ADDRESS TO WHEELER CENTRE SHOW OF THE YEAR 4-12-19
04 December 2019
BILL SHORTEN SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE NDIS SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG
SPEECH AT WHEELER CENTRE SHOW OF THE YEAR
BOB HAWKE, OL’ BLUE EYES & THE MONTH OF MAY
Good evening everyone.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respect to elders past and present.
And – on the threshold of a new decade – let’s be clear that those words of respect and acknowledgement are important but insufficient.
Let us work to ensure the 2020s are defined by truth-telling, by treaty, by real equality and by long overdue recognition for the First Australians in our nation’s birth certificate, the Constitution.
I’m happy to have flown in from Canberra to give you news from the front. And can report that Labor has dusted itself off and regrouped behind Anthony Albanese. And every day Australians are witnessing the unmasking of the true face of the Morrison Government, witnessing the unravelling of the dismal torpor that is the Morrison Government.
I’m very grateful for the chance to say a few words tonight, especially because it means I can now spend Christmas Day telling Chloe and the kids about the time I was the warm-up act for Paul Kelly.
I know The Wheeler Centre owns a proud tradition as a home for big ideas and important debates but ....
Clearly, our hosts also have a sense of humour.
Because for this evening’s ‘year-in-review’, they’ve allocated me the month of May.
Which seems a bit like making a Collingwood supporter review the great grand finals of the 1970s
But – rather than focus on the events of May 18.
Tonight, I want to talk about what happened on May 16.
The day a great Australian heart beat its last.
On May 16, with the passing of Robert James Lee Hawke, our nation mourned, honoured and remembered a great leader.
And so many of us in the Labor Party grieved for a hero, mentor and friend.
Bob’s death saw Australia revisit a cavalcade of Hawkie stories - both the sublime and the ridiculous.
Bob was the hard drinking, hard living union leader who, when greatness beckoned, put away those things to become a sober leader focussed on the good of his nation.
In the wild, swinging 70s, Bob was the sun lizard, in his speedos poolside lazily bronzing himself at Labor’s 1975 Conference in Terrigal.
And while the public knew this Bob, what was less visible were the hours and hours of preparation that he put in to making being a successful politician all look easy.
He knew the minutiae of economics and evidence - and it wasn’t just the bottle of LeTan that was poolside with Bob it was usually reams of policy documents that he would pore over in the sun.
In the 1989s Bob was the nation’s conscience weeping after the Tiananmen Square massacre. And then he was the nation’s backbone announcing that all 40,000 Chinese students would be able to stay in Australia.
Bob was Father Australia as we won the America’s Cup with that iconic declaration of a national sickie to celebrate.
From his powerful stance against Apartheid, to that iconic declaration of a national sickie to celebrate the Americas Cup.
From his global leadership in the conservation of Antarctica, to his notorious mediation session with Frank Sinatra.
But of all the various Bobs - the public and the private Bobs - tonight I want to contribute two final stories that combine all these traits for me.
Firstly there was the self-confident consensus-building deal-making Bob.
And that Bob was never more on show than in what I will call ‘The Frank Sinatra Crisis of 1974.’
In 1974, Sinatra was 59, he was staging a comeback - the Ol Blue Eyes Is
Back tour - and he had lobbed in Melbourne for the Australian leg.
Frank was cranky coming out of retirement, he had a historical antagonism with the Australian press, he was a bit out of shape
The Jersey boy with mafia links also didn’t like the way the world was changing.
Second wave feminism was making advances, just three years earlier Melbourne-born Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman had topped the charts in the US.
But Frank hadn’t got the memo.
At his concert not too far from here at Festival Hall he started venting his spleen about the Australian media.
He referred to “the broads” who work in the press being “hookers”, adding - with what today we might call a Trumpian flourish - “I might give them a buck-and-a-half, I’m not sure.”
The union handling the lighting and musicians for the tour went on strike until Sinatra apologised. Then the TWU said it would not fuel any planes to get Sinatra to his next gigs in Sydney. Somehow Old Blue Eyes snuck up there anyway.
But now there was a domino effect of union strike action. Working people wanted an apology for the female journalists of Australia. Sinatra replied demanding an apology of his own from the Australian media for - in his words - “15 years of shit”.
The show could not go on. Sinatra could not fly out. It was a stalemate.
Sinatra was holed up in his Sydney suite, drinking. It was like a siege. Two parties with starkly conflicting interests. No quarter being given on either side.
What was needed was a negotiator.
Only a world class master negotiator could break the impasse.
The crisis escalated to the top office in the land. The Sinatra hotel suite were on a phone line with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
Gough didn’t mince his words.
“There’s only one man who can solve this for you,” he said.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Our Bob swaggered in - the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions - with his trademark self-confidence.
Some time later he staggered out into the media glare triumphant but a little worse for wear.
Inside the suite Bob and Sinatra’s hardboiled lawyer had horse traded while taking slugs from a bottle of brandy.
But the inebriation had given birth to compromise.
Sinatra was not the type to say sorry. But Bob had emerged with a joint statement of regret that acknowledged everyone had a job to do.
The cherry on top was that the show would go on and one of the Sydney shows would be televised - so people in Melbourne who missed out wouldn’t miss out too much.
Given the rankled feelings and high emotions it was a bloody good deal in the circumstances. And it was classic Bob.
The other story I wanted to share with you isn’t one of those famous tales.
It’s about a night in Canberra at the end of 2014.
The Whip’s office had organised a dinner for Caucus and Staff at the National Press Club and they’d lined up Bob Hawke as the surprise guest of honour.
Jill Saunders, the lovely, dedicated woman who managed Bob’s diary and organized his life, kept us posted throughout the week.
Initially, the word was that Bob would not be well enough to make it.
Then, he would be able to attend, but wouldn’t be able to speak.
Then, he would be happy to speak, but not for very long, and he wanted to leave immediately afterwards.
Anyway, the night arrived, we shuffled the program around so that Bob would speak first and could then leave straight away.
So around 150 members, senators and staffers stood and applauded as this frail old man, bent by time and toil, shuffled across the stage and placed a single page of notes on the lectern.
And then – suddenly - a transformation occurred, the shoulders went back, the right hand came up, index finger extended, imperial eyebrow cocked.
And in that unmistakable voice, for my generation, the sound of Labor history itself, he said:
“First point: the positive contribution of immigration”.
In the end, Bob spoke for 75 minutes.
It was a tour de force: multiculturalism, national security, the role of unions, the future of bargaining, Australia’s place in Asia and our duty to protect the environment.
And it wasn’t an affectionate trip down memory lane. Bob was talking about the future.
He was there to educate, to instruct – and he was fired up.
Every so often he’d sharply begin a sentence with: ‘Now, Bill, don’t forget this’.
And – of course – when he finished his speech, he got us all out of our seat to join him in his customary rendition of Solidarity Forever.
When he left the stage, he was mobbed.
And –cheerfully overruling Tanya Plibersek who was under instructions to gently steer him to the exit – he spent 20 minutes signing autographs and smiling for photos.
Now, there were no TV cameras there that night.
No journalists being treated to an exclusive.
And no-one there Bob needed to charm or persuade.
To everyone in that room he was a hero, a legend.
We already loved him, unconditionally.
And – through his generosity with his time and his insight and his presence – we could tell he loved us too.
For Bob, it was never a performance, never an act.
His capacity to listen and explain and advocate and argue and generate agreement was a skill…
…a muscle that he trained long before he became Prime Minister and one he exercised long after leaving office.
That night at the Press Club everyone could see he was 81 and tired and not in the best of health – but everyone could see, could feel, could sense he still wanted to be there.
Bob wanted to use all the time he had left to talk about what mattered - the future of the party and the future of the country.
He wanted to impart a sense of higher purpose to the people who had the responsibility of carrying his legacy forward.
What a remarkable man.
When I was in school, Bob Hawke was my hero.
He’s a big part of why I went into politics.
And I was lucky, so lucky. Not just to meet my hero – but to count him as a friend.
I will miss, very much, Bob’s generous advice and his insights.
But I will never forget his example.
On May 16 - as on May 18 - the light on the hill flickered and sputtered but it did not go out.
Bob had unfinished business – of treaty and climate change.
Labor and the nation has the unfinished business of treaty and climate change.
For Bob bringing Australians together was his never-finishing work.
And for Labor and the nation bringing Australians closer together is the task that never finishes.
Blanche has a recollection of Bob’s last coherent sentence.
She was advising him what to do to manage his pain.
Blanche told him to surrender to the pain and not fight it.