BOOK REVIEW / Time to fish or cut bait: 'The Hawke Memoirs' - Bob Hawke: Heinemann, 20 pounds

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BOB HAWKE was the most successful Australian Labor prime minister, and the beloved of the Australian electorate. He was Labor's meal-ticket for nearly a decade, and restructured the country extensively. When this book was published in Sydney recently, no serving Labor MP or cabinet minister attended the launch, and the Labor Party and the media vied with each other to declare it mean-spirited and ill-written.

The Australian attack on the whole 600 pages is largely based on two unprovable accusations Hawke makes against his treasurer and successor, Paul Keating. The first is that when Hawke asked him, 'Are you saying that even if you believed I had a better chance of winning the next election than you, I should stand aside for you?' Keating replied, 'Yes.' The second is Hawke's claim that when 'the question arose of what he would do if he wasn't given his 'turn' as Prime Minister (Keating) rejoined, 'We'll be off to Europe. We won't be staying here - this is the arse-end of the world.' ' According to Hawke, 'His comment about Australia will always stick in my craw.'

So Hawke is seen to have done two things which in Australia are crimes against the Holy Spirit: he has violated the code of the Labor tribe, and he has not gone off into retirement with the appropriate laconic shrug.

Despite its lack of respect for Keating, the book is quite elegantly written, combining stylishness with a characteristically Hawke gift for folksy idiom: 'It was time for the parliamentary party to fish or cut bait'; an old-style trade union leader 'was preparing to deposit his lead in the saddlebag of the Australian Labor Party'. More importantly, though, Hawke does define the ways in which Australia changed during his tenure.

At the beginning of the 1980s, he says, it was taken for granted that employers and workers were destined for conflict; that manufacturing was to be conducted behind high tariff walls; that high inflation was endemic in Australia; and that 'in the conduct of our international relations we exhausted our responsibilities by ascertaining the view of the British and the Americans and falling in line with them'. And finally that 'Labor only became the Government of Australia by default'.

These tenets were demolished during Hawke's prime ministership. It seems unfair that a man under whose aegis such changes were wrought in Australia should have his memoir judged on one rancorous memory of what happened in an hour or so in Kirribilli House.

Bob Hawke was born in South Australia, the son of a Congregational minister. Having lost one brilliant son to meningitis, his mother, Ellie, drove young Robert on to scholastic glory. As a Rhodes scholar, he admired Oxford and its resistance to McCarthyism, but ran into trouble over his thesis on Australia's wage-fixing system. He says it was economic straits - 'necessity became the mother of ingestion' - which enabled him to make it to the Guinness Book of Records by downing two and a half pints of ale in 11 seconds at the behest of the Sconcemaster.

After a brief term at the Australian National University, he became the advocate of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. He achieved national fame in the Fifties and Sixties in a number of wage cases. There is no question that he gave unionism a new, less saturnine face. By the age of 43, Hawke was leader of the ACTU and president of the Australian Labor Party. His slogan was: 'If you can't ride two horses at once, you shouldn't be in the bloody circus.'

Ellie, the woman who had initiated his drive to the top, died in 1979, but by then his wife Hazel had become a national figure, respected in her own right and sympathised with for her solidity throughout Bob's hectic drinking and philandering days. He confesses early in the biography that he 'often behaved badly in drink', and to frittering away 'hours that could have been spent with Hazel and the children'. It is this admission, sandwiched briefly in between talk of leadership fights, which probably made reviewers miss the rather more explicit confessions of his domestic inadequacies later in the book, when it becomes apparent that his daughter, Ros, is in danger of death from heroin addiction. None the less, there is no question that this is a public man's biography, in which public event overrides the private.

Hawke entered the federal parliament in 1979, and, on the edge of a federal election called by an extremely vulnerable Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, took the leadership from Bill Hayden. (Bill - on the good old ALP grounds that no one has to go home empty-handed - is the present Governor-General.) So he came to power in March 1983. He called a summit between business and union leaders which led to a succession of wage accords, and he promoted the belief, laughed at by most political realists but treasured for a time by the populace, that consensus was possible. For good and ill, he deregulated the up-to-then hermetically sealed economy.

In foreign policy, his government's initiatives in getting the UN involved in Cambodia were crucial to the present settlement, and his support for sanctions against South Africa was significant. He led a movement to preserve immense, crucial, forgotten Antarctica against oil mining by refusing to sign the glibly named Convention on Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activity, and his government also initiated the Cairns Group of free-trade nations.

For a Labor leader, he displayed an unexpected enthusiasm for the government of Ronald Reagan, and there is unconscious humour in his claim that 'there was a refreshing candour in Reagan's approach. He did not pretend to have knowledge or expertise he didn't in fact possess.'

There is no question, though, that for a decade Bob Hawke was dominant not just in Australian affairs, but exercised international influence. Many who lived plushly in the shadow of Hawke's ego now profess to be profoundly shocked by its manifestations here. There is in this account a tendency to dismiss the old Labor shibboleths and conventional wisdoms, and there is no lack of robust self-regard. But in the context of other contemporary political memoirs, this one seems fit to stand as a vigorous and important source.