OPINION | Hawkie a moderate who spoke for vast middle ground

LOSS OF ONE OF THE GREATS: The eventful day I first encountered Bob Hawke in Canberra in 1988 (inset) and (main pic) a candid snap that someone took of us chatting at a local lunch at Rydges in 2015.
LOSS OF ONE OF THE GREATS: The eventful day I first encountered Bob Hawke in Canberra in 1988 (inset) and (main pic) a candid snap that someone took of us chatting at a local lunch at Rydges in 2015.

There are plenty of PMs who have a term in office.

Only a few have an era.

The last one was, of course, the Howard era (1996-2007).

It's been like an episode of Game of Thrones ever since, with five PMs in six years.

Old timers will still of course recall the Menzies Era of the 1950s and 1960s, but for us middle-aged types, the political span that shaped us was the Hawke Era.

I was in Year 10 at Campbelltown High when Bob was elected in 1983, and he was still reigning as our PM when I got married in 1991.

From saving the Tasmanian wilderness to simply being Australia's Larrikin-in-Chief - "Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum" [re the America's Cup victory] - he remains an icon of our memories.

Back in 1988, I was lucky enough to be included in a group of young journos picked to interview Hawkie at the brand new Parliament House in Canberra.

Some of you might find this hard to believe, but I was once a bit opinionated and liked annoying pollies, so...

I can't remember exactly what question I asked, or how arrogantly I asked it, but the PM was momentarily out of his chair, his famous eyebrows at a tilt, pointing at me angrily. I was both horrified and delighted, and a photographer later won some award for the snap he got.

Appealing to middle Australia was Hawke and Howard's strength...ScoMo can learn from that.

As we posed for a group shot afterwards, the PM told me: "You might make an OK journalist one day, but you'll never be a pundit - you're wrong and you will be proven wrong." I probably was.

Decades later, in 2007, I recalled that 1988 showdown as part of a column, only to answer my phone to hear the great man's voice at the other end. Bob was in Campbelltown on the KRudd election trail, saw my words, and said he remembered that day (I don't think he did, he was just being polite).

But we met up and he wrote a lovely message on the back of a photo from 1988. As it turned out, I bumped into him a few more times and he was every bit the bloke you expect. Part statesman, part larrikin, part philosopher.

My fondest memory was our last chat, a long one, in 2015 at a Rydges lunch when we talked about everything from Nelson Mandela to Agnostism. On his death, I'm suddenly remembering it as not a conversation, but more a thoughtful moment shared with an Australian giant.

(If you doubt Bob's influence on us to this day, just pull your Medicare card out of your wallet. Health care for all...his finest moment.)

But one of his other great successes was his famous 75 per cent approval rating, simply because that tells you he was supported by a lot of Liberal-leaning voters too.

In other words, he was a moderate who spoke for the vast middle ground. He sought to unify Aussies, not wedge them.

Howard created an era for himself by appealing to that same middle ground (Howard's battlers, etc) until his last term when he betrayed them with WorkChoices and was tossed out. As I said last week, Aussies don't generally like extremists.

I heard ScoMo say that the nasty politics of division was over. I truly wish him well if he is serious.The PM can build his own era if he masters that middle ground. That means telling the hard-right knuckle-dragging faction of his own party to pull their heads in. A job made easier by the departure of Abbott.

But ... can an attempt at Hawkie-style consensus still be done in a world of vicious social media, propaganda silos, and the 24 Hour News cycle? Time will tell.