Hazel - a rock star's rock, a nation's role model

There was something about Hazel Hawke that made Australians want to reach out and protect her.

There was something about Hazel Hawke that made Australians want to reach out and protect her. All of us know what it was. Nobody ever dared say it out loud. Australia's rock-fan craving for her husband, Bob, destroyed the man she knew, and maybe collective guilt turned her into our martyr.

Hazel lived the life of an ordinary wife and mother in a postwar Australia, when family was the aspiration of all. But her life turned less ordinary when Bob's ascension to the heights of public life devastated her children, her marriage, her husband, and herself.

She remained low profile for many years, but her husband's personality and achievements ensured she too became public property. The cost was huge: there was an abortion to allow Hawke to fulfil his manifest destiny as a Rhodes scholar; his drinking and rock-star sexual predations shattered the family trust; two daughters had drug problems, their son refused to have anything to do with the father for years; she had three facelifts to improve her sense of esteem.

And hovering off stage like some lipsticked wraith, was the other woman, Blanche D'Alpuget. Australians knew all this but kept a sort of conspiracy of silence. Instead, as Hazel stood by her man with pluck and grace, people took her to their hearts in a manner never extended to any other prime minister's wife. Perhaps it was her very vulnerability that made Hazel so beloved. Sue Pieters-Hawke is adamant that her mother never allowed the bad times to get her down. "There are plenty of things in public life that you'd prefer never happened," she says. "But Mum was never one to dwell on the negatives, she just got on with things."

Over the years other prime ministers' wives were not nearly such sympathetic figures in the public mind: Dame Pattie Menzies was born to it; Zara Holt, Sonia MacMahon and Margaret Whitlam had lives outside their husbands'; Tammy Fraser lacked the common touch, as did Annita Keating; Janette Howard seemed a cipher for her husband's politics, and Therese Rein made millions from the public purse.

In 2003 Hazel Hawke revealed on Australian Story that she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It focused unprecedented attention on the disease, and her simple, dignified courage stirred a sense of loss for something truly fine and truly rare in Australian public life.

Pieters-Hawke thinks the public's deep affection and respect for her mother stemmed from the many projects and causes she took up during her years at The Lodge.

"I think one of the defining things about Mum was that she appealed to our better selves," she says. "Mum could help people look up and strive to be something better."

Born in Perth in 1929, Hazel was one of Edith (nee Clark) and James Masterton's two daughters. She left school at 15 and worked as a shorthand-typist-bookkeeper for 11 years. Hazel Masterton became engaged to Hawke during his university years. They met as teenagers in Perth's Congregational Youth Fellowship - she had been aware of him since she was nine, when Hawke's mother had directed a church play. They were to endure a biblically long six-year engagement before he left for Oxford University in December 1953 as Western Australia's Rhodes scholar. He graduated with a bachelor of letters and returned to Australia in 1956.

In March they married and moved to Canberra where he began a doctorate at the Australian National University. The first of three children, Susan, was born and the family shifted to Melbourne after Hawke obtained a researcher-advocate post with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Another two children, Stephen and Rosslyn, arrived. A fourth, Robert jnr, died soon after his birth in 1963.

As Hawke climbed the ranks of the ACTU, the family lived in the bayside suburb of Sandringham. The home became a focus after he was elected ACTU president in 1969.

Hazel played the wife and mother in the background while hapless journalists sent to his home on a Sunday afternoon were routinely greeted by a semi-naked (or sometimes naked) Hawke who would proceed to dictate comments for the next day's newspaper while swimming in the pool - which, as he invariably boasted, was paid for by "Flinders Street" or "Spencer Street" (the now defunct Melbourne Herald or The Age respectively).

In 1980, Hawke won preselection for the safe Labor seat of Wills, centred around Coburg. And Hazel suddenly came into her own. Hawke spent much of his time plotting for the leadership, which he finally won, and then the prime ministership, after which he had little time for the electorate.

His local numbers man, Coburg mayor Murray Gavin, stepped into his shoes, but he lacked the clout and the persona, and it fell to Hazel to become the de facto member for Wills. She assiduously worked the senior citizens and childcare centres and was visible at official openings - Hawke made sure government largesse showered on Wills - and her name is on many plaques scattered around the electorate.

"She had a wonderful common touch, very simple, just got on with things," recalled a former Coburg council worker during the Hawke years. "It might no longer be fashionable to value a woman who simply personified being a good wife, mother and neighbour, but Hazel had them in spades. She was the sort of woman you knew would take your washing off the line." Little wonder then that she and Hawke drifted apart.

At the dawn of the age of celebrity, Hawke was one of the first political leaders to step outside the paradigm. Hawke innately understood that to succeed he had to become public property. During his ACTU days, he supplemented a public image as the great mediator and conciliator with frequent appearances by his family in magazines and on television.

In 1976 Hawke started an affair with D'Alpuget. Two years later he proposed. The relationship stalled and Hawke stayed with Hazel for the good of his prime ministerial aspirations.

" 'Divorce could cost Labor 3 per cent,' he had fretted several times, back when this was an issue for us," D'Alpuget wrote years later. "As it turned out, he made the right decision: for himself, for me, for his family, for mine, for his party - and, as became obvious, for the nation."

But the non-couple collaborated on her admiring 1982 biography, Robert J. Hawke, which enjoyed the felicitous coincidence of being published as her lover firmed as favourite for prime minister. The pair resumed their relationship in 1988.

In 1994, Hawke and Hazel announced their separation. He married D'Alpuget eight months after their divorce.

On Friday, Hawke issued a statement in which he remembered his former wife with "deep affection and gratitude".

"She was more than a wife and mother, being father as well, during my frequent absences as I pursued an industrial then political career.

"I think there is general agreement that Hazel did an outstanding job as Australia's first lady from 1983 to 1991. She was a constant support, particularly through some very difficult times. Our three children, Susan, Stephen and Rosslyn, adored their mother as did our six grandchildren, and my thoughts are very much with them at this time."

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