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 Hazel Hawke Written Out in Biased History - Patricia Edgar

The dramatised documentary Hawke screened on Sunday (18July) depicts a downtrodden, frumpish, glum-faced Hazel Hawke drifting about in dressing- gown and slacks, playing a peripheral role in her husband's ascension to the role of Prime Minister of Australia.

History is a fertile field for half truths, innuendo and the suppression of facts. Women have been written out of history for centuries and Hazel joins a long line of outstanding women who have not been fairly recognised by their partners and in this case, a second wife who wants to claim her place as the great love of a great man who did much for his country.

Blanche D'Alpuget says she believes people will remember the Bob and Blanche story for their great love. She seems to identify with famous lovers like Napoleon and Josephine, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, or perhaps it is Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

Sue Pieters-Hawke, the daughter, in her dignified response to her step-mother's account of history (The Age July 17) takes exception to the fundamental misrepresentations in the characterization of her mother and her parents' marriage. 'If my mother could speak for herself...' We know Hazel cannot do this and it's highly possible she would not participate in this public circus if she could.

Dramatised television documentary presents a convincing picture of the way things were. But this 'documentary', based on two biographies of Hawke by D'Alpuget dismisses her predecessor with a few kind words, but mainly as a politically ambitious partner in a failed marriage who clung on for her place in the sun. This is fiction and fantasy for those who knew Hazel.

Bill Hayden said that the drover's dog could have led the Labor Party to victory in 1983. Bob Hawke was worried about the number of votes he would lose as a divorced man so he implored Hazel to stay with him. It was the right call.

It did not take long for Hazel to develop a following of her own which in subsequent elections became a major reason voters supported Hawke. Hazel's speech to the Canberra Press Gallery in January 1974 established her as an unassuming, disarmingly honest, sincere and intelligent human being - an ordinary woman, one we could all identify with and admire for the way she handled herself. The feeling was strong among women that if Hazel stayed with Bob he couldn't be as bad as reports suggested.

In interview on Sunday following the telemovie, Bob struggled to remember what Hazel's interests were as the Prime Minister's wife. He came up with 'education' but he could not remember any details.

Children, their welfare and the arts were Hazel's priorities. (Hazel was an accomplished pianist). Among other organizations, The Brotherhood of St Laurence, Austcare, the Australian Youth Orchestra, the NSW Heritage Council, World Wide Fund for Nature and the Australian Children's Television Foundation (ACTF) had Hazel's support. This meant she worked for them; she was not just a figurehead.

I was two years into my appointment as Founding Director of the ACTF when Hazel agreed to join the Board in December 1983; she remained a member for 18 years and over that time we shared a lot of history.

It was my privilege and good fortune to work alongside and get to know Hazel through those years. She used her public profile selflessly and strategically to promote the causes she chose, including children's television. She opened our events and launched our series. She introduced our programs whenever she travelled in an official capacity, taking videos as gifts to the King and Queen of Jordan, to Nancy Reagan as First Lady, to Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Hazel set up a critically important meeting and came with me to see Michael Duffy when he was Minister for Communications in the Hawke government. Duffy respected Hazel. He was under siege at a time when there was serious conflict between the commercial television stations and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. Fifteen commercial licensees were challenging the validity of the Children's Program Standards in the High Court which handed down a decision stating the Standards were invalid.

Michael Duffy introduced an Amendment Bill strengthening the Broadcasting Television Act and affirming the Tribunal's powers to impose quotas and Standards. Without this legislation the children's television production industry could not have become the successful domestic and international business it did.

In the D'Alpuget biography Hazel is credited with 'hitting it off' with Barbara Bush. Indeed she did. And in January 1992 Barbara Bush visited the ACTF in Melbourne, giving the Early Childhood Program Lift-Off an international stage. This was the only visit to an organisation Barbara Bush made while in Australia and it was said to be the reason George Bush came to Melbourne. Unfortunately Hazel, although a member of the Board, was not able to attend. She backed out so there could be no embarrassment to Anita Keating. Paul Keating's successful challenge had taken place in December and Hazel was no longer the Prime Minister's wife.

Hazel never complained about the cards dealt her in life: not when her husband walked out after she had supported his ambition; not when she became the victim of Alzheimer's.

She and Bob had built a new home in Sydney where they were living together. Hazel invited me and another colleague to visit. She told us that Bob and Blanche wished to marry sooner rather than later but the law required separation for a year prior to divorce. To move the wedding date forward Bob wanted Hazel to agree that they had not been living as man and wife, although they were living under the same roof and undertaking public functions together. She feared financial retribution for the children if she did not agree.  

We urged her to seek independent legal advice. But Hazel chose to go quietly. She moved to a simple suburban home while Bob and Blanche moved into the harbor mansion.

Hazel's memory had been troubling her and she suggested she resign from the ACTF Board. I talked her out of it at first but by 2001 she could not travel alone. At her farewell Board dinner she made a speech that was lucid and very moving for all those present who knew what lay ahead as she made no secret of her condition.

Hazel is an exceptional person who was always gracious. Bob Hawke was a fortunate man to have her by his side when he ran to be the Prime Minister of Australia. His wife was an important vote winner and it is unlikely Bob's ambitions would have been fulfilled without her loyalty and dedication to him and the genuine care she demonstrated for the people of Australia. She is not someone to be cursorily dismissed from our history.