Bruce Hawker Turns Off His Mute Button
By Bernard LaganFebruary 24, 2012
Labor tactician and strategist Bruce Hawker once stayed in the background, but he’s front and centre for Kevin Rudd’s march on the PM’s office.
Bruce Hawker is out; out of his faintly tired office in a lesser corner of central Sydney, out of the cloak that has long masked the methods and motivations of a political string-puller, out against a Labor Prime Minister, out of some of his oldest, deepest Labor Party friendships. Out for Kevin Rudd.
By mid-morning on Friday, February 24, he'd, again, been on Channel Seven and Sky News, making the case for Kevin Rudd to replace Julia Gillard as Labor Prime Minister. This is a change. Some 25 years ago, when he learned the political bomb-making skills that would shatter Liberals and sculpt Labor leaders, Bruce Hawker learned to stay out of shot - and he has done so, largely, until now.
So why has Hawker sacrificed friendships made in the Labor Party over decades, risked his lobbying business and bet his future on Rudd by deciding to come out and spruik for a Labor politician in a way he has done for no other?
First, those close to him say Hawker no longer really needs the sizable income he's had from corporate clients over the past 15 years. He's sold Hawker Britton and now operates out of far more modest offices in Sydney with a tiny staff in his new, boutique company, Campaign and Communications.
And, as Hawker himself says, he's reached his mid-50s. He no longer wants to keep quiet while the Labor Party withers.
"The issues confronting the Labor Party and the Government are so serious that to remain mute in the public forums is just not possible any longer," says Hawker. "I believe if we don't move soon to restore Rudd to the leadership, then the prospect of us winning the next election is so remote, it is just remote. I mean anyone with a margin of less than about 10 per cent is going to be in trouble. That is what we are looking at the moment."
Hawker says he is also angered that the Labor Party has moved swiftly to punish those who have sided with Rudd and to try and otherwise suppress those who speak out.
"I have great concerns about factional control within the party," he says. "About what it is doing to strangle proper debate and expression of opinion. People who don't toe the line are being punished. Look, as soon as anybody from the pro-Rudd group gets up to say anything, there are a stream of emails to the interviewers in the Sky newsroom or the ABC newsroom saying, 'Ask him this question, attack him on this.'"
Having Hawker in his corner has given Rudd a media-savvy advantage over Julia Gillard. Hawker has a certain guile and agility. Last Saturday night, when a staffer called with the news that a video showing Rudd's now infamous, profanity-laden rant had been posted on YouTube, Rudd was in his Brisbane home eating a take away Thai dinner with Bruce Hawker.
While Rudd was anguished and embarrassed - and about to leave for the G20 meeting of foreign leaders in Mexico - it was Hawker who advised him to get out fast and give an interview to Sky News, apologise for the video but to also leverage it to submit his job application for a return to the Prime Minister's office. Rudd used the moment to effectively declare what most had long expected - that he wants his job back and he's changed enough to do it better.
Similarly Rudd was on the phone to Hawker before his dramatic resignation speech at 1.20am in Washington, D.C., this week. Soon afterwards, Hawker began his own round of television appearances in support of Rudd's campaign. Hawker has become suddenly familiar to those following the leadership crisis on television. He repeated his lines relentlessly: Rudd was probably the most popular politician in the country and history was full of leaders who'd made comebacks.
The news cameras once were for his political masters only. Hawker was the lurking backroom advisor whose work could neither be acknowledged nor attributed. In his younger days he had a droopy moustache, kept his curly hair longish, smoked too many cigarettes (he's long since stopped) and receded behind the little mountains of files that took over his poky office. There weren't many computers in Opposition offices back then.
Hawker, who had trained as a lawyer in Queensland, seemed to relish his perpetually borderline-dishevelled appearance and sardonic drift amid the showy, dark suits, buffed shoes and big voices favoured by the rejected men of the NSW Labor Party. It was 1988 and Hawker was chief of staff in the office of Bob Carr, then the reluctantly drafted leader of a dejected NSW Labor Opposition. The party had been routed in a landslide win by the new Liberal Premier, Nick Greiner.
Hawker pushed hard for information that could arm Carr and begin breaking down the Greiner Government's cleanskin credentials. He once sent his colleague David Britton (who would later become his business partner) off to a small NSW town to comb through every page of 20 years of yellowed editions of the town's newspapers in search of information for a corruption investigation.
"He had the biggest dirt file," remembers Britton. Some credit Hawker, along with Britton, with refining the story-of the-day diet fed to state political reporters, which kept Bob Carr in the news cycle. The stories were the standard fare of state politics - ballooning hospital waiting lists, mythical train timetables - as well as the juicier political corruption and Government waste stories, which Hawker helped uncover.
Hawker also had a knack for making contacts in both low and high places who could hand over information. Greiner lost his first minister within a year of being elected - after Hawker had found omissions in his statement of pecuniary interests.
In 1989, his reputation growing, Hawker was sent on temporary assignment to Queensland to work on the state election campaign of Wayne Goss, the young lawyer turned Labor leader who was seeking to oust the National Party, which had been in office since 1968.
There he met Goss's Chief of Staff, a former diplomat, Kevin Rudd. It was the beginning of a long friendship and Labor Party pairing. Both were running the offices of men who would go on to become long-serving Labor Premiers. Hawker and Rudd shared many of the same ideas about the future of government and of the Labor Party.
They share a distaste for the power of the factions in the Labor Party and for union influence, and a loathing of the so-called "faceless men" who run the factions. Hawker is fond of recounting the history of Canada's once-small New Democratic Party which, after its financial contributions from unions were cut back, rose to become the country's official opposition party.
Their lives, however, took different paths. While Rudd stayed on in the Queensland public service and briefly joined a consultancy before entering Federal politics in 1998, Hawker, along with David Britton, formed the Sydney-based lobbying outfit Hawker Britton, which thrived with corporate clients eager for the firm's lines into Labor Governments. Hawker also continued to work on Labor campaigns. One of his biggest successes came when the South Australian Labor leader, Mike Rann, become Premier in 2002.
Hawker has advised the Labor Party in almost every state and federal election since the mid-1990s. He was called into the New Zealand election last year to aid the Labour Party there and was working on Anna Bligh's Queensland re-election campaign until Thursday, when he resigned to go full time on Rudd's push to again become Prime Minister.
There was less enthusiasm, some say, for Hawker Britton's retail politics campaigning style among Labor's Canberra strategists. They are often dismissive of the bread-and-butter service delivery issues with which state campaigns are invariably concerned.
"Canberra was harder for us," says one former Hawker Britton staffer. "They didn't all think retail politics worked for them."
Nevertheless, the walls of Hawker's office are covered in posters signed with messages of gratitude from Labor leaders around the country - including one from Julia Gillard and another from Kevin Rudd.
Julia Gillard signed hers, after she won the 2010 election: "Bruce, you are a legend!"
Rudd, after his 2007 victory, wrote: "To Bruce. With thanks for your friendship and your counsel."
They are thanks not just for his advice but also for the quality every political leaders wants in an advisor: a willingness to shut up and stay in the background.
Hawker is no longer complying: "At the end of the day, when you get to a certain age, you realise it's more important to try sort out these issues, rather than just sit down and stay mute.”