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Bob Hawke: farewell to a prime minister

Bob Hawke, one of Australia's greatest prime ministers, embodied a potent mixture of political and personal qualities.

Labor's most successful federal leader, who presided over the modernisation of Australia's economy, was a larrikin with a narcissistic streak.

He could give and command great personal loyalty; a pragmatist with a sense of destiny; passionate yet calculating.

His success depended largely on two strengths rarely seen in combination - a peerless ability to win the affection of the people and great managerial and negotiating skills.

He had two careers with the first, in the ACTU, providing the platform for the second. He was unique in having led Labor's industrial, organisational and political wings.

Yet despite his unmatched electoral record, he was dumped by his party after winning them four elections.

Robert James Lee Hawke, who died on Thursday aged 89, was born on December 9, 1929 in Bordertown, South Australia.

His father Clem, a Congregational minister, had been an ALP member and uncle Bert was to be a Labor premier of Western Australia. Mother Ellie hated the sin of not fully using one's talents.

Blanche d'Alpuget, his second wife, recounted in her mid-career biography of Hawke that when Ellie was pregnant with her second son, her Bible kept falling open at the verse in Isaiah: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder."

In 1939 elder brother Neil died of meningitis, and all his parents' love and aspirations were turned on their remaining child.

Hawke studied law at the University of Western Australia.

Cricket, the church and Labor politics were his main interests. He'd already started talking about himself as a prime minister.

Then he almost killed himself in a motorbike accident.

According to d'Alpuget, the family was convinced that God, by sparing him, had given a sign. And Hawke himself now believed that he was an instrument chosen by the Lord.

A subsequent visit to India, where he was appalled by the poverty, ended his belief in God, but not himself.

His fiancee Hazel Masterton, after much agonising, had an abortion so Bob could take up a Rhodes scholarship, then open only to single men.

Hawke's time at Oxford is chiefly remembered for his making the Guinness Book of Records for downing two and a half pints of beer in 12 seconds.

In 1958, having returned to Australia and finally married Hazel, Hawke joined the ACTU and began building a formidable reputation as an advocate with a brilliant grasp of economics.

Tales of his heroic drinking helped his larrikin image. But Hazel's memoirs make it clear that it was obsessive and destructive. While she was struggling at home to bring up three children and wrestling with the grief of losing a fourth baby, he was out drinking or womanising. She contemplated divorce.

In 1969 he won the ACTU presidency and became Australia's best known politician outside parliament.

His negotiating skills were formidable and he developed important contacts with the big end of town.

In 1973 he also became ALP president.

Hawke learnt from the excesses of the unravelling Whitlam government and determined not to repeat them.

In 1980, having finally stopped drinking, he entered federal parliament and went straight to opposition leader Bill Hayden's front bench.

Within three years he was party leader and weeks later became prime minister with a sweeping victory over Malcolm Fraser.

The next year he beat Andrew Peacock and in 1987, benefiting from Joh Bjelke-Petersen's destructive Canberra campaign, he beat John Howard despite losing the primary vote. He narrowly won his fourth election in 1990 against the recycled Peacock.

Hawke was an inclusive leader - a chairman rather than a despot. He claimed, with some justice, that he had the most talented team of ministers in Australia's history and let them get on with it.

He and Treasurer Paul Keating set about transforming Australia's economy.

He negotiated an accord with unions to reduce strikes and restrain wages.

He floated the dollar and deregulated the financial system.

Tax was overhauled, tariffs were slashed, and enterprise bargaining began.

In foreign affairs, Hawke was the driving force behind APEC and helped bring peace to the killing fields of Cambodia.

He made Australia an active player in world disarmament and an influential advocate of free agricultural trade.

He ended Whitlam's legacy of free tertiary education and introduced Medicare - a new version of Whitlam's Medibank.

Sometimes he overreached. His promises to end child poverty and to negotiate an Aboriginal treaty came back to mock him.

Through it all, Hawke was, to the public, good old Hawkie, the leader with the common touch, often wreathed in cigar smoke or, occasionally, tears.

His love of sport and delight in Australian victories were impossible to counterfeit.

In the euphoria of Australia's America's Cup triumph, Hawke, champagne-soaked and in a garish jacket festooned with flags, declared "any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum."

In late 1988 he and Keating, each with a trusted witness, signed the secret Kirribilli House pact in which Hawke promised to hand over to his increasingly impatient treasurer after the 1990 election.

He reneged and after one failed attempt, Keating toppled him in December 1991. Labor, for the first time, had voted out a serving prime minister.

He and Hazel soon divorced and Hawke married d'Alpuget. Soon after, Hazel began her long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Hawke remained active as a business consultant, company director and visiting professor.

He wrote his memoirs and co-authored a major report on the ALP.

His place in the Labor pantheon was formally acknowledged in 2009 when he became only the third person to be awarded national life membership of the party.

© AAP 2019

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