The recent book and movie treatments of Hawke have often seemed to be about little more than efforts by Blanche D'Apuget to write herself into the history books - 'they will remember a great love affair' (oh pleeasse).
This dross has been enlivened by the 'drama' of the Hawke - Keating rivalry. The only lasting interest in this saga is its familiarity. All leadership challenges seem to be little more than bids for personal glory roughly camouflaged as 'what's best for the party's chances at the next election'.
Unfortunately, this dross hides what for me was one of the few instances of genuine political genius in Australia's recent political history. Like Menzies and Whitlam before him, Hawke had a genuinely transformative idea. Menzies brought the burgeoning post-war middle class into Australian politics, and Whitlam recognised the dire need for services for a growing population (from sewerage in Blacktown to universal health care to a massive expansion of higher education).
Hawke had a transformative idea too. Arguably even more brilliant than those of Menzies and Whitlam. He saw a way to harness the power of the union movement to radically transform the Australian economy. As the movie briefly points too, Hawke envisaged the political power of the Accord as much more than a temporary break on wage inflation. On the surface, the idea that a deal with unions could be used to drive the sort of radical neo-liberal economic reforms that Malcolm Fraser had found too difficult to pursue seems quite absurd.
So absurd that no-one but Hawke could have conceived of it, let alone make it happen. Hawke was unique. He trained as an economist in WA, a bastion of free trade. Fraser had put him on the Crawford Committee, where he came into contact with Ross Garnaut (I think) and his conviction was deepened that a big change in Australian economic policy was overdue and becoming more urgent all the time.
Yet, Hawke was loved in the union movement. And Hawke was genuinely committed to unionism. Many unionists opposed the idea of a university graduate running a blue collar movement. Back then, Hawke was the only senior official with a degree. Now, just about every senior official has university training. Hawke began the process of defactionalising the union movement to overcome the terrible sectarian and ideological battles that had weakened it for decades. The consensus model has been continued by Kelty and Combet. Hawke made the ACTU far more important in the union movement and the broader society than it had ever been before. Without the ACTU, as created by Hawke, the Accord itself is scarcely imaginable.
Yet unions were sworn enemies of economic rationalism and everything that goes with it - free trade, privatisation, competition, deregulation. These not ideas that your average union official has ever found appealing.
Hawke used a Whitlam idea - the social wage - to seal the deal. Whitlam had tried to convince unions to exercise wage restraint in turn for greater expenditure on services (health, education etc) that he said would be of greater benefits to their members than a few dollars extra a week which would be largely eaten up by tax and inflation anyway. To no avail. But Hawke, as ALP leader, made it stick.
Many great ideas result from a capacity to put together connections that others don't see. Hawke put together his understanding of unionism, with a radical economic agenda and leavened it with a touch of Whitlamism. Pure genius.
Of course, the package only worked because of Hawke himself. No-one else could have pulled it off.
The flim flam of leadership challenges and womanising might be entertaining, but don't forget the political genius that made Hawke one of our greatest prime ministers.