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Allan Douglas Hawke (1948–2022)

by Paddy Gourley, Andrew Podger and Paul Dibb

The depth of affection, admiration and gratitude for Dr Allan Hawke evident at his funeral in a crowded St Christopher's Cathedral in Manuka on September 12 truthfully reflected the life of one of Australia's stand-out citizens.

Although by temperament and loyalty a Queanbeyan lad, Hawke was born in Canberra to Lorna and Harold on February 18, 1948. He had two brothers, John and Phillip. Educated at Queanbeyan public schools, at the Australian National University he obtained a first class honours degree and a Doctorate of Philosophy for a thesis on plague locusts, a field of study of relevance to his public service career.

As a youth Hawke played every sport that came his way. He was a NSW iron man champion and an A grade squash player. A later-in-life enthusiasm for golf drew mixed reviews.

In 1974, Hawke was recruited to the Public Service Board's Administrative Trainee scheme. He sought out and was given a great variety of tasks including as a member of the staffs of the Fraser government's public service review in the early 1980s and the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit set up by the Hawke government some six years later. He moved to the Department of Defence in 1987 where he became the Deputy Secretary, Strategy and Intelligence in 1991.

Before he was promoted as secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs in 1994, Hawke was Prime Minister Paul Keating's principal adviser having declined an offer to be opposition leader John Howard's chief of staff in the late 1980s. In 1996, he survived the Howard government's mass sackings of departmental heads to become secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services. He was appointed secretary of the Department of Defence in 1999 where he developed strong partnerships with chiefs of the Defence Force. He believed he should not interfere with the military chain of command, an attitude that led him to a reserved position on the politicised "children overboard" affair.

Hawke did much to better integrate Defence management and policy formulation and played a key role in the 2000 Defence white paper.

The failure of the government to extend his three-year term at Defence had nothing to do with his merits but much to do with the then Defence Minister's obsession with detail and his seeming unwillingness or inability to seek a productive relationship. After a notable term as Australia's High Commissioner to New Zealand, Hawke ceased full time engagement with the Commonwealth then to take on more than 20 major reviews for state, territory and federal governments on everything from "fracking" in the Northern Territory to the structure of the public service in the ACT. His review of the Rudd government's home insulation scheme shamed the Abbott government's later Royal Commission on it.

As he eased away from government work, Hawke's talents were sought elsewhere, including in charitable institutions. He joined the boards of Lockheed Martin and ACTEW among others and was appointed chancellor of the Australian National University, the only graduate of the ANU to gain that position. He was drafted to the board of the Canberra Raiders and was its chair from 2014 until his death. In 2010, he was made a Companion in the Order of Australia.

Allan Hawke gave life the biggest and best bash he could. Official duties, sport, family life, friendships, for which he had a huge capacity, a desire to keep in touch and much more engaged his restless energy. Even in his last painful days he was exerting himself in the never-ending world of genealogy and family history, writing articles for publication and urging on the Raiders.

Hawke was ambitious but not for its own sake. He wanted to use the chances of senior jobs to advance the common good and improve people's lives. And he never let the prestigious posts he held go to his head or change the instincts and manners he inherited and developed from a young age. He didn't forsake his indulgences in flashy cars to fit an idealised version of a senior official and he remained an avid punter, race goer and horse owner who thought of the TAB as a bank.

Perhaps his experience as a punter made Hawke especially aware that with public policy and administration all the analysis in the world will not of itself provide answers. In the end, decisions can only be taken when analysis is informed by judgment, or as one of Hawke's promoters and predecessor Defence secretary, Tony Ayers, used to say by what "My end of nose tells me". Thus, while properly respecting analysis, Hawke was mindful of the need for him and others to bring their "end of his nose" judgments to deliberations so that things could be done.

Although he had a sharp eye for proper structures, procedures and financing, Hawke put staffing, that most difficult and critical of management tasks, first rather than something that was expected to follow when all else was determined. He took a generous view of people's reserves of goodwill and believed that when treated fairly, openly and honestly and kept free of cheap motivational tricks like performance pay, most would do their best. Somewhat against the self-image of the neo-liberal age, Hawke wrote and spoke extensively about how people in organisations should be treated while being firm in holding them to account. In practising what he preached, he attracted many acolytes and admirers.

In the senior positions he occupied he was prepared to speak up for the public service and have his views tested, including at the National Press Club, treading the fine line officials must in making sure their public comments don't stray into the defence or criticism of politically contentious policies or take the spotlight from ministers many of whom can't get enough of it. While it is useful for senior public servants to participate in public debate, it is tricky territory from which Hawke escaped with fewer scratches than most.

But Hawke's keenest advocacy was saved for Maria Senti who he convinced to marry him in 1977. It was a joyous union that thrived on full and frank exchanges of views setting a standard rarely eclipsed in the public service. Their daughter Stephanie was their greatest collaboration and she brought her husband Matthew into the family and two grandchildren, Rosa and Harry.

Allan Hawke's release from years of cruel illness is, of course, a serious deprivation for Maria and Stephanie, their wider family and many others. Yet his great contributions and the memories of his constancy, generosity and optimistically boisterous life remain. These are enormous consolations that will forever ease the sadness of his departure.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Paddy Gourley, Andrew Podger and Paul Dibb, 'Hawke, Allan Douglas (1948–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hawke-allan-douglas-32820/text40831, accessed 2 October 2023.

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