open, competitive, free society, and an intelligent, creative, benevolent nation.
They foresaw the Asian century and the rise of China, and they prepared Australia for it.
They saw our future prosperity depended on Australia becoming a confident, outward-looking nation.
They laid down the foundations of a robust, vibrant economy and their reforms mean Australia is in our 28th year of consecutive economic growth.
Ponder some of their achievements:
• The floating of the dollar.
• Tariff reduction.
• Financial deregulation.
• Putting Australia in a position to benefit from global economic engagement.
• The Sex Discrimination Act.
• The Affirmative Action Act.
• The return of Uluru – the physical heart of the nation – to its traditional owners.
• Universal superannuation.
• The Antarctic, never to be militarised, never to be mined.
• In Tasmania, the Franklin River still flows wild and free.
• The Daintree, in Far North Queensland, Kakadu National Park.
Think about this – when Labor was elected in 1983 only three out of every ten Australians finished high school. When that period of government ended the figure was eight out of ten.
It was nothing short of a revolution.
There were two elements to Bob’s success.
First, he understood that strong economic management was not only critical to create jobs and security, but was also a crucial pre-condition for progressive reform.
He understood that it’s not enough for Labor to just talk about how we want to distribute wealth, but also how we will create wealth.
Bob’s economic reforms boosted productivity and created prosperity, which he then used to spread opportunity and drive lasting reform.
He was proud of that record and defending it against all comers including the current Prime Minister.
Bob said: “It is a blatant denial of history for Scott Morrison to allege that the Labor Party cannot manage the economy when he knows the design and structure of the modern Australian economy was put in place exclusively by the Labor Party.”
The second element of his genius was his faith in his fellow men and women.
His management model was consensus. Bob brought together business, unions and civil society, urging them to work together in a spirit of compromise to serve the national interest.
He may have been firmly focused on improving the lives of his fellow Australians, but he also applied the power and versatility of his economic analysis to the bigger picture.
Consider the way he used it to wage war on South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Bob may have had a ready laugh and a sparkle in his eye, but his sense of humour deserted him when he was confronted with racism.
He knew our strength lay in unity, and he was always ready to fight those who sought to divide.
When the dog whistle of racism was blown, Bob responded with thunder.
In South Africa’s case that thunder took the form of weaponised economic policy.
Indeed, Bob was the driving force behind the sanctions that South Africa’s then finance minister would go on to describe as “the dagger that finally immobilised apartheid”.
Bob drove that agenda on the global stage. It took courage, and Bob had courage in roughly equivalent amounts to his ambition.
And it paid off. No one was clearer about that than Nelson Mandela himself.
When Mandela arrived in Canberra he said: “I want you to know, Bob, that I am here today, at this time, because of you.”
So yes, it took courage. It also took energy and it took self-belief.
These were also areas in which Bob suffered no deficit.
Once asked how he could simultaneously be President of the ACTU and President of the Australian Labor Party, this was his reply: “If you can’t ride two horses, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus.”
After a conversation with Margaret Thatcher in 1983 he reported to the media she thought they would both be around a while in their respective positions.
Bob then offered this modest observation: “She’s certainly right in one respect.”
The strength of Bob’s personality sometimes made it harder to see what lay beneath that twinkling, larrikin surface.
Not least his dedication to his work and to detail, the pay-off of habits formed in his long, hard years as an industrial advocate.
All this energy was channelled into making life better for his fellow Australians.
He was at once our leader and our cheerleader.
He was ahead of us, calling us on – and yet somehow he was also walking alongside us.
Bob’s was an ambition that embraced the rest of us. He knew we were capable of better and he knew we could do it – together.
Think of some of his bywords that characterised his leadership:
They’re all about us heading one direction as a nation rather than about division or conflict.
Of course there will always be times when gaps and cracks open between us. But Bob never dived into them in search of votes.
Bob was about closing them.
And even though he was Labor to the core, you didn’t have to vote for Bob to feel the love.
You didn’t have to agree with Bob for him to respect you as one of his fellow Australians.
Bob didn’t ask: Whose side are you on?
He governed for all Australians.
He never ran away. He never shied away.
If ever there was a man who could appeal to our better angels without being an angel himself, it was Bob.
Or as Bob himself put it:
“Do you know why I have credibility? Because I don’t exude morality.”
We think of him as a Rhodes scholar who actually gave the Rhodes scholarship a good name.
A world record beer drinker who switched off his thirst while he was leader.
A cheeky man, not large physically, who grew into one of our true giants.
A man who was Australia amplified.
He was our most popular Prime Minister and, I would argue, our greatest.
And yet he never stood above us. He was always among us.
Which is why he always understood what we are capable of, and how far we can push ourselves.
He let us look inside ourselves and like what we saw – while at the same understanding we could always do better because we had what it took.
He would be rapt that his beloved Blanche is here today, launching her updated biography of the love of her life. It was a pleasure to witness the way they cherished each other.
He would have loved to have been here with Blanche and you.
He loved music and I’m confident he would have wanted you to turn up the volume.
Or as Bob himself might have put it: If music be the food of love, FORTISSIMO!