SYDNEY – Just a few days ago, Bob Hawke, Australia’s popular former prime minister, released an open letter praising his party’s current leader, Bill Shorten, for campaigning on a bold policy agenda, not a “small target.”
It was his last political act. Hawke, a charismatic reformer who deregulated the economy and made Australia a linchpin of global security as the Labor Party’s longest-serving prime minister, died Thursday at age 89.
The loss of such a titanic figure in Australian politics just two days before a federal election has thrown this country into deep reflection. It has unleashed pride and grief but also frustration with what many describe as the absence in Australia’s current leaders of the attributes Hawke embodied: vision, authenticity, worldliness and empathy.
“He was a unifier,” said Kris Neill, 59, a communications consultant and former adviser to several Labor Party politicians. “Bob Hawke made it a core part of his government to govern for everybody — I don’t think we saw in his time the glaring polarization that we’re seeing in politics today.”
The two candidates vying for power now, Shorten and the incumbent prime minister, Scott Morrison of the center-right Liberal Party, have made no secret of their dislike for each other. Voters will go to the polls Saturday with a choice between two vituperative career politicians who have been arguing primarily about how to run an economy that has not seen a recession in 27 years.
There has been little talk of Australia’s role in the world or any of the other issues that Hawke prioritized.
Yet with polls showing a close race, and with neither leader commanding the kind of admiration Hawke attracted for decades, both Shorten and Morrison are now telling voters how much they had in common with him.
Hawke is, of course, an impossible act to follow. He was a maverick who led his center-left Labor Party to four consecutive election victories in the 1980s and early ’90s. He was a union leader who also pushed through free-market liberalization, cutting protective tariffs and privatizing state-owned industries.
Through it all, in the minds of many Australians, he was one of them: a leader just as comfortable with wine-sipping elites as beer-chugging farmers and ascetic environmentalists.
“Hawke was authentic in just about every which way,” said Stephen Loosley, national president of the Labor Party in the early 1990s, who worked on campaigns with Hawke for decades. “What you saw with him privately was the projection of him publicly.”
Memories of his boldness and his heart for all Australians were flooding social media.
Many Australians also seem to be reflecting not just on the politics of Hawke, but also on his humanity. His letters to voters over many decades were being widely shared.
One woman, Tracey Corbin-Matchett, said on Twitter that she wrote to Hawke while struggling with the death of her grandmother.
In a letter dated July 23, 1985, Hawke wrote back.
“Perhaps when we grow very old our bodies get worn out, or certain parts break down, like parts in an old car,” the letter read. “None of us can be sure of how long we will live. Because this is so I think you should try not to think too much about dying but think about all the nice things around you that make life so precious to us all.”