This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Albert Redvers George (Bert) Hawke (1900-1986), premier, was born on 3 December 1900 at Kapunda, South Australia, sixth of seven children of James Hawke, miner, and his wife Elizabeth Ann Blinman, née Pascoe, both born in South Australia. Albert’s uncle, Richard Hawke, a prominent Australian Labor Party figure at Kapunda, was an early influence. Educated at Kapunda State School, `Bert’ left at 13; a serious boy with a keen sense of social justice, he was soon drawn towards politics. In 1916, aged 15, he joined the Kapunda branch of the ALP and became active in anti-conscription activities, forming views that he was to hold throughout his life. He had a series of jobs at Kapunda, Peterborough and Terowie, before becoming a non-articled clerk to a solicitor at Peterborough. On 25 September 1923 at Holder Memorial Methodist Church, West Adelaide, he married Mabel Evelyn Crafter (d.1967), a clerk. Securing Labor endorsement for the State seat of Burra Burra in 1923, he won it next year at a general election. His success was short-lived and he lost the seat in 1927.
Employed briefly by the South Australian Harbors Board, Hawke was appointed in October 1928 by the Western Australian ALP as country political organiser. For four years he worked on State and federal campaigns, travelling throughout Western Australia and gaining a reputation as an exceptional speechmaker. An accomplished writer, early in the 1930s he contributed a column, `Labour Notes’, to the West Australian. In April 1933 Hawke was elected to the Western Australian parliament defeating the sitting member, the Nationalist premier Sir James Mitchell, in Northam. His progress was rapid and in May 1936 he became minister for employment and labour in Philip Collier’s government. Serving (1936-47) in the cabinets of John Willcock and F. J. S. Wise, he was variously minister for labour, employment, industrial development, works and water supplies.
Hawke was a reformist; for example, in 1937 when minister in charge of child welfare, he sponsored reforms of the Western Australia Children’s Court, abolishing the requirement for the presiding magistrate to be a lawyer. He subsequently gave the post to a Methodist minister whose church he had attended at Northam. A self-described Christian socialist, he was always comfortable in the presence of clerics: his brother A. C. Hawke (father of the future prime minister R. J. L. Hawke) and an uncle were both ordained ministers. His social justice agenda was evident in 1946 when he took responsibility for an ambitious scheme to bring water to 12 million acres (4.9 million ha) of rural Western Australia. He saw the plan as revolutionising living and social conditions on farms and in country towns but it was opposed vigorously in the conservative-dominated Upper House, mainly on economic grounds, and shelved. In 1947 a new Liberal-Country Party government implemented a large part of the scheme, generously acknowledging Hawke’s initiative.
In July 1951 Hawke succeeded Wise as Opposition leader. Tall, athletic, and ascetic-looking, he had a forceful and charismatic personality. His oratory and early exposure to working-class attitudes made him a powerful Labor figure in Western Australia. He revelled in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debates, and was masterful with interjections. At the same time he lacked the rigid, doctrinaire approach of other, less successful, Labor leaders. Many on the non-Labor side of politics admired him, pointing to his fair play and sense of humour. On 14 February 1953 he led the ALP to victory and became Western Australia’s eighteenth premier.
As premier, treasurer, minister for child welfare and minister for industrial development, Hawke was to the forefront of significant social reform. In 1953 his government moved to give Western Australian Aborigines citizenship rights; the bill passed the Lower House with considerable bipartisan support, but foundered in the Upper House. A fresh but watered-down version passed in 1954 in what was later described as a landmark for the State’s Aborigines. The government also presided over a public housing boom aimed at reducing wartime waiting lists and building-material restrictions.
However, Hawke was seen to nurse strong suspicions, even animosity, towards business interests. While many saw him as moderate, others saw in him a deeply committed socialist. He was quick to defend state-run enterprises, many of which he had helped to expand, and was bitter in his denunciation of what he saw as the plundering of the railway system by the `high priests of private enterprise’. When under attack for failing to deal with communists in Western Australian unions, he branded as menaces to society both unscrupulous businessmen and communists. In August 1956 he announced plans for anti-profiteering legislation, a move denounced by business. Critics in the eastern States and overseas also strongly condemned it, claiming that the proposals would scare off much needed overseas investment. After protracted debate, and considerable amendment, the bill was passed with Country Party support. It was to be a hollow victory since the legislation dogged Hawke in the years ahead. In 1958 the London Financial Times reported remarks from a leading British industrialist, Sir Halford Reddish, describing Hawke’s government as `socialist’.
Other observers, for example Rohan Rivett, argued that Hawke exhibited strong and wise leadership, at the time lacking in Labor federally. John Graham, writing in the Sydney Observer, described him as `the only Labour [sic] politician who might have carried on the Chifley tradition of balanced and effective leadership’. Later, Arthur Calwell, not unreasonably, disputed these and other similar assessments. In any event Hawke saw no value in trading the premiership for the prospect of uncertain federal leadership.
There can be little doubt that the bruising public debate over Hawke’s attitude to business contributed to his loss at the polls in 1959. His next six years in Opposition climaxed, virtually on the eve of the February 1965 general election, in a bitter public feud between himself and the powerful Western Australian and federal ALP secretary, Joe Chamberlain, over Hawke’s public advocacy of talks between the ALP and the Democratic Labor Party. Chamberlain, rigid and doctrinaire, trenchantly opposed such rapport and blamed Hawke for Labor’s defeat in Western Australia in 1965; none the less, within days of the poll Hawke was re-elected unopposed to the leadership. A Chamberlain-inspired censure of Hawke by the federal executive followed in May.
Realising that his public life was nearing its end, Hawke resigned the leadership in December 1966. Next year he publicly opposed `Australia’s ghastly policy of conscripting twenty-year-olds to the Vietnam War’. He retired from parliament in 1968 and in 1974 returned to his native South Australia. In his spare time he enjoyed tennis, billiards and reading. Survived by his daughter, he died on 14 February 1986 in Adelaide and was cremated.
Phillip Pendal, 'Hawke, Albert Redvers George (Bert) (1900–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hawke-albert-redvers-george-bert-12608/text22711, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 8 December 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007