News World How Bob Hawke coaxed George Bush to Australia

How Bob Hawke coaxed George Bush to Australia

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George Bush and Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Washington DC in 1989. Photo: AAP Image / National Archives of Australia
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The year was 1989 and US President George HW Bush was hosting Australian prime minister Bob Hawke at an intimate White House event.

There were plenty of US-Australian issues on the agenda during the prime minister’s Washington DC trip, but Mr Hawke was particularly keen to achieve one outcome.

The last time a sitting US president had visited Australia was Lyndon Johnson when he attended prime minister Harold Holt’s funeral in 1967 and Mr Hawke was keen to break the drought.

How Mr Bush, who died on Friday aged 94, signed on to eventually fly across the Pacific and make that historic trip provides insight into the love and respect he had for his wife and first lady, Barbara.

Mel Sembler, the prominent US businessman, close friend of the Bush family and US ambassador to Australia between 1989 and 1993, likes to tell the story of what happened at that White House soiree.

George Bush and Bob Hawke at a Melbourne Cup function in 2011, a decade after the formal presidential visit. Photo: AAP

Mr Sembler said Mr Hawke pulled him aside and asked for a favour.

“He said to me, ‘Can you help get George Herbert Walker Bush to Australia?’,” Sembler told AAP in an interview in 2016.

“I said, ‘Well, is that important, prime minister?’

“He said, ‘Well, we haven’t had a presidential visit in over 20 years’.

“I said, ‘Are you serious?’

“He said, ‘Absolutely, I’m serious’.”

Mr Sembler made his way across the room and asked Mr Bush if he was open to visiting Australia.

The president and first lady had been together since they met at a dance as teenagers and, despite being leader of the free world, Mr Bush knew his wife had veto power on such a long trip.

“He said, ‘Mel, you have to go across and talk to Barbara and convince Barbara she wants to go that far’,” Mr Sembler said.

“So I go across the room and talk to Barbara and she said, ‘I’m in. I’m going to come and visit you and [Sembler’s wife] Betty in Australia’.

“I went back to the president and said, ‘OK, Barbara said ‘yes’. Can I count on you to be there?’ and he said ‘Yes, absolutely’.

“So I went back to the prime minister and said, ‘OK, it’s on. He’s coming’.”

That quick negotiation took just a few minutes but solidified what has become the steadfast relationship between the US and Australia.

Mr Bush touched down in Australia in late 1991.

It not only broke the US presidential drought, but created a deluge with every sitting US president since that Bush tour – except Donald Trump – visiting Australia.

Barbara died in April.

“George Bush was a good friend of mine whom I admired as a man of decency and charm, an outstanding president in a difficult era,” Mr Hawke said in a statement.


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