As a green young reporter, I was unexpectedly sent to News Limited’s Canberra bureau in 1988, when Bob Hawke was still ruling Australian politics with a rarely seen authority.
Everyone knew the standard version of the Silver Bodgie and his legendary connection with the Australian people: the knockabout larrikin who calmed his appetites for his shot at the Prime Ministership; the consensus politician; the great communicator.
In press conferences, though, he wasn’t always erudite. I wasn’t the only reporter who grappled to find a decent quote from his regular engagements with the press pack that, in my memory, went on until all questions were exhausted: he could be verbose, change track within a sentence. He was the same, often, in Parliament, preferring to be the statesman while his more combative colleagues, like Mick Young and Paul Keating, dismembered the then-hapless Opposition.
When delivering a speech about a topic near to his heart, though, or moving through a public space during an election campaign, Hawke was something else: he knew how to connect and he didn’t need media training or talking points to “cut through”, in the modern parlance. He was just Bob and it was more than enough.
The bureau sent me down to the Great Hall in June 1989 to cover a memorial ceremony for the students killed while protesting in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The Prime Minister spoke – briefly. In a few hundred straightforward yet elegant words, he described the brutality of what happened and, as political leaders do, offered hope: “It is my sincere hope and, indeed, my resolute conviction, that the values and aspirations of those who have been so brutally repressed over the past week will eventually triumph, that the death and suffering will not have been in vain, that the path of reform and modernisation will be renewed.”
And yes, Hawke also cried. No-one who saw it questioned whether his tears were a manipulation or a distraction from whatever other issue was troubling his Government.
When I returned to the office, I declared – naively – that the story could not be Hawke’s tears, but his recounting of intelligence reports of how the Chinese soldiers had gone through the square, bayonetting students who had survived the initial onslaught.
Of course, the story was – and forever will be – Bob’s tears.
But it wasn’t just a moment of spin for Hawke, his feelings of revulsion, his promise that things could change, was turned into tangible policy that affected thousands of lives and, you could argue, the face of Australia for years to come.
Without consulting his cabinet, Hawke had emotionally promised to extend temporary entry permits for Chinese nationals legally in Australia for a year, giving them financial assistance and rights to work.
Hawke held his ground as the details went through Cabinet and, in the end, 42,000 Chinese students were granted permanent visas.
I can’t imagine any of Hawke’s successors being able to pull off such a political feat.
There were other encounters: memorably, Hawke, in impeccable shape, slapping my gentle off-spinners around Forestry Oval in Yarralumla at the annual PM versus the press gallery match, despite him being nearly 40 years my senior.
Then there was the time I snagged an invitation to press gallery Christmas drinks at the Lodge. While Hazel played the piano for a singalong, another young ratbag reporter and I scanned his bookshelves, pulling out inscribed copy after inscribed copy.
Only one sticks in my mind today: an autobiography of Golda Meir, the trailblazing fourth Prime Minister of Israel. It was signed by her hand and dedicated to Bob, a great statesman and supporter of Israel, or words to that effect.
Will Australia ever see a politician of his kind again, who can garner equal respect on the world stage as in the front bar of a working-class pub?
Will we ever see a PM again who knew instinctively when to make a “captain’s call”, and when to give his (mostly) very talented frontbench the chance to remake Australia in their own design?
Of course, he was flawed – politically and personally – but his passing has a poignancy beyond the human dimension of love and loss.
It’s also a reminder of how far we’ve fallen as a body politic, of the lack of grace we offer modern political leaders, and the lack of faith they show in us.
David Washington is editor of InDaily.
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