BOOK REVIEW / Australian messiah in a skimpy swimsuit: 'The Hawke Memoirs' - Bob Hawke: Heinemann, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
ONE IMAGE of Bob Hawke always sticks in my mind. It was in Western Samoa, at a Pacific nations' heads of government meeting, during which Hawke invited expatriate Australians to his hotel. When the expats turned up in their best clothes to meet their leader, they found him lounging in the tropical garden smoking a cigar and wearing nothing but a skimpy swimsuit. It was Hawke's way of saying he was a man of the people, and stuff the formalities.

This 'special relationship' which he claims to have had with the Australian people drove Hawke; he craved their approval as much as he did his mother's. And Bob Hawke's doting mother seems to have had no doubt that her son was destined to become prime minister of Australia. In the opening scene of his memoirs, he is sitting by her deathbed in 1979; he was 50, and it was only four years before he finally achieved the goal Ellie Hawke had set for him.

'No human being influenced my destiny more,' he writes. Hawke has no compunction in writing about his life with the intensity of an almost religious faith that he was a messiah sent to deliver Australia from an age of insular darkness into a new era of increased prosperity and internationalism.

As a populist and reforming leader of Australia's trade union movement, he effectively became the alternative prime minister even before he entered Parliament. In 1983, only three years after becoming a Labor MP, he was party leader and prime minister, and went on to deliver an unprecedented four successive election victories. Then it all crumbled. The party dumped Hawke for Paul Keating in 1991.

And last year Keating blew out of the water Hawke's conviction that only Hawke was capable of winning a fifth election. Hawke has written the memoirs of his remarkable career in the white heat of bitterness over his rejection and, sadly, it shows. There was much to approve of in the Hawke era. He led a government which had the courage to revolutionise the economy, to raise the profile of Aborigines and the environment and to take lasting foreign policy initiatives in Asia.

A book by the leader of one of the most extraordinary and dynamic eras in Australian politics should describe the people and processes behind those events, and throw new light on the workings of government. On both scores, though, one learns little.

Hawke single-handedly takes the credit for almost everything his government did and makes breathtaking claims for his influence and grandeur on the world stage. At the Vancouver meeting of Commonwealth heads of government, 'I conceived an initiative which, when accepted and implemented, finally broke apartheid'.

When Nelson Mandela later visited him in Canberra, he allegedly told him: 'I want you to know, Bob, that I am here today because of you.' And did President Clinton really get the idea for a national economic conference in 1992 from a similar meeting which Hawke convened in Australia in 1983?

Paul Keating, patronised and praised only grudgingly in his role as Hawke's finance minister, threads his way through Hawke's self-serving narrative in the manner of a Shakespearian villain. The tragic hero fears him and sees his shadow everywhere.

Even now, for one who claims to know his countrymen so well, Hawke seems unable to realise that Australians do not allow three things: ratting on your mates, claiming superhuman qualities denied to others, and excessively indulging one's ego. It will take other writers to show the Hawke era in a kinder light than Hawke's own account.