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Australia needs more reformers. We need more Bob Hawkes

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Bob Hawke was famous for drinking beer at record speed, which every Australian seems to know. But the reason he is a national hero is because his life was not defined by drinking beer at record speed.

The ale-swilling, knock-about Hawke was real, and the larrikin aspect of his character was key to his political persona. It was part of his appeal.

A national hero, for many reasons. Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

His truly impressive feat was not holding the Guinness Book speed record for downing a yard glass of beer in 11 seconds, but later overcoming his alcoholism. On a human level, this is a Hawke life lesson. He transcended his addiction and went on to accomplish great things.

He retained his bonhomie, his common touch, his temper. But beneath the back-slapping sports fanatic was a hard man who did hard things. For his country. And this is the reason he is a national hero, not just a Labor hero.

Today's political class is in danger of missing this vital point. The politicians' tributes to Hawke hail his "special connection with the Australian people", his everyman ease with ordinary voters, his talent for using TV to communicate, his authenticity, his impressive run of four election victories in a row.

You can even discern a touch of envy in some politicians' comments. They would love to have his appeal. If they could fake his authenticity, they would. And they desperately crave his knack for winning power. If that is all they see – his popularity and his power – they have truly missed the point of Bob Hawke.

Above all, Hawke was a problem-solver. He took the biggest problems of his time and he tackled them head-on. His audacity and ambition were breathtaking.

What problems? The greatest was Australia's slow but unmistakeable decline into national poverty. The founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, in the 1980s said that Australians were destined to become "the poor white trash of Asia". He was right.

To change the country's trajectory would take harsh changes. Factories would shut down. Hundreds of thousands of people would lose their jobs. Workers' wages would be cut. What prime minister wants to hand out that sort of pain?

Most governments would rather coast along, as the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser did. Do nothing and hope that the reckoning would arrive after their time was up.

But after Hawke and his treasurer, Paul Keating, defeated Fraser, that is exactly........

© The Age