Australia's charismatic former PM Bob Hawke dies at 89

Under Mr Bob Hawke, Australia shifted diplomatic priorities away from Britain to foster closer ties with the US, China, Japan and South-east Asia.
Under Mr Bob Hawke, Australia shifted diplomatic priorities away from Britain to foster closer ties with the US, China, Japan and South-east Asia.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

He reformed economy, introduced social safety nets and tougher environmental laws

SYDNEY • Mr Bob Hawke, a transformative and charismatic left-wing lawmaker with a "larrikin" streak who served as Australia's prime minister from 1983 to 1991, has died at the age of 89, his family said.

"Today we lost Bob Hawke, a great Australian - many would say the greatest Australian of the post-war era," his wife and former biographer, Ms Blanche d'Alpuget, said yesterday. He died "peacefully at home", she added.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed Mr Hawke's ability to speak to all Australians.

"Bob Hawke was a great Australian who led and served our country with passion, courage and an intellectual horsepower that made our country stronger," he said on social media.

Mr Hawke's death comes ahead of a general election tomorrow, with his opposition Labor Party narrowly ahead in the polls.

"The Australian people loved Bob Hawke because they knew Bob loved them - this was true to the very end," Labor leader Bill Shorten said in a statement.

Mr Hawke earned his reputation as a larrikin, or lovable rogue, in part due to his world record for drinking a "yard", or 1.4 litres, of beer in 11 seconds while at Oxford University.

Mr Robert James Lee Hawke, a former trade union leader, was first elected to Parliament in 1980 and was named leader of the centre-left Labor Party less than a month before a snap general election in 1983.

Voters embraced Mr Hawke and Labor won an unlikely landslide against a conservative government led by Mr Malcolm Fraser, who had been in power for nearly a decade.

Mr Hawke became Australia's 23rd prime minister.

"I regard Bob Hawke as the best Labor prime minister this country has ever had," former conservative leader John Howard, who served as Mr Fraser's treasurer, said this year.

Inheriting an economy in recession and with double-digit unemployment and inflation, Mr Hawke embraced economic deregulation that belied his connections with Australia's largest trade unions.

Mr Hawke won support from the political left to float the Australian dollar, remove controls on foreign exchange and interest rates, and lower tariffs on imports within months of his inauguration.

The reforms triggered a wave of economic growth, allowing Mr Hawke to introduce universal healthcare, strengthen social security for poor families and enact stronger environmental legislation.

Australia also made its mark on the international stage under Mr Hawke, who shifted diplomatic priorities away from Britain, fostering closer ties with the United States, China, Japan and South-east Asia.

He also spearheaded international efforts to impose economic sanctions on South Africa over apartheid.

He cried publicly several times - most famously in 1989 at a memorial service at Parliament House following China's crackdown on students at Beijing's Tiananmen square.

Mr Hawke won a fourth election in 1990 to become Australia's longest-serving Labor prime minister but his popularity began to wane amid a recession.

Mr Paul Keating, Mr Hawke's treasurer and the architect of Labor's economic policies, pressured him to step aside as his position weakened.

After retiring from politics in 1992, Mr Hawke became active in business, particularly in China.

He divorced his wife Hazel in 1995 and married Ms d'Alpuget. With his first wife, who died in 2013, Mr Hawke had four children: Susan, Stephen, Rosslyn and another son, Robert, who died a few days after his birth.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2019, with the headline 'Australia's charismatic former PM Bob Hawke dies at 89'. Print Edition | Subscribe