It is difficult to express my deep sorrow at his passing. It is not a surprise. As I saw him over the last six months he clearly did not fear his death and said he would welcome passing, fearing the burden he was placing on his family. We craved every minute his remaining gave us and I know his family felt that as well.
People ask me what drove him. The answer was a deep love of all of us. He loved his fellow Australians. More than that he respected them. His default position for disagreement was reconciliation. He was totally aware of class, cultural, ethnic and racial differences. But his view was dominated by the value he saw in all of us. His egalitarian view saw him want us all to be able to prosper and all to feel comfortable with their fellow Australians.
He and his Ministers made modern Australia. Many governments globally sought to drive growth by deregulation. Only his was closely mindful of the impact of the process on our people. He knew Australian firms would be challenged and to cope needed to lift their profit share. Wages needed to be frozen for a while. To counter its impact, reform included a ‘social wage’. Heavy middle class tax cuts. Universal health care. Superannuation for all employees. Rapidly expanding educational opportunity. A variety of social benefits. The reforms in the next 20 years doubled wages.
Having built the House he wanted it liveable. That drove environmental policy with major initiatives around the country. He wanted Australia to be exemplary and a major player in global politics. That drove regional organisation, arms control initiatives, an end to apartheid, peace prospects in Cambodia. He pushed the boundaries of independent initiative set by the frozen architecture of the Cold War. He understood the US was critical to security and freedom. He was for the West but he wanted more. Probably Australia has never stood as high as it did in the last decade of the Cold War.
Almost nothing he did was acceptable to many at the outset. From his point of view, public opinion was the beginning of the matter not the end. From then it was a matter of argument and persuasion. The public understanding was Bob wished no harm and intended good. This was political genius. It was not guile. He genuinely wished the best for people.
For me he was the best of friends. I shared with my colleagues his liberal approach to his Ministers. We were trusted to know policy and drive change. We did not have a squad of minders haunting us. His social joys were those of many of us. Social chat, good art and entertainment, the horses and the cards, sport.
He was a superb chairman and administrator. The late Peter Walsh, Finance Minister and no fan of Bob’s would say to me, only two ministers read every cabinet submission, “me and Bob”. Hard work never went to waste. If you could do the policy he would back you. You might be derailed if Bob, at the races, cricket or whatever, had heard a comment from a punter who impressed him. He placed value on you but he extended that to everyone and would take note of everyone’s views.
Profound was his belief in the broader labour movement. He believed Unions were fundamental to and legitimate participants in National debate. I was in a bit of a fight over committing resources to protect shipping in the so-called ‘Tanker War’, a subset of the Iran-Iraq War. Bob supported me but he sent me to Sydney to talk to the Secretary of the Seaman’s Union. He did not wish to proceed without knowing their view. They were to be protected. They were important.
He was interested in Defence but I rarely got to talk to him before 12 at night. That’s when he ended work but he would want a cigar and knew I would join him. As we puffed away, Defence Affairs of State would be settled. When he left office Australia stood high in global councils. He wished Australians well but his heart went global.
Deepest sympathy to the family. Blanche his wife, children Ros, Stephen and Susan. He loved them deeply but as with all of us in politics, the nation usually came first not family. They now see in this outpouring of grief and praise how much their own sacrifice meant for people.
In one of our last conversations we discussed the afterlife. He had no confidence there was one. I thought there was and, like Abou Ben Adhem in Leigh Hunt’s poem on the roll of those beloved of the Lord, the fact he loved his fellow man meant his name on heaven’s roll led all the rest. On Earth he was a man unequalled in his time and generations before and since.
We will not see his like again.
The Honourable Kim Beazley AC, Governor of Western Australia