WOODFORD Folk Festival director Bill Hauritz has provided an intimate insight into former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s last days, his character and the love affair he came to have with the Sunshine Coast’s favourite festival.
Vale Bob Hawke
At the age of 89, on May 16, Bob Hawke passed away ending what many argue as the greatest contribution to public life in Australia’s history.
On the weekend following, I witnessed a minute of silence at every football stadium in every code around Australia.
I became a friend of Bob Hawke and his wife Blanche. Witnessing the respect paid at every one of those football stadiums made me realise that the profound effect on people all over Australia that Bob Hawke’s endearment with our people at the Woodford Folk Festival was not unique.
How Bob met Bill
I met Bob Hawke at the Barron Falls on the Atherton Tableland during the federal election in 1990. I was in Kuranda promoting the 24’th National Folk Festival organised by our organisation then called the QFF and used the PM’s visit to unashamedly promote the festival.
Working through the Cairns office of the ALP, I suggested that the election train from Cairns to Kuranda could stop at the Barron Falls to avoid protesters and we’d provide a friendly audience in return for the PM’s festival promotion. The office agreed to fax down what he might say in two paragraphs. The next thing, a bunch of us, mostly musicians awaited the train from Cairns to Kuranda to stop at Barron Falls for a media conference and the landmark signing of the NQ Rainforest agreement with the then Queensland Premier, Wayne Goss.
At the end of the conference, Bob Hawke held up the festival’s t-shirt and recited my 200 words as if he wrote it himself. We talked for two or three minutes just prior. He saw his job in those few minutes as promoting the festival, not tying it to some political electioneering. I also met Hazel Hawke and Wayne Goss. When the train left, I was stunned at how it all worked out such was the incredible energy in that half hour period while the train was at rest.
The photo of Bob holding up the T-shirt was printed on the front page of The Cairns Post, then of course, in our QFF newsletter Queensland Folk.
I’ve never forgotten how I met Bob. Amazingly, neither did he.
Coming to Woodford
I think it was in 2004, we invited Bob and Blanche through Blanche’s long-time friend and Woodfordian, Jannette Issacs-Young. Janette had bought Blanche to our Maleny Folk Festival years earlier. Blanche was keen but according to Bob’s words later on, ‘Blanche brought me screaming and kicking.”
On arriving at the committee room of the WFF, I introduced myself and he remembered me from twelve years earlier – how’s that possible – what sort of brain is that. He offered me a cigar and we sat down and talked. I was intimidated by his presence. He knew that, but within minutes, he had me relaxed telling me jokes. I saw then first-hand what I already knew, this was a man with an incredible intellectual capability and a presence that just by being there affected everyone in the room, indeed the festival.
Bob and Blanche stayed at a little old house in Woodford, owned then by our General Manager, Amanda Jackes who was principal host of their visit. They attended every day and stayed for the whole festival. It never occurred to us that they might wish to return until a couple of years later, I received a phone call from Blanche. I remember her words.
Can we come back
“When you said we were always welcome to return, did you mean it? Because we’d love to come back.”
Come back they did. And in 2008 it became Bob and Blanche’s decade long annual pilgrimage. They always paid for their airfares.
In that time Amanda and I came close to Bob and Blanche joining Blanche’s old friend Janette and her husband john who looked after them. They both loved the festival, saw lots of shows together and some separately. They never missed a Welcome Ceremony or a Fire Event. Bob’s memorable speeches at the festival, always to an over full house, has been captured by our team and will in time, be proudly curated in our Lorestream Project.
Despite Bob’s obvious credentials, he felt right at home at Woodfordia and truly loved the festival. We became close. Bob often embarrassed me by always talking me up when he spoke.
Bob Hawke opened doors for the Woodford Folk Festival. He gave us publicity that we’d never seen before and a legitimacy in the main stream.
I visited Bob and Blanche two to three times a year in Sydney always delivering his beloved cigars. I sought his advice. He became a mentor as I listened to his stories and felt privileged to be inside his statesman-esque realm. He wanted to know everything about Woodfordia, he made phone calls to help us and introduced us to some wonderful people.
Every year we put on The Bob Hawke dinner, a small private dinner for about 20 festival contributors in his honour. I watched Bob move easily around brilliant scientists, great artists, politicians of all persuasions and our volunteers and organisers at the Kremlin (Festival HQ). Everyone wanted a photo with Bob. He was always accommodating.
Bob sat often at the end of the big table in The Kremlin smoking his cigars and doing his crossword – The Times Cryptic no less. The crossword was his daily exercise to keep his brain active. I couldn’t understand the clues. But I enjoyed having meetings with lots of people at the Kremlin and observing people noticing Bob out the corner of their eyes which lit up when I’d say, “would you like to meet Bob?”
Last year in declining health, Bob was hospitalised twice and checked himself out of hospital in May knowing his days were numbered. He and Blanche had visited nine years in a row. When I left their residence in October, I felt I was saying goodbye for the last time tearing up in the uber. Bob had told me then that “stumps” is imminent, and he was not unhappy about that. I kept encouraging him to think he might come back, hoping it might offer some help to stay alive. I couldn’t believe it when, in December, Bob and Blanche announced they were coming back – their 10th. It was the first time Bob had left his home since May. Knowing of his pain levels and his mobility, it was a huge respect paid to us all.
While Bob couldn’t speak on our program, he did record the singing of Waltzing Matilda at Amanda’s little house where he and Blanche stayed every year, now owned by me. (I used to call them the house minders – hard to get good help these days.) The footage was played at the Welcome Ceremony – he was there.
Just prior to driving out of the yard on the day after the festival concluded, Bob said he wouldn’t be back.
It was a tearful moment. He knew, we all knew he was dying. As he sat in the front seat of the car, I squeezed his hand. Bob yelled in pain. I felt terrible. He was in pain for most of his visit.
This year, in a telephone conversation, Blanche mentioned that Bob would love to see me. So down I went, cigars in hand. I could witness first hand that Bob and Blanche’s last days together was a very special time in their lives, such was their love for each other. I could only spend a couple of minutes with Bob, but saying that it was worth the trip, is a gross understatement. It was a privilege beyond measure. This time in the uber I wept.
Blanche rang me on the morning of his death to talk about photographs for his upcoming biography. They wanted to make sure there were Woodford shots in the book. Blanche started crying and said that his death was imminent. It was a difficult day for me and could only imagine how it must have been for her. She rang back later that evening a couple of hours after Bob passed. She was cheerful and sounded strong, the ordeal was over. What a grand woman she is.
I didn’t realise how many people knew of my personal connection with Bob until and for several days after his death, my email in-box filled with condolences and my texts almost shut down my phone. I was asked to do many TV, radio and newspaper interviews. People just wanted to say something, to somehow connect with Bob and Blanche.
If I was still PM
Bob said to me one night, he wished sometimes he was still PM so he could help us more. I kept thinking about how much he had already done.
It was on behalf of all Woodfordians that I passed on our best wishes to Blanche and all their family members.
Since Bob’s death, I’ve come to realise just how much of his legacy as Prime Minister already lives inside our Woodford Folk Festival program. His work, bringing the environment to the forefront of politics, his statesmanship, his love of aboriginal people, his incredible work in ending apartheid in South Africa, his contribution to the health of Australians are just a few of those. It’s hard to think that such a thing as the Woodford Folk Festival would even exist without his contribution in his nine years as PM such was the change he facilitated in Australia. His second contribution with his and Blanche’s visits for a decade, feels too hard to fathom just now.
We will be working on ways we can immortalise Bob Hawke at the Woodford Folk Festival. We all hope Blanche will return. How proud we can be that Bob Hawke was such a true Woodfordian. To have had him as my friend is something I still struggle to believe.
Woodford Folk Festival director Bill Hauritz has provided an intimate insight into former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s last days, his character and the love affair he came to have with the Sunshine Coast’s favourite festival.