The Hon Bob Hawke was one of the most popular Australian prime ministers who lived his life in a privately adventurous bubble that never held him back – whether the weakness was alcohol or women. As he nears the end of an extraordinary public and private life, Bob Hawke chose to spend a series of Wednesdays talking about his life and its highs and lows – the person he spoke to was Derek Rielly, born in Perth to a pro wrestler father and diplomat mother and who worked as a blackjack dealer and bartender before becoming a full-time writer. It is a unique combination. Derek Rielly’s conversations with Hawke are now the subject of Wednesdays With Bob. At The Sydney Institute, on Wednesday 21 February 2018, Derek Rielly and Bob Hawke’s wife, the author Blanche D’Alpuget, reflected on moments in the story of Bob Hawke in conversation with Anne Henderson.
WEDNESDAYS ON MY MIND – SEEING THE WORLD WITH BOB HAWKE
DEREK RIELLY & BLANCHE D’ALPUGET in conversation with Anne Henderson
ANNE HENDERSON: Derek, you’re a most unlikely person I would imagine who would want to write a book on Bob Hawke – a former black jack dealer and co-founder of Stab Magazine. So, I want to ask you as a starting point for this discussion to give us an idea of how you got involved in the project. And, also, to answer your own question for me: is it a fan book? You ask that question very early on.
DEREK RIELLY: I do ask that question. Initially it was my literary agent, Jeanne Ryckman. Inexplicably, she likes my writing, and I had a weekly column for Fairfax.
ANNE HENDERSON: It’s a very good read, the book.
DEREK RIELLY: Thank you.
ANNE HENDERSON: I can tell you’re a good writer.
DEREK RIELLY: I knew Jeanne wanted me to write a book. We were having a meeting about it and I knew it was coming up. But the last thing on earth I wanted to do was to lock myself in an office. For me it’s all about lifestyle.
My wife at the time, thought I should do something like Bill Finnegan’s Barbarian Days. This is a Pulitzer Prize winning surf memoir that got a write up in The New Yorker. So I thought about it and decided that’s what I’d offer. You know a story, really lyrical, about my underprivileged life growing up in Perth where I didn’t have a pool or live in the Peppermint Grove area. And so I went to the meeting and Jeanne said, “What have you got?” I told her and she said, “Hmm? Anything I can sell?”
“How about a Bob Hawke book?” I said. I’ve always wanted to meet Bob Hawke. It was the beginning of 2016, there hadn’t been anything on Bob it seemed for years and it felt like his legacy was evaporating. Bob Hawke was the prime minister during my formative, teenage years. He was a big influence on me politically. Jeanne then told me the publisher loved Bob, so, give him a prop and we’ll do it. I thought: that’s easy.
Bob Hawke was the prime minister during my formative, teenage years. He was a big influence on me politically.
Malcolm Turnbull had just called an election, and I thought I could follow Bob Hawke on the hustings. It would be me and Bob, and Bill Shorten, going around. Everyone will love Bob and ignore Bill. Then I heard nothing back. So I tried another angle. What about cigars every Wednesday with Bob and we would talk. In my view, he’d been around long enough and to sit at his feet and hear his wisdom about love and life and the concept of finding true love during fidelity would be very interesting.
My agent Jeanne organised a lunch with Blanche. Around the 40-minute mark of the lunch – after a lot of discussion on political intrigue and gossip – Blanche looked at me and asked, what’s the pitch? I spoke on about securing the legacy of Bob Hawke and so on and then next week there I was outside the Hawkes’ house with a bag full of recording devices. I was nervous as shit and wearing an ill-fitting suit but I was ready to meet the man whom I think is the greatest politician of our time.
Around the 40-minute mark of the lunch – after a lot of discussion on political intrigue and gossip – Blanche looked at me and asked, what’s the pitch?
So is it a fan book?
It has to be a fan book. There are criticisms in there. But the great thing about Bob Hawke is that he hears every topic on its merits. That’s what attracted me to the project. So, it is a fan book in that I admire the man. But there’s a few swipes in there too.
ANNE HENDERSON: That’s all true. I’ll get on to some of that later. But I want to go to Blanche now because to me it’s an interesting Bob Hawke story. It’s like Alfred Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, the old hero home from his adventures. Except Bob’s not matched with an “aged wife”; he’s more matched with an ageless wife. And that might be the difference between Ulysses and Bob. But what has it been like, this journey of Bob’s; you’ve been in it so many times. Tell us about travelling with the old hero.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: Well he just completely embraced a new life. His interesting qualities have stayed intense but he embraced the life of being a traveller. We were travelling every six weeks until recently. Mainly in Asia. Often to Europe, often to America, to Stanford where he used to talk. He just got a whole new lease of life after politics. It’s been marvellous until the last three years where he’s really started to age. He’s a decent old man now – he’s 88 – but his mind is very alert.
It’s been marvellous until the last three years where he’s really started to age. He’s a decent old man now – he’s 88 – but his mind is very alert.
ANNE HENDERSON: The other interesting thing that he says now is that he’s rather glad Paul knocked him off because it’s brought him to you. I find that’s something of a rationalisation but you know he seems to believe it – it’s what he feels now.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: Well, he does believe it. He says it to me. I had another boyfriend at the time, and wasn’t going to wait around for him. He knew that, so had he continued as prime minister it would have happened.
ANNE HENDERSON: You had been in and out of each other’s lives over a long period of time but it seems that at a certain point the timing was right.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: That’s right. I was in a light plane crash in North Queensland. A friend who was our go-between rang him up and told him. Bob said he felt himself die and that was it. At that moment, he decided. He suddenly took the relationship extraordinarily seriously and made it clear to me. But it was timing. It was an angel, holy angels.
I was in a light plane crash in North Queensland. A friend who was our go-between rang him up and told him. Bob said he felt himself die and that was it.
ANNE HENDERSON: Derek, in your book, you get the light and shade much more when you go outside of your talks with Bob. You talk also to Kim Beazley, Gareth Evans, John Singleton and you even go to John Howard. You don’t get to call on Paul Keating – we’ll talk about that later. Tell us about some of the revelations that came out of some of those discussions that explain the nitty gritty of the Hawke years and how they see him. And from some of his mates, like Singleton.
DEREK RIELLY: The funniest one was Gareth Evans. He’s now the chancellor of the ANU. Visiting him was like seeing a president of a Third World republic. Doors opening, security men coming to grab you, parking things handed to you, and the lift doors opening with someone waiting for me and another door and somebody else is waiting for me. While I was waiting for Gareth, his secretary played a captivating game of “What Is This” on the desk because she’d obviously been trained to entertain people. And just as the punch line came, in walked Gareth.
In Gareth Evans’s book Inside the Hawke–Keating Government – A Cabinet Diary he talks about Bob’s narcissism. Evans said to me, you’ve got to remember I was badly wounded when I get demoted from Attorney General to Minister of Trade and Resources. And then he added, “Yeah, but Bob is a narcissist!” Then he went on about how you have to have normal levels of insensitivity to be a leader of a party…and the immorality of all these things. I said, “….yes, Gar.”
And then he added, “Yeah, but Bob is a narcissist!” Then he went on about how you have to have normal levels of insensitivity to be a leader of a party…and the immorality of all these things. I said, “….yes, Gar.”
At the end, he said, “But, whatever you do, don’t take any guidance from Blanche’s second book about Bob – because, frankly, it’s a disgrace.” This was funny because Blanche saw Gareth soon after in Canberra at a function. She said to him, “Gareth, how dare you say that second book of mine is a disgrace.” He said, “I did not!” Blanche replied that I had told her he had said it in our interview.
On her return from Canberra, Blanche she told me I had better have Gareth’s words on a recording,” So I checked the recording and there was Gareth saying, “Frankly, it’s a disgrace. Frankly, it’s a disgrace. Frankly…”
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: He flat out denied it!
DEREK RIELLY: And I thought he was an honest man; I thought all politicians were super honest.
Kim Beazley was good. He’s great friends with Paul Keating and he’s great friends with Bob Hawke. And I asked everybody who would have a more accurate view of history, Bob or Paul, because Paul says one thing, Bob says another thing. Beazley said everything Paul says was “bullcrap”. And I hadn’t heard “bullcrap” for a long, long time, not since I was a child. But then he told endearing anecdotes about Paul Keating and was great.
Beazley said everything Paul says was “bullcrap”. And I hadn’t heard “bullcrap” for a long, long time, not since I was a child.
People opened doors for me. I was dying to surf one day and my phone was ringing. It was a private number and I never answer private numbers because I’m always buying domain names and people ring you up because they see your website.
I thought the caller was very persistent so I answered it. At the end of the line was an older guy who asked, “Can I change our appointment from Thursday to Friday, same time?” I said, “…John Howard? Mr Howard! I’ll do anything! Of course I’ll change the time.” The next day his office called and said, “Mr Howard is going to be five minutes late.” These were the most polite people ever. I ended up sending them flowers.
Ross Garnaut was great. As soon as I walked in he said, “So you want to talk about Australia’s greatest ever prime minister. I know which side you’re on”
John Singleton just didn’t believe me. I walked in, and he was sort of scowling behind his desk. He said, “Mate, I don’t believe Hawke’s given you the inside on this?” I told him he had. He said, “I’m gonna call him.” And he rang. Then he fumed, “Ahhh, fuck! Bob’s changed his fucking number!” But then someone obviously answered and he said politely, “Oh hello, it’s John Singleton calling the prime minister.” The explanation came and he hung up. I got some very bawdy stories about the leadership challenge, which was very interesting. But he swears non-stop, that man.
John Singleton just didn’t believe me. I walked in, and he was sort of scowling behind his desk. He said, “Mate, I don’t believe Hawke’s given you the inside on this?” I told him he had. He said, “I’m gonna call him.”
ANNE HENDERSON: What about you, Blanche, with those comments that people have made about Bob to Derek. How do you react to them?
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: I thought they were all very good. I agree with virtually all of them.
ANNE HENDERSON: I was going to ask you, what it’s like living with a narcissist?
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: Well, he’s not really a narcissist at home. He can’t be – he’s living with me!
ANNE HENDERSON: Fair enough. Let’s go on to the Paul Keating and Bob Hawke bit. In the book, Derek, you never got to talk to Paul, but he then sent you a bunch of clippings through the post. So, he’s much more forensic about how history will record his part in it, whereas Bob was much more mellow, I felt. Just give us a run down on this Paul-Bob debate over who is the greatest mind since Plato.
DEREK REILLY: Well, there were a couple of things. Bob’s legacy is secure. Bob doesn’t care. He’s happy. Bob doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s as if he’s saying, “Oh God, you’re talking about Paul again!”
Troy Bramston has just published his Paul Keating book. In it, Paul seems to be slamming Bob on every other page. And I was just going, “Goodness me!” I had pages of questions to ask Bob but the shutters came down when I talked about Paul Keating. When I contacted Keating’s office I got terse emails in reply from Keating’s secretary Susan Grusovin. Very terse emails. I told them I just wanted to talk about Antarctica, where Hawke says he saved the Antarctica and Keating says he saved the Antarctica. Who saved whom, or who saved what?
Instead, I got clippings – 27-year old clippings from the newspaper with lines highlighted and notes on them. I ended up asking Dick Woolcott about it. It was a situation where you have two realities and I think they’re both correct. Paul Keating did talk to Michel Rocard about the possibility of working together to save the Antarctic. But Bob then hit the ground and contacted Jacques Cousteau. Rocard actually did it. So Paul is saying he did it, and Bob is saying he did it. And they kind of both did it. And it’s beautiful.
Instead, I got clippings – 27-year old clippings from the newspaper with lines highlighted and notes on them. I ended up asking Dick Woolcott about it. It was a situation where you have two realities and I think they’re both correct.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: If I may add a little to that? As I said – and Derek, quoted me in the book – the press have carried on about the hatred between Hawke and Keating in their later years. In fact, from the early days of the prime-ministership, there was a lot of love between them.
And yesterday I got a letter from Bill Kelty, who knows both of them extremely well and he’s very close to Paul. I’ll read from it what he said on this matter:
“We must now work to ensure that the great modernisers of Australia, Hawke and Keating, come together to register a page in history that what united them far surpassed their differences. We owe them both that page.”
And it’s true; they were brothers in arms. For years and years and years. The press doesn’t talk about that; it just talks about when the romance soured.
ANNE HENDERSON: Yes, the book does touch on some of this. Hawke talks about how he had an incredibly talented cabinet and how they seemed to blossom at the same time into a party that was ruling the country. But there’s also the bit about learning from Whitlam of what not to do. Did you talk to Bob about that?
DEREK RIELLY: We did talk a bit about that and I spoke to Gareth about it as well. After the disaster of 1972– 1975, there was a group in the Labor Party determined to ensure that the next Labor government, whenever it came, was going to have legs. Bob believed that Labor could be the natural party of power, rather than the Liberals.
I spoke to Kim Beazley about it as well. He told me that, when they got into government in 1983, Bob said they had to use existing bureaucrats because he didn’t want to dismantle the system only to build it again with incompetent people. He did not want to go through another two years of incompetence. Everyone shredding everything, throwing everything away, new letterheads, whatever only learn it could be sensible to leave much as it was. Labor could be the natural party of power. Bob talked about training Gough to just listen to a couple of economists.
I spoke to Kim Beazley about it as well. He told me that, when they got into government in 1983, Bob said they had to use existing bureaucrats because he didn’t want to dismantle the system only to build it again with incompetent people.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: That’s funny because I was talking to Nick Whitlam, only yesterday, and he said, “I’ve got two arguments with Bob and one is that he said Gough knew nothing about economics. He knew a lot about economics… it just bored him.”
ANNE HENDERSON: Interesting. We know Whitlam had read a lot of books and he was a very learned man. Gareth Evans says Bob would read one book a year and you’d hear about the book he had read that year for the rest of it. But, in a strange way, that’s why Hawke was successful. As you’ve described, he had a very pragmatic view of how to run a government or run his government. He was a man of that nature. Not an intellectual but a hands-on pragmatist. Can you talk a bit about that? What’s the character of the man that made him so successful? You’ve met him, you’ve chatted over the cigars, give us the essence.
DEREK RIELLY: Well I think Blanche could probably answer a lot better than me. From my experience, for Bob it seemed that he surrounded himself with great people. He was very fortunate to have the people he did and he was a man of good sense and he was a man of good judgement. He could recognise a good idea but he could also recognise an idea that would sell. Beazley talks about this that Bob looked and sounded like an Australian. He just didn’t sound like he was in his tower People trusted Bob and when he said something, people tended to believe it. So, the party would come up with something and Bob would sell it. He was a great salesman. As a kid I just remember, jeez we’d do anything for Bob.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: I don’t know that I can add to that.
ANNE HENDERSON: Is he the Ocker that he looks and seems? He’s obviously a man of substance and a man of reasonably comfortable wealth now; he meets with the leaders of the world still. He’s certainly a larrikin – but he’s got the touch. He can mix it with ordinary people and that comes out of not being so intellectual.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: Yes I think so.
ANNE HENDERSON: Because you are an intellectual. You certainly read more than one book in a year.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: I do. I read five books at a time usually. Bob really does love people. He is 150 per cent an extrovert. We’ll be going to something at which he’s got to speak and he’ll say, “Oh God, I don’t wanna go into this. I’m tired. I wish I hadn’t said that.” Then he’ll get up on stage and suddenly boom! And, of course, a true extrovert gets energy from other people whereas an introvert, like me, gets energy from inside.
Then he’ll get up on stage and suddenly boom! And, of course, a true extrovert gets energy from other people whereas an introvert, like me, gets energy from inside.
ANNE HENDERSON: That’s well put. Judith Brett’s recent biography of Alfred Deakin demonstrates that he was like that. He shone on a stage but the trouble was he could go on for three hours. One speech went on for more. That’s true – that sort of moment. Enid Lyons used to say she’d be shaking like jelly at the thought that she had to get on the stage yet when she got up she was a complete thespian. She just absorbed the energy of the people in front of her. I think that’s part of what politics is about. They have to have that actor quality.
I’d like to go to the friendship with Singleton, because I found that chapter fascinating. Bob and Singo got together over work related to the Labor Party and advertising. Singo said at the end that he had not got one favour from Hawke except a friendship – a great friendship. On the other hand, he’d given Hawke part ownership in a race horse than had won him millions of dollars. So, give us a bit on what these two men have got from this friendship and tell us the story of the race horse.
DEREK RIELLY: Before that can I just comment on Bob being a larrikin or an Ocker. I was struck by how there are two Bobs and how his voice can change from being very Australian and very Ockerish to being almost regal. It really surprised me. And not in a schizophrenic sense but just adjusting to the circumstances. I found that fascinating – he would light up and come down. The shutters go up, the shutters go down. The voice would sound Oxford educated which he was and then change to one grown up in Perth. I found that very interesting.
I was struck by how there are two Bobs and how his voice can change from being very Australian and very Ockerish to being almost regal.
ANNE HENDERSON: And the horse and the friendship. I mean one seems to give and the other takes?
DEREK RIELLY: Well Bob just recognised a talent and he wanted to win. I think it was the 1987 election. He just knew Singo could do a number on John Howard and whinging Wendy came from Singo. The famous Labor ad with Wendy asking, “Mr Howard, where’s the money coming from? Cut the pensions Mr Howard.’ It’s funny because I asked John Howard about that and he said, “Oh, I remember whinging Wendy very well.”
Bob just recognised a talent and he wanted to win. I think it was the 1987 election. He just knew Singo could do a number on John Howard and whinging Wendy came from Singo.
John Singleton spoke very fondly of his relationship with Bob and they’re going to bars or pubs. Bob was the rock star, even while he was the ACTU president of the time. Everyone would ignore Singo and just go straight to Bob. Singo said he felt like the drummer of a rock band. Bob was a stud, an amazing, amazing guy. Singo loved that about him. Later on, and they were complete opposites politically, Singo told Bob, “Mate, I’m not gonna dud ya.” and I don’t think he did.
ANNE HENDERSON: What about the race horse?
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: I can tell you a bit about the racehorse. I was there the day she won. It was a very hot day out at Rose Hill and there were a lot of girls there in very small dresses and very high heels and a lot of young men dressed up to the nines. And they had plenty to drink. The horse missed the start and I stood there. Singleton had put $100 000 on its nose. Not even on a place. On its damn nose. And we had paid $25 000 as a quarter share of that. I sat there for 69 seconds, which was all it took, thinking, “Where am I going to find $25,000 by Monday?” And then I thought why is that horse wearing our colours crossing the line first? So when that happened, Singo said, “I’ll shout the bar, I’ll shout the racecourse.” People went mad.
The horse missed the start and I stood there. Singleton had put $100 000 on its nose. Not even on a place. On its damn nose. And we had paid $25 000 as a quarter share of that. I sat there for 69 seconds, which was all it took, thinking, “Where am I going to find $25,000 by Monday?”
ANNE HENDERSON: Very Australian.
BLANCHE D’ALPUGET: Little did they know it was a brand of beer that John was promoting. It still tasted good. But then the afternoon went on. It was hotter and they were having more and more beer and they started getting madder and madder and they were shouting “Bobby! Singo! Bobby! Singo!” We were trying to leave and started to get mobbed. We needed the help of eight Samoans to get us out.
ANNE HENDERSON: I think it’s a great story and it’s a good place to stop. And I’m giving my microphone to Gerard so he’ll take questions.