Bob Hawke: Demons and destiny, the definitive biography

By Troy Bramston

 Viking 2022

ISBN: 9780143788096

RRP $49.99 (HB)

Reviewed by Keith Harvey


The introduction to Troy Bramston’s Bob Hawke: Demons and Destiny contains a content warning. The author advises that this unsanitised look at both the public but also the personal aspects of Hawke’s life “may shock some readers”. The remark by “Brian’s” mother, quoted above, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian could be applied to Hawke, if the author was only considering his personal life. Hawke’s record of repeated casual as well as long-term extra-marital sexual relationships is extraordinary. Today, hopefully, such behaviour would disqualify a person from the highest national political office.

Fortunately, this biography is much more than “kiss and tell”. Bramston does not dwell on this aspect of Hawke’s life – though it crops up repeatedly – nor does he seek to excuse it or explain it away. He rightly calls it out as a breach of the trust and fidelity owed to Hazel Hawke in particular.

Bramston’s biography presents a complete picture of Hawke the man, the union leader, the politician and Prime Minister. The book runs to nearly 600 pages, supplemented by 50 pages of footnotes. Did we need a new biography of Hawke? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to this question is “yes”.

There were three early biographies of Hawke – including one published by biographer and lover Blanche d’Alpuget – but all were published prior to Hawke becoming Prime Minister.

D’Alpuget published a subsequent volume: Hawke: The Prime Minister in 2010 – and a combined volume of her two works appeared in 2019. The close relationship between the subject and the biographer may lead some to worry about complete objectivity, although d’Alpuget did her work in a professional manner. She is more objective, frank and searching about her subject than Hawke himself was in his own account of his life – The Hawke Memoirs – published in 1994. (More of this later.)

Moreover, for this biography Bramston has drawn on a series of interviews he conducted with Hawke between 2017 and 2019, as well as access to Hawke’s personal, Prime Ministerial and other government papers, letters of Hazel Hawke and her family, ALP materials, Bill Hayden’s personal and certain Governor-General’s office letters, other political diaries and interviews with 100 individuals including Hawke’s associates, political opponents and foreign leaders. Bramston also interviewed two of Hawke’s children as well as Blanche d’Alpuget, his second wife and widow.

This has enabled Bramston to put together a comprehensive and definitive account of Hawke’s remarkable career and personal life. It is a volume that fluently brings together these multiple sources and strands of Hawke’s personal and professional life. It is thoroughly researched and well written and is a comprehensive account of a multi-faceted and complicated life. A must read for anyone interested in the life and times of Bob Hawke.

Bob Hawke was undoubtedly a remarkable character and well worth this book. He was a dominating figure in the labour movement particularly when he became ACTU President in late 1969 (after serving as ACTU Industrial Advocate and despite never having worked for a union) and also ALP President between 1973 and 1978. Entering parliament, he became Prime Minister in 1983, having never served a day in parliament as Opposition leader (Malcolm Fraser calling an election the same day Hawke succeeded Hayden). He won a record four elections as ALP leader before losing the leadership to Paul Keating who went on to win a fifth term for Labor.

Hawke had a great relationship with the Australian public, although this soured substantially when Hawke separated from the equally well-loved Hazel after he left the Lodge and moved in with and then married Blanche d’Alpuget – complete with nauseating photos in matching bathrobes on the cover of Women’s Day in 1995 for which the magazine reportedly paid a large sum of money.

Nevertheless, Hawke’s government remains the standout ALP government in post-war Australia. Not only did he – in partnership with Treasurer Paul Keating – achieve a wide range of economic reforms, Hawke is credited with running an effective cabinet style government. Little wonder that new ALP PM Anthony Albanese is said to be wanting to run a similar style of government – easily ignoring the examples of the dysfunctional Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments as well as, of course, the chaotic Whitlam administration.

Your humble reviewer worked in the trade union movement for many years from late 1972 and I met Hawke on a number of occasions. The first personal conversation I can recall was in 1974 at the ACTU office but I witnessed him in action at many ACTU meetings and Congresses throughout the 1970s.

I last spoke to him a week before he was defeated by Paul Keating for the party leadership. The occasion was a meeting of the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Council. This prestigious body met twice a year in the Cabinet room in Parliament House in Canberra.

I understand that Hawke had created the Council and it was a favourite body of his. He usually attended each meeting and stayed all day. At this, his last meeting, he attended only briefly for the first 20 minutes or so, waxing enthusiastically about matters on the agenda before excusing himself, saying wryly that “he had a couple of other things to do”.

At lunchtime, he hosted the Council members to lunch in his private dining room adjacent to the PM’s office where he again talked all matters science and technology as if nothing else was going on. In the middle of lunch, he left for a while to take a phone call from a foreign leader, as I recall, to discuss trade issues before returning to lunch and science policy. A few days later, he lost the leadership.

What struck me most then was his ability to fully focus on an issue notwithstanding other pressing distractions – then deal with another matter or series of issues with equal intensity. It is a rare talent I suspect shared by those who successfully function at the highest level in their field.

Reading Bramston’s book you get an idea of the unusual ability of Hawke to play hard (with both alcohol and women) and yet turn up and do his day job well, transforming himself from academic, to ACTU industrial advocate (at a time when the bench preferred to be addressed by senior QCs), to the union movement’s top job, to politician and eventually PM as if it was an inevitable trajectory. It should be noted that in order to become PM, Hawke “gave up the grog” (but not women). This must have taken some considerable effort.

“Chapter 25: In Bed with Bob”

Given that Bramston has decided to include Hawke’s personal sexual activities in his account of his life, it is difficult not to comment on this aspect of the book. Other accounts of Hawke’s career have dealt with his issues with alcohol but glossed over or ignored what was quaintly referred to as his “womanising”.

Hawke seems to have been incapable of being faithful to one woman for any period of time whatsoever. Both Bob Hawke and Hazel Masterson came from conservative religious families – Hawke himself, of course, being the son of a Congregational Minister. In the 1950s, sex before marriage was taboo especially in religious communities.

The couple could not marry at first since Hawke was seeking to be a Rhodes scholar which was only open to single males. Nor, it would seem, could they have a child out of wedlock. But Hazel became pregnant. Abortion was not only taboo it was completely illegal at the time. Hazel found a “mystery man” who performed an abortion during her lunch break. She went alone. It was, writes Bramston, “a lonely and agonising experience” for her, one undoubtedly shared by many other women in similar circumstances.

Eventually, Hawke was offered a Rhodes scholarship and he left Australia in 1953, alone. But within a few months, he was writing to Hazel begging her to join him in the UK. Hawke was frank enough to tell Hazel that she had to come to England otherwise he would be susceptible to the “merely passing delights of this other life of mine” and that she “must come” because he had “been thrust into an environment which is full of opportunities for the satisfaction of my varied tastes”. In other words, as Bramston writes, it was Hazel’s “responsibility to tame his sexual cravings”. It was all about him.

When the couple returned to Australia, they were married. When Hawke had first proposed, Hazel thought she was not “good enough” since she had not been to university. Hawke apparently told her that he would not have been interested in her if she had! Ouch! The warning signs were clear.

Without traversing the whole of the array of extra marital relationships (but see Chapter 25 in particular if you want to) that Bob Hawke engaged in, and which are mentioned in this biography, it is abundantly clear that Hawke was never faithful to his first wife, nor honest with her about this. Bramston notes that Hawke, of course, was not the first Prime Minister to have an affair. Hawke publicly admitted it during his Prime Ministership but also claimed to have stopped it. This, says Bramston, was not true.

Does any of this matter to the public? Should this be in a biography of a public figure? Is it necessary? Possibly. Does it reflect on Hawke and tarnish not only his reputation as well as the many women involved, a significant number of whom are named? Yes. Did this behaviour affect his performance as PM? No evidence is presented to suggest that it did.

There are at least two factors which a reader might consider in determining an answer to these questions. While the private activities of consenting adults have generally been considered to be their own business, revelations over the past few years both in the context of Australian politics and on a broader, international stage have highlighted the fact that respectful and appropriate attitudes to women are important not only for their own sake but for the proper functioning of organisations, including political ones.

Bramston notes that Hawke’s behaviour, and that of others, was typical of a “Parliament House that was heaving with conduct that would not be tolerated today – and nor should it have been tolerated then”. It is hard to disagree.

The public interest in the private sexual affairs of politicians comes if this activity leads to a risk of a PM or other senior politician being compromised or subject to blackmail. There are enough examples of this from political history to say that this is a real danger, especially if such activities are widespread and almost random. Bramston says that Hawke’s “dangerous liaisons” were known to – and sometimes facilitated by – his security detail who obviously had to know where he was at all times. Risky business, indeed.

On balance, Bramston’s decision to include Hawke’s serial infidelities in his account seems appropriate, especially since Hawke himself spoke about them. But some readers may have a different view or may change their view of Hawke as a result of reading this biography.

In a 600-page book, there are obviously many topics that a reviewer could comment on. I must restrict myself to one or two.

Hawke and the four Victorian unions

Bob Hawke was interested in the Labor Party from his earliest days. When he returned to Australia from Oxford, he went to the ANU in Canberra to continue his studies in arbitration. In 1957, he considered returning to Perth to contest a WA seat in the next federal election. He decided against this move. In 1963, after six years of work at the ACTU as Industrial Advocate based in Melbourne, Hawke was pre-selected as the ALP candidate for the Victorian seat of Corio, centred on the regional city of Geelong.

Hawke only had a short time to campaign but moved with his family to the electorate for the campaign, which was launched by Gough Whitlam, then deputy federal leader. Hawke improved the ALP’s vote and led the ballot on first preferences. But Democratic Labor Party (DLP) preferences delivered the seat to the sitting Liberal member, Hubert Opperman. Hawke told his young daughter Susan, then six, that he blamed “the bloody DLP” for his defeat.

This was, of course, not long after the disastrous 1955 split in the ALP in Victoria, which saw many ALP members expelled and key anti-communist unions dis-affiliated from the ALP. Later, these members and unions formed the core of what was to become the DLP. Many of these members and union officials were Catholics associated with the National Civic Council. Hawke appears to have had a personal suspicion of Catholics and a dislike of the role the DLP played in national politics because of the Labor Split.

As mentioned earlier – I first met Hawke in late 1974, when the ACTU decided to send me to the United States to look at trade union education there. Hawke told me bluntly that they were sending me because the only other available candidate was “a DLP bastard”. No love lost there at all.

Hawke was not to stand again as an ALP candidate until well after he had become ACTU President – in 1980. But the division in the ALP – particularly significant in Victoria – remained a problem for the party in winning elections both in the State of Victoria and nationally. The Victorian Branch of the Party was dominated – until federal intervention in 1970 – by the doctrinaire left headed by Bill Hartley and George Crawford. Hawke did not initially support Whitlam’s intervention in the Victorian Branch but ultimately backed it – and served on an advisory committee after intervention while the Branch was being restructured.

While Hawke had been elected to the ACTU Presidency with left-wing union support, he soon began a drift to the right of the party concerned with the electoral dead weight that the Victorian left imposed on the party as a whole. He later took on the left on a range of issues, among them the existence and future of uranium mining in this country. By the time he was elected Prime Minister, he was on the right of the party.

Despite Labor eventually winning office in Victoria in 1982 (and nationally the following year), the Victorian Branch of the party was still in the tight grip of the Socialist Left faction and its allies, despite federal intervention. Hawke was by now aligned with Labor Unity in Victoria which was challenging the Left for control of the Branch. Hawke saw an opportunity to boost the anti-left forces by bringing the four Victorian anti-communist unions which had left the party during the Split in the 1950s back into the ALP fold.

Those unions were the Clerks Union led by John Maynes, the Shop Assistants Union of Jim Maher as well as the Ironworkers Association and the smaller Carpenters and Joiners Union. This would have the effect of ending the Split and would be an historic event (as well as bringing short term tactical advantages).

Jim Maher has said that the initial overtures to the four unions came from Bob Hawke. Thus, in early 1984 the four unions and their key officials applied to join (or re-join) the ALP. This was bitterly contested by the Socialist Left and the Victorian Branch rejected the applications. Ultimately however, the party’s National Executive admitted the unions and officials.

Oddly, there is not a word of this in Bramston’s biography of Hawke. This is a significant gap in the narrative. Indeed, this is a story which still needs to be told, as historian Ross Fitzgerald has noted.

Oxford, Dr Colin Clark, B A Santamaria and Sir Raymond Kelly – an historical footnote

One story that Bramston recounts is Hawke’s account of his 1954 run-in with his initial Oxford supervisor, the Australian economist Dr Colin Clark, who was then Director of the Agricultural Economics Research Institute. Bramston writes that Hawke was excited by this prospect telling his parents by letter that Clark was “regarded as one of the most competent and certainly one of the most controversial economists in the world today”.

Hawke changed the focus of his degree, Bramston records, from economics to wage determination – specifically the development of arbitration and the basic wage – and met with Clark to explain his new thesis. Hawke was shocked when Clark announced that this topic was “of no interest to him or the university”. Hawke thought this to be “bullshit” he told Bramston in an interview in 2017: 63 years later.

Hawke obtained another supervisor, but never forgave Clark. He later claimed to have discovered why Colin Clark had taken this view. Bramston says (at page 84) that “Hawke later discovered from Judge Alf Foster that [Conciliation and Arbitration Court presiding Judge Raymond] Kelly had developed a close relationship with B.A. Santamaria and Colin Clark…Kelly, Santamaria and Clark advocated intensive land settlement in Australia as the basis of an agrarian rather than industrial economic future. That notion was absurd, Hawke would tell the bench.” Bramston does not give a reference for this statement, though it accurately reflects one strand of Hawke’s views on this issue.

In his Memoirs, Hawke gave an extended version of the alleged reason Clark rejected his thesis idea. He wrote:

I later discovered the reason for Colin Clark’s blatantly dishonest attempt to divert me from this area of research. He had been an economic adviser to the Queensland Government in Australia and, after converting to Catholicism, had embraced the philosophy of the National Catholic Rural Movement (NCRM). Dr Clark had, in fact, been the architect of a framework of economic policies built upon the central tenet of less industrialisation and a massive program of intensive land settlement… (Hawke Memoirs page 26)

Moreover, Hawke claimed:

He [Clark] saw the abandonment of the long-standing system of quarterly automatic adjustments to the basic wage as essential to beating the enemy of inflation. All of this was expounded to and developed with B.A. Santamaria, head of the NCRM, who in turn had the ear of Sir Raymond Kelly, then Chief Judge of the Arbitration Court. A fellow judge, Alf Foster, told me later that Santamaria “wore the carpet thin” to Kelly’s office in the period before the Bench, presided over by Kelly in 1953, gave effect to Clark’s prescription by abolishing the adjustment system…

But here I was in early 1954, totally unaware of Clark’s deep involvement in this recent travesty, announcing that I wanted to research the fixation of the basic wage, a matter in which he coldly asserted “no interest”. The last thing Colin Clark wanted was a bright and committed young fellow probing the ground he had contaminated. He sought blatantly to divert attention from his own dishonesty by denigrating my work as a scholar, a tactic later adopted with filial devotion but equal disregard for the facts by his son, Professor Gregory Clark. (Hawke Memoirs, page 26)

Apart from the so-called “evidence” of Judge Foster – who clearly did not know what, if anything, Chief Judge Kelly might or might not have discussed with Santamaria or anyone else – Hawke has not given any other source for his claim of dishonesty by Dr Clark. But he surely held a lifetime grudge passing it down, vendetta style, to his son.

Bramston wisely leaves Hawke’s extended claims out of his book, although they were obviously known to him since they appeared in Hawke’s memoir in 1994. Hawke’s claim is unsubstantiated and highly defamatory of Judge Kelly since it implies that Kelly decided a matter before him, not on the evidence and submissions that were presented in open court, but on the basis of private discussions with an individual not party to the case. D’Alpuget’s 1982 biography noted that Santamaria denied the claims made by Foster (and Hawke).

Judge Kelly was influenced by Catholic Social Teaching, including the first of the social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum – the “Workers’ Charter” – but also by those teachings emphasising rural production. But he also participated in the development of the Australian Catholic Action’s policies. He was a co-author of Pattern for Peace – the Australian Catholic Bishops 1943 response to the Curtin Labor Government’s call for ideas for post war Australia.

Raymond Kelly’s biographer Braham Dabscheck, who had read earlier versions of Hawke’s claims did not think they were true. In his 1983 biography of Judge Kelly, he wrote:

Kelly was very much his own man, an independent person who knew his own mind and possessed an almost supreme confidence in his ability to resolve the various and numerous problems that came to his attention. If others held the same views it was they who concurred with him rather than vice versa…

On the specific claim that Kelly’s views on the Australian economy were influenced by Colin Clark, Santamaria and the National Catholic Rural Movement, Dabscheck wrote:

There are a number of problems with this interpretation. Firstly, Kelly had little time for the views of economists, and Colin Clark was no exception…

Second, Kelly was his own man and could think for himself. He pursued the policies that he did because he believed them to be just and correct. It is more likely that Kelly helped Santamaria and Clark form their opinions than vice versa. Finally, the supporters of the above explanation are unaware that Kelly was one of the authors of Pattern for Peace, which forms part of the intellectual basis of the National Catholic Rural Movement…

In other words, Judge Kelly did not need B A Santamaria, or anyone else, to tell him what to think. Moreover, the 1953 Basic Wage decision – detested by the unions [and, later, by Hawke] because it abandoned automatic quarterly indexation of wages – was the unanimous decision of five judges of the Arbitration Court, not just of the Chief Judge. A close reading of the decision suggests no hint of any consideration of the need to favour rural industries over secondary ones or any other matter not properly before the Court. (See Commonwealth Arbitration Reports [C.A.R] – Basic Wage and Standard Hours Inquiry 1952-1953)

Bramston does not challenge Hawke’s view of these events, nor investigate them further, but what he writes is clearly Hawke’s long-held view as told directly to Bramston. But the re-telling of this tale does serve to remind us that interviews with the subject of a book do not guarantee that all aspects of the stories they tell can be independently verified and may or may not be historically accurate.

Interestingly, d’Alpuget has a more balanced view of the events at Oxford in 1954. In her research for her 1982 biography of Hawke, she took the trouble to write to Dr Clark, asking for his version of events at Oxford. He told her by letter that he had expected to supervise an economics thesis which would be titled, he recalled, The Economics of Wage Arbitration. “Clark was expecting an economics thesis, Hawke was researching politics and history,” she wrote. (d’Alpuget, Robert J Hawke – A biography, page 57).

Clark clearly did not think that Hawke’s economic credentials were up to scratch and, academically speaking, this may have been true. D’Alpuget says that Hawke and Clark met for “a couple of months” before Clark “lost patience” with Hawke. Bramston quotes others who – while not commenting on the dispute with Colin Clark – felt that his Oxford thesis, while practical and useful later, was “narrow and parochial” and even a “wasted opportunity”. (Page 64)

In the light of d’Alpuget’s correspondence with Clark it seems more likely that there were mis-matched expectations at Oxford and the fantastical scenario painted by Hawke and recounted in part by Bramston is much less likely to be the true explanation.

There are dozens and dozens of other stories and events in this book that will interest the reader. Troy Bramston’s “warts and all” portrait of Bob Hawke does live up to the claim of being “the definitive biography” of a man who loomed large in Australian public life for more than 50 years, dominating in turn the labour movement and the ALP in government and filling column inches in the serious newspapers, the tabloids and even women’s magazines. Bob Hawke lived most of his life in the public gaze and some aspects that were not generally known are now revealed. His life story is complex and varied, and Bramston tells it well.

Keith Harvey is a non-factional member of the ALP in Victoria. He was employed for many years in the trade union movement. His memoir, Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior, is published by Connor Court Publishing, 2021. A review by Michael Danby can be found here: