NOOSA – In 1966 I was transferred from my remote bush school in the highlands to Port Moresby to edit the school magazines.
At this time the headquarters of government in Papua New Guinea was an untidy collection of wartime army huts in the harbourside suburb of Konedobu.
In one of these was located the Education Department’s publications unit, of which I was a member, and right next door was the colonial Administration’s industrial relations office.
This office was one of Bob Hawke's bases during his PNG union days.
At the time he was the man responsible for wage arbitration in the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
It was an influential role and a stepping stone to the leadership of the ACTU, Australia’s peak union body, of which he was to become president in 1969 and from where he achieved high public profile and, eventually, the prime ministership.
In 1965 Hawke and his family had spent three months in Port Moresby, where Hawke was helping establish the trade union movement and advocating for better wages and conditions for Papua New Guinea’s public servants.
He was doing this in conjunction with Papua New Guineans like Michael Somare and Dr Reuben Taureka and PNG Public Service Association executives Paul Munro and Rod Madgwick, who both later became Australian judges.
Munro has written that Hawke “pulled out all stops in his presentation of what was effectively a national wage case for the Papua New Guinea administrative vanguard”. And he remained a regular visitor to PNG through 1966, throwing his legs up on a desk at the industrial relations hut next to my editorial office.
As I sought to belt out Yokomo stories on my Remington typewriter, Hawke, Somare, Munro, Madgwick and others were conducting their serious business amidst gales of laughter and general uproar barely a body length from where I sat.
I often felt I wanted to join them in these raucous and convivial sessions, and I regret now that I never did – although in time I became acquainted with them all.
So began Hawke’s long friendship with Papua New Guinea, which continued apace when Somare entered politics. Much later, in the 2009 PNG new year’s honours list, Hawke was made a Grand Companion of the Order of Logohu, the highest award that can be given to a foreigner.
It has been said many times in the day and a half since Bob Hawke passed gently from our midst, that one of his great gifts was the ability to make strong almost instantaneous friendships. It was a talent that served him well as a negotiator and conciliator, and of course as a popular and successful politician.
And it was a gift that knew no barrier of class, gender, ability or race.
In an emotional interview, journalist and sometime Hawke press secretary, Barrie Cassidy, said of his former boss soon after he died: “He was an intellectual knockabout, and I tell you what most impressed me about him was that he just wouldn’t cop racism. He wouldn’t cop it at any level, even a whiff of it.”
As a young man, Charles Lepani, former long-term PNG high commissioner in Australia, through Hawke’s intervention, received an ACTU scholarship to attend university and would spend time at Hawke's then home at Sandringham in Victoria, joining demonstrations against the Vietnam war and advocating for Aboriginal causes in Australia.
In 2009, inviting Hawke to accept the Logohu award, Somare had written that he was being honoured for his "support for Papua New Guinea from the time you assisted us in the development of our trade union movement, and basic workplace conditions, to the strong support you gave us during your term as Prime Minister of Australia".
The honour came with the title ‘Chief’, which greatly pleased Hawke. "I want deeper bows thank you, much obeisance," he said. And then, fearing he may be misunderstood, "No seriously it's a great honour, I'm very grateful."
“I believe your contribution more than marks your being awarded the highest honour available,” replied Somare.
But what endeared Hawke to Australians throughout his long life, was his possession of the common touch. Australian rugby league icon, Phil (Gus) Gould, recalled:
"I remember one special moment I was up there, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea gave me two big bags of PNG coffee, saying, ‘Chief Hawke loves the coffee, can you take these home for him?’
“So I took them home and dropped them into the golf club and they rang him and told him to come and get it. Somehow he got my number and rang to thank me and asked me to thank the Prime Minister of New Guinea. A wonderful man.”