After a decade as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, he entered politics at the 1980 elections and became Prime Minister within three years. He became by far the longest-serving and most electorally successful Labor Prime Minister, achieving the rare feat of winning four consecutive federal elections, and he is Australia's third longest-serving Prime Minister.
Hawke was born in Bordertown, a small town in South Australia near the Victorian border. His father was a Congregationalist minister; his uncle, Albert Hawke, was Labor Premier of Western Australia between 1953 and 1959 and was a close friend of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, who was in many ways Bob Hawke's role model. Hawke's mother, Ellie, had an almost messianic belief in her son's destiny and this contributed to his supreme self-confidence throughout his career. Both his parents were of English extraction. Hawke abandoned his Christian beliefs as a young man and by the time he entered politics he was a self-described agnostic.
Hawke was raised in Perth and attended Perth Modern School and completed undergraduate degrees in Law and Arts (Economics) at the University of Western Australia. He joined the Labor Party in 1947, was selected as a Rhodes Scholar in 1953 and went to the University of Oxford to complete a Bachelor of Letters at University College with a thesis on wage-fixing in Australia.
His academic achievements were possibly outweighed by the notoriety he achieved as the holder of a world record for the fastest consumption of beer: a yard glass (approximately 3 imperial pints or 1.7 litres) in eleven seconds. In his memoirs, Hawke suggested that this single feat may have contributed to his political success more than any other, by endearing him to a voting population with a strong beer culture.
He was elected to the presidency of the ACTU in 1969 on a modernising platform, by a narrow margin (399 to 350) and with the support of the left of the union movement, including some associated with the Communist Party.
Hawke declared publicly that "socialist is not a word I would use to describe myself" and his approach to government was pragmatic. He concerned himself with making improvements to workers' lives from within the traditional institutions of government, rather than to any ideological theory. He opposed the Vietnam war, but was a strong supporter of the US-Australian alliance, and also an emotional supporter of Israel. It was his commitment to the cause of Jewish Refuseniks that led to a planned assassination attempt by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and its Australian operative Munif Mohammed Abou Rish.
In industrial matters, Hawke continued to demonstrate a preference for and considerable skill at negotiation, and was generally liked and respected by employers as well as the unions he advocated for. As early as 1972 speculation began that he would soon enter Parliament and become Labor leader. But while his career continued successfully, his heavy use of alcohol and his notorious womanising placed considerable strains on his family life.
In 1973 Hawke became Federal President of the Labor Party. When the Gough Whitlam government was controversially dismissed by the Governor General in 1975 and the government defeated at the ensuing election, Whitlam initially offered the Labor leadership to Hawke, although it was not within Whitlam's power to decide who would succeed him. Hawke decided not to enter Parliament at that time, a decision he soon regretted. He was, however, influential in averting national strike action. The strain of this period took its toll, and in 1979 he suffered a physical collapse.
This shock led Hawke to make a sustained and ultimately successful effort to conquer his alcoholism — John Curtin was his inspiration in this as in other things. He was helped in this by his relationship with the writer Blanche d'Alpuget, who in 1982 published an admiring biography of Hawke. His popularity with the public was unaffected, and polling suggested that he was a far more popular politician than either Bill Hayden, the Labor leader since 1977, or the incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
Hawke was elected to the House of Representatives for the Melbourne seat of Wills at the 1980 election, and was immediately elected to the Opposition front bench. Hayden's failure to defeat Fraser at that election gave Hawke his opportunity. He enlisted the support of the powerful New South Wales right-wing Labor "machine" to undermine Hayden, whom he famously described as "a lying cunt with a limited future. In July 1982 Hawke made his first challenge for the Labor leadership, losing by four votes.
By the end of 1982, however, it was obvious that Fraser was planning an early election, and Labor MPs began to fear that with Hayden as leader they would lose. On , on the same day that Fraser called an election for 5 March, Hayden was persuaded to resign and Hawke became Labor leader unopposed. He went on to win the 1983 election in a landslide, becoming Prime Minister less than thirty days after assuming leadership of his party and barely three years after entering Parliament.
Hawke used his great authority to carry out a substantial set of policy changes. Accounts from ministers indicate that while Hawke was not usually the driving force for economic reform (that impetus coming from the Treasurer Paul Keating and Industry Minister John Button), he took the role of reaching consensus and providing political guidance on what was electorally feasible and how best to sell it to the public, at which he was highly successful. Hawke proved to be very popular with the Australian electorate and set during his first term the record for the highest approval rating on the ACNielsen Poll (a record which still stands as of 2008).
Keating and Hawke provided a study in contrasts. Hawke was a Rhodes Scholar; Keating left high school early. Hawke's enthusiasms were cigars, horse racing and all forms of sport; Keating preferred classical architecture, Mahler symphonies, and collecting antique Swiss cuckoo clocks. Hawke was consensus-driven; Keating revelled in aggressive debate. Hawke was a lapsed Protestant; Keating was a practising Catholic. Despite their differences, the two formed an effective political partnership.
Among other reforms, the Hawke Government floated the Australian dollar, deregulated the financial system, dismantled the tariff system, privatised state sector industries, ended subsidisation of loss-making industries, and sold off the state-owned Commonwealth Bank of Australia. The tax system was reformed, with the introduction of fringe benefits tax and a capital gains tax — a reform strongly opposed by the Liberal Party at the time, but not reversed when they returned to office.
Hawke benefitted greatly from the disarray into which the Liberal opposition fell after the resignation of Fraser. The Liberals were divided between supporters of the dour, economically and socially conservative John Howard and the urbane Andrew Peacock. The arch-conservative Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, also helped Hawke with his "Joh for Canberra" campaign in 1987, which proved highly damaging for the conservatives. Exploiting these divisions, Hawke led the Labor Party to comfortable election victories in 1984 and 1987.
Hawke's Prime Ministership saw considerable friction between himself and the grassroots of the Labor Party, who were unhappy at what they viewed as Hawke's iconoclasm and willingness to co-operate with business interests. All Labor Prime Ministers have at times engendered the hostility of the organisational wing of the party, but none more so than Hawke, who expressed his willingness to cull Labor's "sacred cows". The Socialist Left faction, as well as prominent Labor figure Barry Jones, offered severe criticism of a number of government decisions. He has also received criticism for largely siding with the airlines in the 1989 Australian pilots' strike.
On social policy, the Hawke government saw gradual reforms. The Whitlam government's universal health insurance system (Medibank), which had been dismantled by Fraser, was restored under a new name, Medicare. A notable success for which the government's response is given considerable credit was Australia's public health campaign about AIDS. In the later years of the Hawke government, Aboriginal affairs saw considerable attention, with an investigation of the idea of a treaty between Aborigines and the government, though this idea was overtaken by events, notably including the Mabo court decision.
The Hawke government also made some notable environmental decisions. In its first months in office it stopped the construction of the Franklin Dam, on the Franklin River in Tasmania, responding to a groundswell of protest about the issue. In 1990, a looming tight election saw a tough political operator, Graham Richardson, appointed Environment Minister, whose task it was to attract second-preference votes from the Australian Democrats and other environmental parties. Richardson claimed this as a major factor in the government's narrow re-election in 1990, Hawke's last triumph.
The late 1980s recession and high interest rates saw the government in considerable electoral trouble. Although Keating was the main architect of the government's economic policies, he took advantage of Hawke's declining popularity to plan a leadership challenge. In 1988 Hawke had responded to pressure from Keating to step down by making a secret agreement (the so-called "Kirribilli agreement" or "Kirribilli accord") to resign in favour of Keating some time after winning the 1990 elections. After Keating made a speech to the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery that Hawke considered disloyal, Hawke indicated to Keating that he would renege on the agreement.
In June 1991 Keating responded by resigning from Cabinet and challenging for the Labor Party leadership. Hawke defeated Keating's leadership challenge, but he was clearly a wounded leader. Hawke had himself sworn in as Treasurer for one day while he decided between the rival claims of Ralph Willis and John Kerin for the job, eventually choosing Kerin, who proved to be unequal to the job.
Hawke's demise came when the new Liberal leader, Dr John Hewson, released a proposal for sweeping economic change, including a goods and services tax and deep cuts to government spending and personal income tax, in November 1991. At the time, Australia was the second lowest taxing country in the OECD. Neither Hawke nor his new Treasurer, John Kerin, could mount an effective response to this challenge, and a rattled Labor Party turned to Keating. At a second challenge, on , Keating defeated Hawke in a party-room ballot, 56 votes to 51. Hawke resigned from Parliament shortly after, apparently with few regrets, although his bitterness towards Keating surfaced in his memoirs. Hawke now claims to have buried his differences and considers Keating a friend.
In July 1990, Hawke had outstripped Malcolm Fraser to become Australia's second-longest serving Prime Minister. This record has since been overtaken by John Howard. He remains the Australian Labor Party's longest-serving Prime Minister.
After politics, Hawke entered the business world with considerable success. Hazel Hawke, who for the sake of the Labor cause had put up with the open secret of his relationship with his biographer Blanche d'Alpuget while he was Prime Minister, divorced him, and shortly afterwards he married d'Alpuget. He had little to do with the Labor Party during Keating's leadership, however he often provided public criticism of the Keating Government. He was also reported to have said that then-Liberal leader Alexander Downer would win the next election (a claim he later said was taken out of context). After the election of the Howard Liberal government in 1996 he became a close supporter of Opposition Leader Kim Beazley.
In the run up to the 2007 election, Hawke (at the age of 78) made a considerable personal effort to support the Australian Labor Party's campaign, making speeches at a large number of campaign office openings across Australia. As well as campaigning against WorkChoices, Hawke also attacked John Howard's record as Treasurer, stating "it was the judgement of every economist and international financial institution that it was the restructuring reforms undertaken by my government with the full co-operation of the trade union movement which created the strength of the Australian economy today".
Hawke was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1979.
Bob Hawke has received the following honours from academic institutions: