Remembering Bob Hawke
31 May 2019|

I was fortunate enough to work closely with Bob Hawke, initially as his principal private secretary (chief of staff) and later as secretary of two federal government departments responsible for key microeconomic reforms, including telecommunications and broadcasting. My first meeting with Bob was while I was working in the Australian embassy in Washington in 1980, when our ambassador asked me to look after Bob while he was visiting the United States.

Almost three years later, after Labor’s victory in the March 1983 general election, Bob asked me to take on the position of his chief of staff. I was working in the Treasury at the time. Bob said he wanted a public servant in the position (a tradition he maintained with my three successors) and he felt that my background in both foreign and economic policy would be useful.

The initial responsibilities for the position that Bob outlined were organising the office, filling the necessary staff positions, and establishing effective relations with the public service. He felt the latter had been badly managed by the Whitlam government, and he wanted the strong support of the public service to help implement the policy changes that his government wanted to undertake. For the government, the national economic summit was an early priority, as were the range of issues with the Australian intelligence bodies resulting from the Combe–Ivanov affair.

With regard to the organisation of his office, Bob told me that he wanted the structure to distinguish clearly between policy and political advisers, although they would need to talk to each other on most issues. He wanted the best policy options put in front of him, and then choices made based on input from his political advisers, the cabinet and the caucus.

Geoff Walsh, Peter Barron, Bob Hogg, Graham Freudenberg (although he spent much of his time in Sydney) and Jean Sinclair were already working for Bob. I recommended to Bob that he appoint Ross Garnaut and John Bowan as his economic and foreign policy advisers, respectively, and he was always pleased at how well those appointments worked out. Garnaut remained a close friend for the rest of Bob’s life, and was very important as a source of advice on economic and foreign policy matters.

Bob brought to the position of prime minister a well-formed view about the policy direction in which his government needed to take Australia. He was clear about this with his staff from the outset, although how it played out with specific policies was worked through with his key ministers and cabinet. The Australian economy was performing poorly when he assumed office, and structural rigidities were holding back necessary productivity improvements and the integration of Australia into the global economy.

If these economic shortcomings could be addressed, Bob felt the government would be able to deliver the social benefits—especially in health, education and social services—that were necessary for Australian society. In foreign policy, Bob wanted to maintain the strong relationship with the United States, but also to significantly enhance relations with Asia and the South Pacific. This broad framework remained central to the Hawke government throughout its time in office.

But unlike some of his successors on both sides of politics, Bob had thought through carefully how these major shifts within Australia could be achieved. His views on process and outcomes had already been set out in part in the 1979 Boyer lectures, including the prices and incomes accord and the national economic summit, both of which were central to achieving economic reform.

These key initiatives emphasised the fundamental importance of consensus, and of working with all sectors of the community on far-reaching changes. This was a message Bob stressed not only at the summit, but more generally with the public through the media. He always felt he governed for all Australians, a theme reflected in many of his speeches.

Bob was determined that he would run an efficient government, which he felt had been a fundamental shortcoming of the Whitlam government. This was a view shared by his cabinet colleagues, and was helped by the prior work undertaken by Gareth Evans on clarifying the relationships between the cabinet, the ministry and the caucus. Later in life Bob maintained his view that although the policy challenges for government had changed, as had the forms of media, the underlying principles of good government remained the same: cabinet as the body where policy options for government were debated and agreed upon; delegation of policy implementation to ministers, who were held accountable; and effective use of the public service to help advise on, and implement, policy. He felt much of this had been lost in recent years.

Bob Hawke was a great man to work for, in large part because he was a great prime minister, focused on improving Australia for the better. This has been recognised in the many tributes since his recent death. He was highly intelligent, disciplined, a good listener concerned to understand all policy options, and extremely efficient as both the leader of cabinet and, at a more mundane level, as a manager of his own paperwork and meetings.

Bob generated respect, trust and loyalty from his staff, and it was repaid. While he was undoubtedly a strong personality, he always encouraged robust debate in the office. Bob was not a hater, and he would move on from any disagreements. These two factors contributed to the positive chemistry between Bob and the staff members, which lasted until his death. His love of sport was shared by a number of us in the office, and was often a relief valve from long hours and hard-nosed policy debates.

For me and the others who were part of the Hawke prime ministerial office in the early years, it was a joy to come to work each day, and to have the privilege of working with Bob on the challenges faced by Australia in the late 20th century.