Transcript – Robert (Bob) Hawke Memorial Speech - House of Representatives, Parliament House

Ken Wyatt:     I also rise to speak on the condolence motion for Robert James Lee Hawke. There are visual images you retain of individuals in circumstances throughout your life. They're tangible because they bring out the essence of the individual. My first father-in-law and I used to often debate about Bob Hawke and his role in the ACTU and being a strike breaker. We'd have great discussions about the quality of the man, his capacity to bring together warring factions and bring them to a point where he would get agreement. I thought that was remarkable given many of the industrial challenges that prevailed in that period in Australia. Even greater is the legacy of the markers that he leaves, in the reforms that he created for this country out of his driven element of humanity, and the way in which he wanted to bring about changes that had a focus on equity for all.

I hadn't met Bob Hawke until I was attending a meeting at Old Parliament House. There were a group of us from the National Aboriginal Education Committee standing on the steps, waiting to head up and register to go and see the Hon. Susan Ryan, Minister for Education at the time. We saw a ComCar pull up with a flag on it. Somebody in the group said, 'That must be the Prime Minister.' Bob Hawke got out of the vehicle, started to walk up the steps, saw us, turned and came over. He stood and said, 'Where are you from?' The eight of us had a conversation. As we all know, when we're in these jobs our advisers try to hurry us on for the next appointment. But what struck me was he said, 'They can wait.' He stood and talked with us for 15 minutes about some of the issues that we saw as being important for the education of Indigenous kids and pathways to better opportunities and he shared with us his thoughts.

I mentioned, at the time, that health was another one. He said to me, 'You need to meet with Richo.' I asked about the good senator, and he said, 'He's a good man; you'll get an opportunity to meet with him.' But I was a public servant and there are protocols for public servants to meet with federal ministers when you're from a state jurisdiction. I got that chance with Richo much later, on a national body. I recalled the Prime Minister's words and raised an issue with Richo. I angered him immensely. I'll share that story one day. When you incur the wrath of Richo you certainly feel the heat. But he was one of the incredible team the Prime Minister had in leading this nation.

That meeting resulted in me meeting Hazel Hawke, at a later point.

What I liked about Hazel was that she was a Western Australian; she was a Perth girl. From my perspective, Bob had married into the right pedigree. I got to know Hazel very briefly, but what I found with Hazel was the same as I found with Bob: the compassion that both of them had for social issues, and particularly their commitment to Indigenous Australians. And I saw that in their son Stephen, who I met later in the Kimberley, and in the work he was doing. But he left an indelible impression from that meeting. What I saw was somebody who was prepared to take time from a very busy schedule to talk with us, to listen and to look us in the eye. I never saw him once look over our shoulders to see if there was anybody else around, and that's a great marker of the integrity of people who seriously want to engage on a very challenging issue.

And then, when the Australian parliament moved into this building, I recall that, on the very first sitting day here in this chamber, he made his first item of business a resolution acknowledging the prior occupation of land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And, when you think of that period; that was substantial. When you think of the time in which he made that statement about people and acknowledging their dispossession and the denial of their citizenship rights, that was a momentous moment that was captured in time, because we'd not had that acknowledged in that manner in a chamber at the national level. I saw that as typical Hawke: his vision, his commitment and his propensity to acknowledge the wrongs and to work to right them.

His legacy in many issues will be left for a long time. I remember sitting with my first wife, because she worked in a library, and they'd just brought in copies of the decisions around Kakadu and the books that were associated with them. I was flicking through them. I said, 'When are these going on the public shelf?' And she said, 'They've got to be processed and labelled and a session process occur.' And I said, 'Who did this?' And she said, 'The Prime Minister.' Now, that Kakadu decision was momentous because it changed the way in which a piece of significant Aboriginal land that was sacred to a nation of people was going to be protected. It was important because it is still pristine today; it remains as a significant area that Australians can celebrate. I know that he would not have had an easy journey in taking that through cabinet, because he would have had to argue with other colleagues who saw capacity for it to be used in different ways, but he nevertheless did it. He understood that the new parliament also sat on ancient land, and that also shaped his thinking. He also understood that change begins with recognition and respect, and he manifested that—and that carried through to Paul Keating. Paul Keating's Redfern speech was a landmark speech. And while at the time those two finished their careers and their successful achievements together on an acrimonious note, the legacy that Bob left with Paul was manifested in that speech. Galarrwuy Yunupingu said that Hawke's efforts to bridge the gap back between black and white Australia were always sincere, and that sincerity prevailed throughout all the time that I watched him do the work that impacted across many areas.

Others have remarked on how Hawke always acted in good faith, and what we do is develop relationships based on trust, faith and integrity. I have to acknowledge that I enjoyed that privilege with your former leader. He demonstrated that time and time again on many issues.

He sat down together with First Nations people at Barunga in the Northern Territory. Images appeared on television of him sitting on the red Australian earth, surrounded by gum trees and the sky. When he received the Barunga Statement; that visually sent a very strong message around the nation: that he accepted the principles that were being explained in that statement.

He established ATSIC. ATSIC was a significant structure for Indigenous Australians. It provided the opportunity for people at the community level to influence the thinking on directions taken and on policies that needed to be established to make a difference in the lives of our children and future generations—how you engaged with them and how you were involved in trying to shape a future that would make a difference for them.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation—the appointment of Senator Pat Dodson there, the work they did and their engagement over a period of time—and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody changed the way in which all tiers of government responded to policy. The benefits gained over that period of time have been the backbone and foundation for the policies that we now have in place and the reforms that have occurred. There is still much to do, but he invested in Indigenous education with AbSec, AbStudy—tertiary qualifications being a major driver of his own vision—and job opportunities. He never gave up on those or the traineeships, which prevailed as well.

After the deaths in custody, he handed back ownership of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park to its traditional owners. One thinks of Uluru as being a spiritual hub and a significant area of sacredness. He went against the advice that was given by national parks to prevail with the status quo, and so it made a difference. It resulted in other handbacks over a period of time. The IBA, the ILC and some of the land issues emanated from a bold move that he took. I do get what all of you on the other side have said about his strength of leadership, because he toughed it out at times. He was prepared to be different. He was prepared to stand with people in our community, to walk with them and to effect change. At the time of the handing back, hundreds of people, both Indigenous and non-indigenous, attended the ceremony when Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen handed over the deeds to the Anangu.

Bob Hawke went on to fight for us, sometimes with full and blistering force. Sometimes he had to capitulate, because the other issue that he faced was the pragmatic reality that the forces that you have to take on in order to effect change are very different to the conservative period in our time. But, nevertheless, he was persistent at all times. On the issue of mining at Coronation Hill in Kakadu, I know that he fought bitterly against some of his cabinet colleagues, because he saw and recognised the importance of country.

He respected the Jawoyn people. The proposed mine was in sickness country, where the serpent god, Bolung, lived underground. They believed that mining would disturb Bolung, and this would have dire consequences for them.

In Hawke's words, he did not pretend to comprehend or to share the Jawoyn beliefs but he did understand and respect their identification with the land, with their gods and with the earth. Again, having that belief was forward-thinking for the time in which he was leader of this nation. He told his colleagues that dismissing these beliefs as fallacious and mythological amounted to discrimination. If there was one thing that Bob Hawke couldn't stand for, it was racism, and I heard him express that view on several occasions. As was referred to by colleagues on the other side, in his mind, the Jawoyn's beliefs were no less legitimate than those held sincerely by Christians.

He formed this view after having sat down with the Jawoyn and listening to them. This simple act of listening to people, sitting around in the dust or in a boardroom, was powerful. This is something that still resonates strongly with me today: a leader of a nation, who is prepared to sit and listen not only with his ears but with his eyes. I noticed a couple of times he would react to somebody who showed a facial expression that indicated that they weren't happy. He would stop and say, 'What is it that you want to say?' Sometimes in our roles we don't listen enough, but certainly Bob Hawke did. That simple act also meant sometimes there were disappointments because he would have to say no. He would have to say: 'It's not feasible; I can't win it, but I'll have a go.'

Hawke himself said that one of the great regrets he had as Prime Minister was that he wasn't able to do more for Aboriginal people. He said, 'There is still much to be done across so many areas.' There were unrealised hopes and dreams, but Bob Hawke changed that conversation. By the time Bob left the prime minister's office, it could be said that Australians had a much better understanding of the need to sit down with First Nations people, to acknowledge past wrongs, and to get on and deal with the injustices. He opened the opportunity for a dialogue that has grown extensively, and subsequent prime ministers have continued what Bob left as a legacy. His final act as Prime Minister was to hand over the painted Barunga Statement to the custody of this parliament for permanent display. The handover took place in an emotional ceremony. Today, the statement hangs near the Members' Hall, where we can pass it on our way to the main committee room.

Bob Hawke was a man who held the needs of Indigenous Australians dear to his heart, and he wanted Australians to hold them dear to theirs as well. When I reflect on Bob Hawke the person, I respect his regard for all Australians but in particular Indigenous Australians. His zest for a full life and his leadership of a nation is a legacy that I know he was proud of but that, equally, those of his family can cherish. He was never afraid of a challenge and always stood by a sense of a just and equal society. Anna and I would like to provide our condolences to Bob's children, Susan, Stephen, Robert and Rosslyn. His late ex-wife Hazel had raised his family with all the demands of Bob being ACTU leader, and later Prime Minister, and served ably as the first woman of Australia.

I also offer my heartfelt sympathies to Blanche D’Apulget. I hope the kind words this place offers today provide her comfort in what I'm sure is still a difficult time. Bob Hawke, thank you for what you did for our nation, but in particular for First Nations people.