Vale Hazel Hawke ― first among equals

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Hazel Hawke was a great Australian ― and a great Australian republican. History editor Dr Glenn Davies provides a heartfelt IA tribute to a sparkling, many-faceted, Aussie gem.

Portrait of Hazel Hawke by Sally Robinson (Source:

On Thursday 23 May 2013, Hazel Hawke AO (born 20 July 1929), ex-wife of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke from 1983 to 1991, died peacefully at the age of 83after succumbing to complications of dementia. Tributes from across the political spectrum have poured in for Mrs Hawke, who shared the highs and lows of the political roller-coaster life with her husband. The former First Lady has been remembered as a wonderful, gutsy and compassionate Australian, who touched the lives of everyday people.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard paid tribute to the former first lady:

"Ordinary Australians saw the best of themselves in Hazel - many women of her generation will feel they have lost a friend. Hazel was one of those rare people who are liked and respected in equal measure. Her warmth and generosity of spirit in success were only matched by her courage and dignity in adversity. We have lost a wonderful Australian."

During an interview on7.30 (23/5/2013), Leigh Sales recalled that during an interview with her daughter, Sue Pieters-Hawke, about 18 months ago, she had said that she thought her mother's enduring legacy was “that she appealed to our better judgment”.

In response, Hazel Hawke’s friend Wendy McCarthy said:
She brings out our better selves. She does. She has that capacity to make people feel they can live up, they can be - they can find their noble purpose in a way. There's something about their inner soul and they feel able to talk - they felt able to talk to her about it without feeling silly. It's a very unusual and rare capacity. And Hazel could talk to anyone, anywhere and listen to them and have that sense of the better self come out.”

It was this connection with the people of Australia that resulted in her successful election to the 1998 Constitutional Convention as a NSW Australian Republican Movement delegate.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention was probably the high tide mark for republicanism in Australia. In February 1998, 152 delegates gathered in Canberra to decide how a new Australian head of state would replace the British monarchy, which had been at the core of the Australian Constitution for 97 years.

At the beginning of the Constitutional Convention, there was an overt assumption that the republic was going to happen. Even the then Prime Minister, the staunch monarchist John Howard grudgingly conceded, when he opened the two-week convention, that history may be on the republican’s side. Howard said:
In my view, the only argument in substance in favour of an Australian republic is the symbolism of Australia sharing its legal head of state with a number of other nations is no longer appropriate.”

It seemed the central question of whether Australia should become a republic at all was hardly to be a feature at the Constitutional Convention and that it had all been decided by consensus already. More than half the delegates were committed republicans, including politicians, church leaders, sports stars and household names such as Janet Holmes-a-Court, Australia's most powerful businesswoman, and Poppy King, a 25-year-old entrepreneur known as the ‘lipstick queen’' because of her multi-million dollar cosmetics empire.

Prime Minister John Howard had promised that if the Constitutional Convention could agree on a republican model by the time it wound up on 13 February 1998, the government would put such a model to the Australian people in a referendum in 1999. If the referendum passed, then Australia would become a republic in time for its centenary in January 2001. Unfortunately it was during the next two weeks that the cracks within the republican groups over the key question of how an Australian president should be appointed, and what powers the office should have, began to emerge. It was these cracks that eventually brought about the division within the YES campaign and the ultimate defeat of the republican referendum on 6 November 1999.

Framed certificate conferring life membership of the Australian Republican Movement to Hazel Hawke. (Source: John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.)
Framed certificate conferring life membership of the Australian Republican Movement to Hazel Hawke. (Source: John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.)

During 1999, Hazel Hawke was enlisted by the Australian Republican Movement to promote the YES campaign to older Australians. She was guardedly optimistic about the referendum outcome. "But I’m not convinced that we’ll win," she said.

In October 1999, she issued a warning:
It would be "just plain dopey" for Australians to retain the monarchy at next month’s republic referendum. Mrs Hawke said Australia would be seen by outsiders as irresponsible if the NO campaign was successful on 6 November. The ex-wife of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said it was inappropriate for the Queen of England to remain Australia’s head of state and she urged parents to consider whether they would want to deny their children the chance to aspire to be Australian president. It’s much more appropriate to have an Australian figurehead.

Although Hazel Hawke had a strong credibility rating with the Australian people, there was a need at the time for a lot more women as republican leaders. Unfortunately, the ARM did not use women in the same way as the NO campaign did with Kerry Jones and Pauline Hanson, with Hazel Hawke not having as high a public profile on day-to-day issues about the republic.

The republican movement is feeling the loss of such a strong republican stalwart and offers the greatest sympathy and respect to her family and friends for their loss.

Vale Hazel Hawke. A great Australian ― and a great Australian republican.

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