(Not) Remembering Bob Hawke

I didn’t live in Australia during the Hawke years. I knew nothing about Australian politics; I was caught up in the turmoil of my own country, South Africa.

But I went to the memorial service for Bob Hawke. It was by chance, really. I was in Sydney and the morning news reminded me that this was the day. I was catching the ferry to Circular Quay anyway, so I strolled over to the Opera House for a bit of a stickybeak.

After an hour or so of celebrity spotting, chatting to friendly strangers and snapping politicians alighting from their official vehicles, I felt compelled to stay for the ceremony.

I left feeling rather emotional, and with some unexpected reflections on my adopted country.

After Tiananmen

I can’t claim to be as deeply affected by Hawke’s legacy as the 40,000 Chinese students he allowed to stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of these told me, tears welling in his eyes, how he owed his life to Hawke. Another was there with his wife and daughter. They each carried a bouquet, his daughter’s made up of natives and wildflowers; his with orchids. He showed me the condolence card which read: ‘Always in my heart. As many Chinese students, my life changed forever when Mr Hawke offered us to stay in 1989.’

Xuesu Dai with his bouquet for Bob Hawke

My homeland, South Africa, owes a debt of gratitude to the former PM for his support of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. I was ambushed by a rush of emotion when he and Nelson Mandela, who was beloved to us as Hawke was to Australia, appeared on the big screen in front of the Opera House steps. Back in the 80s, sanctions were one of the prongs of attack that that led to Apartheid’s downfall. Trade unionist Bill Kelty told the crowd how Nelson Mandela had been buoyed by Hawke’s support. I was a hopeful twenty-something in South Africa at the time. A woman who had travelled from Hobart specifically for the memorial service confided that Hawke had shaped her and her generation. Across the Indian Ocean, he had also played a part in shaping mine.

I had many conversations outside the venue. We agreed: Penny Wong for President, we missed Malcolm Turnbull in the light of subsequent events, and didn’t Quentin Bryce present as the epitome of elegance. The easy friendliness, the lack of pomp and ceremony and relaxed, happy atmosphere was striking. Those who had come to pay our respects and to spot a politician or two mingled with MPs, actors, media personalities and past politicians. Security was undoubtedly there, in the form of police patrols, a helicopter circling overhead and security details for many of the guests. But there were none of the machine guns and flak jackets we have come to see as normal in a post-9/11 world. I reflected on how lucky were to live in  a country where you could walk up to an MP or an ex-party leader and shake their hand and say hi, love your work.

Australia before Hawke

I hadn’t been aware of just how significant the changes Hawke brought were. Before him, Australia didn’t sound much like a place anybody would want to come to. It was shut off from the Asia-Pacific region and in ways to the rest of the world, far away and insular and with a government that wielded more power than is comfortable. Hawke’s granddaughter Sophie Taylor-Price reminded us that Antarctica could have been a mining site were it not for her grandfather. One of her first memories is of sitting by her Pop’s side as he pleaded for rejecting the destruction of one of Earth’s last wild places. The four-year-old with a coloured pencil in her hand credits this moment as the start of her journey to being an environmental protector.

As we sat on the steps, around us life went on as usual. People jogged by on their lunchtime runs, groups of schoolkids made their way to the ferries and trains at Circular Quay, looking mildly curious about the crowd of mostly grey-haired citizens on the steps; not concerned enough to stop. Bob Hawke understood that we owe it to these kids, the young office workers out for their midday runs, the baffled tourists, to do better.

‘I don’t exude morality’

Most of the audience would remember a kinder time when politicians were not crucified for their imperfections. Anthony Albanese remembered Hawke saying: ‘I have credibility because I don’t exude morality’. Hawke could be a bit of a boozer, loved a punt on the horses and could lose his temper with people in his office – including Paul Keating – without being excoriated on Twitter. I don’t think Scott Morrison would get away with synchronising parliamentary adjournments with the races, as Hawke did with the Arbitration Commission according to Bill Kelty.

Blanche d’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s widow, asked that we make his death a turning point in the history of Australia. Everybody who spoke pleaded for us to listen to the young, to take a long view on our children’s future, and to remember that the reforms of the eighties, tough as they may have seemed, made Australia a better nation.

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