Australian Notes

Australian notes

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

The ABC’s Australian Story (‘Just Call Me Bob’) about the former Prime Minister Robert James Lee Hawke touched on many of the right themes—the mix of larrikinism and intelligence that John Howard thinks is the secret of Hawke’s popularity, the boozing and womanizing that so many thought (or hoped) would destroy him, and the will-power which drove him to change. I had a bit part in the program. I knew Hawke well at the ANU over fifty years ago. So the ABC invited me in to talk about the great ‘ornamental lily pond affair’ at University House in Canberra in 1957, which became a legendary incident in Hawke’s career as an Angry Young Man. The ABC probed me about it at length but in the end used none of what I had to say. I have absolutely no complaint about that. The programmers had to cram an enormous amount of biography and politics into limited space, and they did it well. But the story may be worth recalling for the light it casts on a leader who felt himself to be a Man of Destiny. Hawke does not mention it in his hefty Memoirs. But others have had plenty to say. In their The Making of the Australian National University 19946-96, SG Forster and Margaret M. Varghese call it a ‘debauching’ which culminated in Hawke’s leaving the University without a degree. This is surely a melodramatic misreading. In her biography Robert J. Hawke, Blanche d’Alpuget dubs it a mere ‘escapade’. In her autobiography My Own Life Hazel Hawke recalled it as an alcohol-inspired ‘ripple’.

The most thorough account is in Jill Waterhouse’s official history of the first 50 years of University House in Canberra (University House. As They Experienced It). She calls it a ‘rumpus’ but devotes several scholarly pages to it, backed by many archival citations. She carefully distinguishes legend from fact. Her opening paragraph gives the legend – with some correctives: ‘The best-known story about University House concerns an escapade on 24 February 1957 which has it that one of the residents, Bob Hawke, who was to become Australia’s twenty-eighth Prime Minister, stripped naked during a drunken revel and swam the length of the pool to the horror of the Master [the famous classicist and archaeologist Dale Trendall] and was subsequently banned from the House. No matter that Bob Hawke was not a resident at that time, that the pool was almost too shallow for swimming, that the Master was away, that Hawke was not the only one involved, and that he was already on his way to a promising career – if not one in academia.’


She then gives the facts. One night half a dozen roistering young men, variously associated with the ANU and led by Hawke, thundered around University House, banging on doors, shouting abuse, wading in the ornamental lily pond, and scandalizing residents including some Anglican bishops (although amusing others) until about 3 a.m. In the wash-up Hawke was fined, banned from University House and compelled to resign as scholars’ representative on the ANU Council. Some prominent academics rallied in Hawke’s support. They objected to what they saw as a stuffy gentility about University House at that time. The incident was an unbecoming affair but no harm was done. Hawke wrote a correct letter of apology to the Master. The Disciplinary Committee, he said, ‘may rest assured that the stupidity of the events has impressed itself on me, and it need not have fear that its disciplinary action will again be required.’ He left the University soon afterwards to begin his illustrious career in ‘the labor movement’, ending as Prime Minister. But the incident remains in the history books. It is a synecdoche of the adventures of Hawke before, with impressive determination, he gave up booze in May 1980. (‘I did not touch a drop of alcohol for the next thirteen years.’) University House is even a little proud of the ‘rumpus’. It has become folkloric.

Nick (The Lucky Culture) Cater has struck the latest blow in the debates over the proposed national curriculum – the current manifestation of the history wars. It is in his Occasional Paper The Enlightenment Made Us, put out by the Centre for Independent Studies. He supports Tony Abbott’s criticism that the proposed curriculum underestimates the Western heritage and the spirit of enterprise in the Australian story. His underlying idea is that the motor of Australian history from Day One has been the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment and its Australian heirs. How many Australians recognize the names of the great explorers (all men of science in the Enlightenment tradition) or the great innovating entrepreneurs?

Cater takes particular aim at the ‘apprehensive, risk-averse spirit of sustainability’ which undermined Australian life and enterprise in the late twentieth century. If he had the chance, he says, ‘to tinker’ with The Lucky Culture today, he would have more to say against ‘sustainability’ with its implied limits on growth ‘in stark contrast to the infinite march of progress in which Australians once believed.’ In my view it may be that ‘sustainability’ is a secularized revival of those religious ideals which the always dominant Enlightenment tended to suppress in Australian life. (Upon landing at Cape Cod in 1620 the Pilgrims fell to their knees and thanked God for their deliverance. When the Christians in the First Fleet landed in Sydney in 1788 they had to wait over a week for Holy Communion. The Enlightenment had other priorities.) But that is an issue for another day. Meanwhile Nick Cater’s hearty and enlightened Occasional Paper is on sale at the CIS. Highly recommended.

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