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But for the Drover's Dog, this favourite son of Ipswich would have made a great PM


Before a congregation including six serving and former federal and state treasurers, the great and the good gathered to farewell Bill Hayden, Queensland’s most consequential national politician. Dennis Atkins was there and looks back on a 44 year acquaintanceship and friendship.

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Stephen Bliss, known as the very reverend in his role as the Ipswich Catholic parish priest, spoke fondly of that community’s favourite and most revered son, William George Hayden in probably the grandest funeral this one time coal mining centre has known.

Father Bliss said that when Bill Hayden approached heaven and was asked about measuring up to what’s written in the Gospel of Matthew on feeding the hungry, clothing and sheltering those in need and tending the sick, all he needed to do was produce his Medicare care and say he’d given out 11 million of these.

Later Sister Angela Mary Doyle, the renowned 98-year-old hospital administrator and all-round change maker, said even if Bill had not sought reconciliation with the church and God five years ago he would still have gained easy access to heaven because of Medicare.

Clearly those who have been running the parish in Ipswich for the last half a century and longer know just what need is and they know first hand what a change universal health care meant for so many.

For the funeral, hundreds came, from the highest in the land – an ex-governor general and a serving one, a state governor, a prime minister and premier and what could be the greatest collection of Australian treasurers ever assembled.

Hayden was an ex-treasurer, having been tossed the dead ball at the end of the economically challenged Whitlam Government just short of half a century ago. He is still credited as a gifted policy and political operator who, in the five years after Labor surrendered to Malcolm Fraser’s Liberals, took his party to the edge of government and more than anyone laid the foundation for Bob Hawke’s victory and the great reform era of 1983 to 1996.

The living finance ministers – mostly long since exes – were the current federal treasurer Jim Chalmers and three former occupants of the position, Paul Keating, Wayne Swan and John “Joe” Dawkins.
Also looking on as Hayden was remembered so well were the current state Labor treasurer Cameron Dick and one of his predecessors David Hamill.

That’s some political and policy economic fire power. Just don’t ask them who was better than whom.
Looking on, talking with mourners and friends on the steps outside after the service and at the family’s simply lunch of sandwiches at the council chambers across the oval named after Father Bliss’s predecessor Timothy Molony (home to a sturdy and heritage listed hitching rail for those attending church on horseback) two words about Bill Hayden dominated.

Genuine and honest came first or second in everyone’s remembrance. Hayden knew political pain seldom suffered by anyone in the often brutal trench of ego and narcissism he joined in 1957 – four years after he first sought admission in South Brisbane but was shunned due to suspicion over his day job as a Queensland policeman. Not for nothing did Keating call the Labor Party at the time a “human zoo” in his eloquent eulogy.

By the time he joined the ALP he was in the west, outside Brisbane, at Redbank and Labor was on an upward swing, all the way to the House of Representatives for the former policeman with an 11 percent swing against sitting Liberal Don Cameron (who was at last week’s funeral).

The election almost took Labor into power under the unlikely leadership of the dour Arthur Calwell. Prime Minister Bob Menzies was a relative colossus and this brush with electoral mortality shocked everyone including Calwell.

Bill Hayden’s achievements were many and grounded in that genuine honesty everyone who was lucky enough to cross his path recognised quickly and enduringly.

Keating reflected on Bill’s composure in the “topsy turvy” world of the 1960s and 70s ALP, saying he was “ … Unburdened by a higher sense of self or driven by some innate sense of destiny, Bill got about his long and effective business notwithstanding intermittent self-doubt and occasionally, thwarted inner confidence.”

Bill went on to become what Keating called a “big hitter”, not just reforming welfare through initiatives such as Australia’s first women’s refuges, Medibank Mark I (the forerunner to Medicare) but also rescuing the Whitlam economic legacy from comic book status.

No one did more at that stage, and in the eight years leading up to Bob Hawke’s grasping election as prime minister, to lay a foundation for economic reform that was every bit as solid as the achievements that dominated the policy skyline from 1983 though to the early 1990s.

His prize for accepting the “hurts like hell” fate dealt him by his colleagues on the death knell of the Fraser government – standing aside so Hawke could consummate his love affair with voters – was to be foreign minister in that greatest ever cabinet.

My relationship with Hayden was longer than that with almost any politician I’ve got to know and covered as a journalist. We first crossed paths at the infamous 1979 ALP national conference in Adelaide – where a drunken Bob Hawke spat his views about the leader to a bar across from state parliament.

That the bar hosted plenty of journalists and Labor staffers (including a key Hayden aide) meant everyone soon knew what Hawke had to say. The attempt by the then union movement kingpin and ALP president to open a cigarette machine he mistook for the door added to the late night gonzo flavour of it all.

After much persistence, I gained an interview with Bill Hayden on what he thought about Labor chances in South Australia – where I was the political reporter for The Sunday Mail – and what he had in store for the state.

A year later during the 1980 election campaign I accompanied Bill Hayden on a four day tour of the Iron Triangle of industrial towns – Ports Pirie and Augusta and Whyalla – in the vast electorate of Grey, being contested by a newcomer Lloyd O’Neill.

As you often do – more so then than now – Hayden and I become well acquainted and that association lasted through his time as Hawke’s foreign minister and when he was Governor General at Yarralumla. I even got to stay the night at the vice-regal residence, an experience which I can only describe as a hoot.

Bill Hayden came from an era that could not be more different than the politics and government we know today. That said, his life carries a trove of lessons and true lights on hills of achievement for anyone aspiring to public life.

The top of that tree is the duet of words people used in Ipswich last year – being genuine and staying honest. Really these are not hard or high standards to live up to and, in an unfortunately hackneyed phrase, they are their own reward.

In a phrase some in the Right Wing of Labor adopted but never really lived by, in the end, the voters will find you out. They will tumble to any dissembling and two faced hypocrisy. They will know when someone has fallen short because they tried and failed, not because they were too smart by half and thought they could get away with it.

Bill Hayden was probably too self-effacing to put himself forward as a role model but he was one and remains so after his sad death.

One final nod in this panegyric to a pal is to Dallas his loving partner in life of six decades. The smile and the clench of her hands after the funeral will not leave me.

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