There was something about Hazel Hawke that made Australians want to reach out and protect her.
All of us know what it was. Nobody ever dared say it out loud.
Australia’s rock-fan craving for her husband, Bob, transformed the man she knew and maybe collective guilt turned her into our martyr.
Hazel lived the life of an ordinary wife and mother in a postwar Australia when family was the aspiration of all.
But her life turned less ordinary when Bob’s ascension to the heights of public life wreaked devastation on her children, her marriage, her husband and herself.
She kept a low profile for many years but her husband’s personality and achievements ensured she became public property.
The cost was huge: an abortion allowed Bob to fulfil his destiny as a Rhodes Scholar; his drinking and philandering shattered the family; two daughters had drug problems, their son refused to have anything to do with his father for years; she had three facelifts to improve her sense of esteem. And hovering off-stage was the other woman, Blanche d’Alpuget.
Australians knew all this but kept a conspiracy of silence.
Instead, as Hazel, who died this week, stood by her man with pluck and grace, Australians took her to their hearts in a manner never extended to any other prime minister’s wife.
Perhaps it was her vulnerability that made Hazel so beloved.
Sue Pieters-Hawke is adamant that her mother never allowed the bad times to get her down.
”There are plenty of things in public life that you’d prefer never happened,” she says. ”But Mum was never one to dwell on the negatives, she just got on with things.”
Other prime ministers’ wives were not nearly so sympathetic figures in the public mind: Dame Pattie Menzies was born to it; Zara Holt, Sonia McMahon and Margaret Whitlam had lives outside their husbands; Tamie Fraser lacked the common touch, as did Annita Keating; Janette Howard seemed a cipher for her husband’s politics while Therese Rein made millions from the public purse.
In 2003, Hazel revealed she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease on Australian Story. Her decision focused attention on the disease.
Pieters-Hawke thinks the public’s deep affection and respect for her mother stemmed from the many projects and causes she took up during her years at The Lodge.
Ms Pieters-Hawke says the outpouring of affection for her mother has been lovely.
”I think one of the defining things about mum was that she appealed to our better selves,” she says.
”Mum could help people look up and strive to be something better.”
Born in Perth in 1929, Hazel was one of Edith (nee Clark) and James Masterson’s two daughters. She left school at 15 and worked as a shorthand typist-bookkeeper for 11 years.
Hazel Masterson became engaged to Bob Hawke during his university years. They met as teenagers in Perth’s Congregational Youth Fellowship – she had been aware of him since she was nine, when Bob’s mother had directed a church play.
They were to endure a six-year engagement before he left for Oxford University in December 1953 as Western Australia’s Rhodes Scholar. He graduated with a bachelor of letters – schooled in economics – and returned to Australia in 1956.
In March they married and moved to Canberra, where he began a doctorate at the Australian National University. The first of three children, Susan, was born and the family shifted to Melbourne after Hawke obtained a researcher/advocate post with the ACTU. Another two children, Stephen and Rosslyn, arrived. A fourth, Robert jnr, died shortly after his birth in 1963. A baby had been aborted during the couple’s courtship in 1952 so Bob could go to Oxford.
As Bob climbed the ranks of the ACTU, the family lived in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Sandringham. The home became a focal point after he was elected ACTU president in 1969.
Hazel played the wife and mother in the background while hapless journalists sent to his home of a Sunday afternoon were routinely greeted by a semi-naked (or sometimes naked) Bob, who would dictate comments for the next day’s newspaper while swimming in the pool he boasted was paid for by ”Flinders Street” or ”Spencer Street” (Melbourne’s Herald, now defunct, or The Age respectively).
In 1980 Hawke won preselection for the safe Labor seat of Wills, centred around the northern Melbourne suburb of Coburg. And Hazel suddenly came into her own.
Bob spent much of his time plotting for the leadership and when he finally got it, and then the prime ministership, he had little time for the electorate.
His local numbers man, Coburg mayor Murray Gavin, stepped into his shoes but he lacked the clout and the persona and it fell to Hazel to become the de facto member for Wills.
She assiduously worked the senior citizens and childcare centres and was visible at official openings and her name lives on many plaques scattered around the electorate.
”She had a wonderful common touch. Very simple, just got on with things,” says a former Coburg council worker during the Hawke years. ”It might no longer be fashionable to value a woman who simply personified being a good wife, mother and neighbour but Hazel had them in spades. She was the sort of woman you knew would take your washing off the line.”
Little wonder then that she and Bob drifted apart.
At the dawn of the age of celebrity, Bob was one of the first political leaders to step outside the paradigm. Bob understood that to succeed he had to become public property. During his ACTU days, he assiduously supplemented a public image as the great mediator and conciliator with frequent appearances by his family in magazines and on television. As prime minister, he made cameo appearances on television series and presented the 1984 Gold Logie.
He cried about his daughter Rosslyn’s drug involvement after a 1985 story in The National Times reported that his other daughter, Sue, had a drug conviction that had been overturned on appeal. He cried for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989. Earlier that year he was in tears, confessing marital infidelity.
Bob’s celebrity came at a time when society’s leaders started behaving like rock stars.
In 1976 Bob started an affair with d’Alpuget. Two years later, he proposed. The relationship stalled and Bob stayed with Hazel apparently for the good of his prime ministerial aspirations.
”’Divorce could cost Labor 3 per cent,’ he had fretted several times, back when this was an issue for us,” d’Alpuget wrote years later. ”As it turned out, he made the right decision: for himself, for me, for his family, for mine, for his party – and, as became obvious, for the nation.”
The non-couple collaborated on her admiring 1982 biography, Robert J. Hawke, a book that enjoyed the felicitous coincidence of being published as her lover firmed as favourite for prime minister. The pair resumed their relationship in 1988.
In 1994 Bob and Hazel announced their separation. He married d’Alpuget eight months after their divorce.
On Friday, Bob issued a statement in which he remembered his former wife with ”deep affection and gratitude”.
”She was more than a wife and mother – being father as well, during my frequent absences as I pursued an industrial then political career,” he said.
”I think there is general agreement that Hazel did an outstanding job as Australia’s first lady from 1983 to 1991. She was a constant support, particularly through some very difficult times.
”Our three children, Susan, Stephen and Rosslyn, adored their mother as did our six grandchildren and my thoughts are very much with them at this time.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.