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Hawke, Hazel (1929–2013)

by Graeme Leech

from Australian

Having spent most of her life in her husband's shadow, Hazel Hawke blossomed when she and Bob Hawke split after 39 years of marriage.

She had raised their three children, supported him while he climbed the trade union ladder to the ACTU presidency, stood by his side during his nearly nine years as prime minister, tolerated his philandering and won her way into the nation's hearts, dignity intact, when Bob Hawke dumped her for his biographer, Blanche D'Alpuget, in 1995.

As Bob's popularity waned after he left the Lodge, Hazel's star rose. She was courted on the celebrity speaking circuit, became a social welfare advocate, made television advertisements, chaired the NSW Heritage Council, was patron of several community organisations, and was created a national living treasure.

A measure of her popularity can be seen in her election — from the supposedly unwinnable 12th position on the Australian Republican Movement's NSW ticket — to a seat at the 1999 constitutional convention.

Hazel Hawke was the second daughter of James Masterson and Edith Clark. They were devout Christians of modest means, homemakers and gardeners, independent-minded and frugal. They were battlers; he was a small-business accountant, she was a shipping clerk.

Hazel and her sister Edith led carefree childhoods. There were holidays on a farm and at the beach, piano lessons and bushwalks. They knitted for troops at war, helped in service canteens and entertained lonely sailors and soldiers at home. Idleness was not an option in the Masterson household.

Hazel topped her class and was dux of Perth Central Girls School. Her great love was playing the piano, an instrument she remained devoted to for the rest of her life.

She left school aged 16 and worked as a typist and bookkeeper at an electrical engineering company, a job that lasted for 11 years until she sailed for England in 1953 to join Bob.

Hazel had met Bob when they were children acting together in a church play. They had attended bush camps and church socials and began a courtship in their teens. They became engaged in 1950 while Bob was studying law and economics at the University of Western Australia. In her autobiography My Own Life, Hazel wrote: "It was quickly clear that the physical attraction was very strong for both of us — the chemistry was right."

Having children outside marriage was socially unacceptable in those days so when Hazel became pregnant, an illegal abortion was arranged. It was, of course, Hazel's greatest trauma in her protected young life.

She left Perth in 1953 to be with Bob at Oxford where he was on a Rhodes scholarship. They travelled around England and Europe in a van. Bob was writing a thesis on Australia's conciliation and arbitration system while Hazel did the typing.

They returned to Perth in 1956 and were married three weeks after docking — and six years after becoming engaged. Within another few weeks they left for the Australian National University in Canberra where Bob had won a scholarship to write a PhD thesis on wage fixing.

In Canberra, Hazel worked for the Indian high commissioner and soon became pregnant with her first child, Susan. "For five years, since my first, frightening pregnancy, I'd had waves of fear that this perhaps could never be. The relief was indescribable," Hazel wrote.

Meanwhile, Bob had established credentials with the Australian Council of Trade Unions while researching for his doctorate. Impressed, the ACTU offered him a job, so the family moved to Melbourne in 1958.

They bought a modest two-bedroom house by the sea in Sandringham and Hazel began a life of coping alone. Bob was working hard and drinking hard. He was rarely at home but, nevertheless, a second child, Stephen was born during a February 1959 heatwave.

Hazel described her loneliness: "By now Bob was regular drinker, and patterns which put great strains on our home life became entrenched. His working and playing were providing another world for him, and did not leave much time or energy for his family."

But her life was a busy one: two babies and German shepherd pup kept her fully occupied. Bob had a houseproud period — with a little help from his union mates — and the little weatherboard place took on a new sheen.

Around this time, Hazel began having doubts about Bob's fidelity and started to question her trust in him. Bob's career as an industrial advocate was in the ascendancy but his boisterous after-work revelries kept him from home too often though, again, not long enough to prevent Hazel's next pregnancy, another daughter Rosslyn — her third baby in four years.

Grief visited the Hawke family in August 1963 when Robert James was born. He lived for four days after being starved of oxygen in an undiagnosed placenta praevia. "I went through agonies of guilt and blame and frustration. My doctor understood my grief, drew diagrams to explain the condition and reminded me, 'But we saved you'," she wrote. It took Hazel many years to deal with her loss but she never forgot baby Robert.

The tragedy led to further friction with Bob who reacted by drinking himself into a stupor. He collapsed on the way to a football match and doctors were shocked at the amount of alcohol in his system. He was forced to change his habits soon after when he stood for the Labor Party in the federal seat of Corio based on Geelong.

Hazel threw herself into the campaign. She found that the camaraderie among campaign helpers took her mind off her baby's death while giving her a sense of participation and purpose in Bob's career.

He lost the election despite gaining a 3 per cent swing. In retrospect, Hazel thought the loss was a good thing because he would have spent years in frustrating Opposition. "It's London to a brick that our marriage would have collapsed under such strain."

Their bank manager thought Bob had good prospects so they were able to buy a larger house — with a tennis court funded by a defamation settlement after a newspaper called Bob a communist. The children had more space, were happily developing their networks of friends and were doing well at school.

Hazel also became agnostic in the early '60s — Bob had already lost his belief after a visit to India in 1952. It was a decision that did not cause Hazel much soul-searching.

A pay case in Papua New Guinea gave Hazel and the children something of a working holiday.

On their return Bob began his campaign for the ACTU presidency. Hazel could now see what the future might hold, for Bob had become a nationally recognised personality and very much admired in the labour movement. It also meant they spent weeks apart as Bob travelled the country — and the world — to attend conferences.

It gave Hazel time to develop her friendships and networks without having to worry about her husband's activities. "I knew too well that the unpredictability of life with Bob could lead to disappointment as well as excitement."

As her children grew into their teens, Hazel began to worry about their possible involvement in sex and drugs. She despaired that Bob was not consistently pulling his weight in his parenting responsibilities. She lamented how different and simple it had been during her own childhood. Stephen was unhappy at Melbourne Grammar and Rosslyn's schooling was also suffering. Sue was already at university.

Hazel had begun smoking and was also drinking more than she should have. A job as a volunteer at the Brotherhood of St Laurence was a saviour, as were her studies for a diploma in welfare. The feminist movement was also attracting her attention causing her to rethink the direction of her life.

These were turbulent years for the Hawkes as the Whitlam Labor government was dismissed and Stephen left home to work as a conservationist and later with Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley. Hazel, after agonising for months, had a face-lift. She had consulted a lawyer determined not to be "one of those middle-aged women whose husbands discard them when they have served their purpose".

Stephen was an idealist and wanted to set his own course. He became an articulate campaigner for Aboriginals at Nookanbah and won national respect for his advocacy. Hazel flew to the remote community after he had been arrested and saw for herself the conditions her son was trying to reverse. She was immensely proud of her boy and his unflinching determination to help the communities.

In 1980, Bob quit the ACTU to run for federal parliament. He won the seat of Wills and began his parliamentary apprenticeship. Hazel's battle with the bottle was tough, but she found help in meditation while Bob kept boozing, more or less out of control. But an overseas trip to Europe together brought them closer than they had been for years.

When the 1983 election was called — and Bob suddenly elected as Opposition leader — Hazel realised she had served her own apprenticeship. Her husband, for all his flaws, was about to become prime minister. As his wife, she was about to play that role with aplomb. She had watched Bob grow from uni student to scholar, to union advocate and leader, to frontbench MP to prime minister.

Labor's election win was a culmination. "There was no blinding flashes or passionate declarations, but we were more relaxed and companionable with each other as life's storms abated," Hazel wrote.

It was a moment for reflection on the maturity of their tempestuous relationship that had somehow lasted to this key moment in Australian history. Bob's election meant their partnership was reaffirmed. She would become a steadfast wife of a prime minister. And she was happy.

But, of course, life changed in its entirety. White cars, drivers, servants, houses in Sydney and Canberra, cameras following their every move, social entrees to every salon. First nights and grand occasions were now part of Hazel's existence.

A resourceful and independent-minded woman, Hazel put her nine years in the Lodge to good use without ever upstaging her egocentric husband. She supported women's and children's issues and brought a fresh informality to her role as wife of the reformed larrikin prime minister. Bob went off the grog.

Her official workload quickly grew. She was in demand as a speaker for charity functions and used such occasions to talk about her pet causes. She made a splash at the National Press Club in January 1984 when she spoke about women, Aborigines, social welfare and changes in her life since the election. She often wrote her own speeches but soon accepted the need for an official secretary.

She became patron of several welfare, education, arts, and environmental organisations. She worked for the Australiana Fund and was heavily involved in the restoration of the Lodge. The Australiana Fund collected Australian art and furniture for use in official residences — Government House at Yarralumla, the Lodge, Admiralty House and Kirribilli House in Sydney. She found and restored the Lodge's original Australian-made Beale piano.

They were the most satisfying years of her life. She was no longer Bob's handbag, she wrote in her autobiography. The only serious family glitch during those years in power was when Rosslyn became a heroin addict, prompting Bob to weep in public.

When Bob resigned in February 1992, Caucus moved a motion acknowledging Hazel's contribution to the nation and the ALP.

They moved to Sydney but in 1995 they divorced.

Hazel began a new and independent phase in her life. She was appointed chairwoman of the NSW Heritage Council and travelled widely in support of heritage conservation. She served on the board of the Australian Children's Television Foundation and as a patron of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

In November 2003, in the ABC's Australian Story, Hazel revealed that she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Her family had noticed short-term memory loss the previous year. By 2004, her daughter Susan Pieters-Hawke revealed that her mother was suffering severe memory loss.

Hazel leaves behind three children and six grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Australian, 23 May 2013

Other Obituaries for Hazel Hawke

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graeme Leech, 'Hawke, Hazel (1929–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hawke-hazel-29672/text36660, accessed 19 July 2019.

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