The great unifier, even in death

17 May 2019

Australia will never elect a PM like Bob Hawke again. But we should, writes Mark Kenny.

Tony Blair called him "a giant in anyone's politics" and Bill Clinton praised his fierce intellect and brilliant sense of humour.

For once, tributes did "flood in," from around the globe, around the country, and most tellingly, around the political spectrum.

Names like Howard, Morrison, Hockey, and Brown (the Green one).

Bob Hawke was unique. A rare political colossus who strode to power in a divided country in 1983, speaking directly to an impatience for something better, his pitch-perfect slogan, Bringing Australia Together.

The great negotiator famous for his impeccable timing, he replaced Labor's doughty leader, Bill Hayden, right at the moment the Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, visited the Governor-General to call a "surprise" election.

Fraser might not have beaten Hayden, yet had no chance against a first term MP who had never been a minister but was already unstoppable.

Thirty six years later, May 16, 2019 - the penultimate day of a rancorous election campaign - Hawke's exquisite timing was there again as he left this world peacefully and on his own terms.

In so doing, he reminded us that even at the climax of division, antagonists can be brought together, united in nationhood, bound by common values, joined in grief.

Would he have liked to see the result of the election - to see another Labor government? Certainly, but the supreme negotiator was always prepared to give a bit to get a bit and would not have quibbled over hours.

Hawke's work was done. His legacy became the dominant story of the final hours of the campaign, perhaps cruelling any last minute recovery by the Coalition but at the very least, reminding Australians of what they can be: a nation - the bold, the scared, and the ambitious among us - constructed around a core of classlessness and egalitarianism that must always be fostered.

Hawke's passing said all this and more. History had turned but such values must endure.

No other leader could have emphasised this in life and in death - the closest being his own favourite, Labor's wartime PM, John Curtin.

Hawke was ambitious to the point of vanity at times, but he was even more ambitious for the country he loved.

Which is why he enlarged it at every opportunity, never ducking for the cover of small power irrelevance, the craven path of claiming our place in the world did not matter.

And voters loved him for it.

How many prime ministers had so many nick-names?

Mr Consensus, Mr Charisma, The Messiah, The Great Conciliator, Hawkie. Or just plain Bob.

We'll not elect his like again. Except, Bob would tell us to do just that.

To aim high. Bet big. Live large. Care deeply. And take the piss.

Mark Kenny is Senior Fellow at the ANU Australian Studies Institute. Before joining ANU, he led a high-profile journalistic career culminating in six years as chief political correspondent and national affairs editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.