Twenty-five years after he ceased being prime minister, Bob Hawke still doesn’t have too many kind words for Paul Keating, the man who gave him the boot.
But here’s a few.
“I am really basically extraordinarily grateful to Paul because if I hadn’t been thrown out then, I would not have had the opportunity of marrying the woman with whom I had fallen in love,” Hawke says.
Resplendent in grey suit and with trademark silver hair immaculately groomed, Australia’s 23rd and longest-serving Labor PM is now 86 and no longer as robust as in his glory days.
As special guest for the National Archives of Australia media launch of cabinet papers for 1990-91, his final two years, he was keen to defend his legacy.
There was a myth that Labor hadn’t done all that much in those difficult years, Hawke insists.
“This myth of course was essentially the creation of Paul and his acolytes to advance that proposition as the basis for an argument that there was need for change of leadership,” he said.
Hawke won the first leadership challenge but lost the second.
He acknowledges his time was up, with a number of contributing factors.
One was antagonism stemming from a venomous debate in cabinet in which he slammed the “innate prejudices” and monumental hypocrisy of colleagues who had cynically dismissed concerns of Aboriginal people opposed to mining at Coronation Hill.
The 300 Jawoyn people of the Northern Territory objected to the proposed gold mine on the basis that their creator god Bula inhabited this ground and only illness would come from him being disturbed.
The prime minister won and the mining project didn’t go ahead. Subsequently Coronation Hill was absorbed into Kakadu National Park.
Hawke said he settled his fate soon after the March 1990 election when he refused to give influential NSW powerbroker Graham Richardson the transport and communications portfolio, which he had set his heart on.
“My dear friend Sir Peter Abeles had told me something concerning Graham which in my judgment precluded him from being in that position,” he said.
Hawke declined to elaborate, but said he realised Richardson would turn his support and his very considerable influence with the NSW Right to backing Keating.
“That’s what he did,” he said. Keating duly rewarded this support by appointing him minister for transport and communications.
Regrets, Hawke has a few.
He didn’t achieve as much as he would like to improve the lot of Aboriginal people.
States still exist. Hawke argued passionately for Australia’s federation to be reformed through abolishing them, leaving a central government and strengthened local government.
“Would you believe that politicians of both parties seem to like the idea of lots of parliamentary seats around the country on which to park their bums,” he said.
Australia had not been at war since the last combat troops withdrew from Vietnam in December 1971, but a war came along on Hawke’s watch.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and Australia joined the US-led international coalition.
Hawke remembers it as an emotional time for Labor which had vigorously opposed involvement in Vietnam.
“There is no doubt the first Gulf War was absolutely justified,” he said.
Not so the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he described as “arguably the most massive diplomatic and strategic blunder by any American administration.”
Still, it was appropriate for Australia to be now playing a part in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“Whether we should be such a prominent part is a matter for debate,” he said.
Hawke said there was no hope of peace in the Middle East until the conflict between Israel and Palestine was resolved.
“If China and the US were to sit down together and agree on a process of trying to secure a resolution, the whole chemistry of the situation would change,” he said.
“The simple fact is the Palestinians do not trust America. They just see them as shield and protector of Israel.”
As a prominent unionist whose presidency of the ACTU catapulted him into politics, Hawke says it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the trade union movement in its contribution to Australia’s prosperity.
Hawke said one of the things that annoyed him more than anything about the conservative parties was “their continuing concerted attack on the trade union movement.”
But that doesn’t mean the unions shouldn’t be cleaning up their act.
And his solution for the Turnbull government’s budget woes?
“We should take the world’s nuclear waste. I have been advocating this for some time,” Hawke said.
“The world would pay a great deal of money for us to take nuclear waste and in the process we can transform our fiscal situation.”