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Remembering Bob Hawke, Australia’s Colorful Prime Minister

Bob Hawke was an Australian original. One of the country’s most powerful political figures, he was observed by generations of American diplomats. He started out as a dynamic labor leader in the 1960s before becoming a Labor Party MP in the Australian parliament.  He later led Labor to a overwhelming victory in the 1983 general election. Hawke went on to become the longest serving Labor Party prime minister in Australian history. Hawke was outmaneuvered and lost power in 1991, but remained close to many Americans, including President George H.W. Bush.

The American diplomats’ private observations were candid and not always complimentary. All acknowledged Hawke’s political skill, however, and none would now dispute his positive contribution to U.S.-Australian relations. Hawke died on May 16, 2019. Following are excerpts from the oral histories of American diplomats who knew him.

Edward C. Ingraham’s initial interview was on April 8, 1991 and was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy and can be read HERE.

Ambassador Paul M. Cleveland was initially interviewed on October 20, 1996 by Thomas Stern and can be read HERE.

Ambassador William Andreas Brown was interviewed initially by Charles Stuart Kennedy on November 3, 1998, and can be read HERE.

Ambassador David Lamberton’s initial interview was on August 31, 2004 and was conducted by David Reuther can be read HERE.

Morton R. Dworken’s initial interview was conducted on March 10, 2008 by retired Ambassador Raymond Ewing and can be read HERE.

Drafted By Alex Firestone

“His Name Was Hawke”

While traveling between Perth and Hong Kong in the 1950s, American Consul Edward Ingraham made the acquaintance of many different Asian students in the Perth area. One of these students, however, was a young Australian with an unusual interest in Asian issues.

INGRAHAM: I wanted to mention the one young Australian student who used to join the Asian students when they visited. We had them over to the house quite often, because they were a bit lonely and the Australians didn’t quite know what to do with Asians. This young man was interested in Asia and in them. His name was Hawke. He was the nephew of the then Chief Minister of Western Australia. Today he is the Prime Minister of Australia. I hadn’t realized for years that he was the same guy until our Washington-based Asian friend said, “Remember good ol’ Bob Hawke?” I said, “My God is that the same Hawke?” And he said, “Of course it is.”

“ A Young Firebrand”

By 1962, Hawke was a powerful member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, known for his charisma and political talent. Political Officer Paul M. Cleveland describes Hawke’s energetic speaking style.

CLEVELAND: I attended an Australian political association conference held in Albert Hall in Canberra–the coldest place in the Southern Hemisphere. While shivering, I listened to many speakers. One was Bob Hawke, then a young firebrand of the Labor Party. Even then, he was viewed by many as a potential future leader of the Party. At the time, he was a member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Hawke gave a fiery speech about bread lines and destitute workers and the downtrodden Australian masses. I was sitting behind Gough Whitlam (later an Australian PM), and I think it was the consensus of the attendees that Hawke was there to make an impression–that the substance was not as important as the ear catching phrases. There were in fact no bread lines, no major unemployment, no downtrodden in 1962.

Prime Minister Hawke and Foreign Minister Hayden

In 1983, the Labor Party forced Bill Hayden from from his position as party leader in favor of Bob Hawke. Hawke was perceived as a better bet to secure an electoral victory.  U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs William Andreas Brown describes Hawke’s victory and its aftermath.

BROWN: So Secretary [Secretary of State] Shultz, accompanied by Armitage, Sigur, Wolfowitz, and their deputies, including myself, plus the CINCPAC [Commander, U.S. Pacific Command] Admiral Crowe, who was traveling with us and who was very much concerned about [nuclear issues], were on the plane as we flew to Canberra, the Wellington. There was a divided Australian Government at the time. Within the ruling Labor Party at the time there had earlier, on strictly domestic grounds, been such a convulsion that, as the Australians ran into their national election campaign, the then nominal leader of the Australian Labor Party [ALP], Bill Hayden, was approached by his fellow stalwarts within the ALP and told: “Bill, under other circumstances you should be the Prime Minister of Australia. However, we can’t win this election with you as party leader. We want you to step aside and yield your candidacy to Bob Hawke, because he can win the election for the ALP. However, you’ll be made Foreign Minister in the new government.” This was a position of significance, so, grinding his teeth, as it were, Hayden, who had many chips on his shoulder both domestically and otherwise, reluctantly stepped aside. Bob Hawke then became Prime Minister.

There was a palpable tension between Hawke and Hayden. They never traveled together, and there was a constant, ongoing battle between the supporters of Prime Minister Hawke and Foreign Minister Hayden. Well, in this crisis situation we were scheduled to land in Canberra, confer with the Australians, and then fly to New Zealand and have the ANZUS meeting there. By a special arrangement, when we landed in Canberra, Shultz drove directly to the Prime Minister’s residence and had a one on one meeting with him. The rest of us tagged along and caught up with Secretary Shultz later. We met with Foreign Minister Bill Hayden in the livingroom outside the inner sanctum of the Prime Minister’s residence. I had to hold Hayden’s hand while Prime Minister Hawke and Secretary Shultz were inside.  

“The Hawke Government Was Rock Solid”

Hawke proved to be a very able Prime Minister of Australia. Deputy Chief of Mission David Lambertson remembers that, despite some anti-Americanism on the Australian left, Hawke’s relationship with the U.S. was excellent.

LAMBERTSON: We didn’t have any serious bilateral issues with our Australian friends, but there were often political controversies occasioned by our presence. There’s a left wing in Australia that’s noisy if not necessarily powerful. They’re certainly well represented in the media, so there is a lot of press criticism of the U.S. There’s a certain strain of anti-Americanism on the left. There was always a little bit of tension, stuff that would get my blood going occasionally. We had this remarkable technological phenomenon out there at Pine Gap that was important to us and extremely sensitive, and the Australians were very good about helping us with it and maintaining and providing political defense for it if we needed it. The Hawke government was rock solid. Bob Hawke himself was an appealing personality.

Hawke is Ousted

Hawke was close friends with George H.W. Bush and always welcomed a visit from the American president. Sadly, it was during one of these occasions that Hawke was forced from power by a members of his own party.  Political Counselor Morton R. Dworken, then at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, remembers the incident.

DWORKEN:  Prime Minister Bob Hawke had come up through a labor union background, with wide experience in the politics of Asia and the Pacific. He had a relationship with people of President George H. W. Bush’s generation that went back many, many years. They themselves were well acquainted, and Bush wanted to come and see his old friend, Bob Hawke, and wife Hazel in Australia and pay his respects for all the close allied military and political relationships between the two countries. But domestic politics overtook Bob Hawke. Keating failed the first time when he tried to unseat Hawke but succeeded in mid-December of 1991. He did it ten days before Bush was due to arrive, which surprised just about everybody. We understood that there were machinations going 116 on, but I can’t say that we predicted it until we knew there was an actual caucus vote about to occur, and then it became clear that Hawke was really deeply in trouble. After Keating was successful in ousting Hawke as leader of the Australian Labor Party, then of course he became prime minister, the host of the POTUS visit.

This was incomprehensible to those 20-somethings in the White House who couldn’t understand it at all; they asked, how do you have a change of prime minister in a democracy without having an election? Well, we replied, there was an election; it was inside the party caucus, and that was all that was necessary except for a pro forma vote in the House of Representatives. So we spent many hours, my Political Section and I, on the phone explaining to the White House visit staff and other folks in Washington why the change occurred, what it meant, and so on, including why it was in fact democratic — quite a lesson in cross-cultural communications.