With his broad accent, blunt speech and gregarious manner, Robert Hawke strikes many of his countrymen as the quintessential Australian. His image as a "regular bloke" has helped him consistently top polls in recent years as Australia's most popular political figure and win election as the country's new Labor Party prime minister three months ago.
But Hawke, 53, who is making his first visit to the United States as Australia's leader, is anything but ordinary. A former Rhodes scholar with a degree in economics from Oxford University, Hawke rejected an academic career and rose to the leadership of his country's trade union movement. He acquired a reputation as a tough negotiator and brilliant union advocate despite problems with what his authorized biography called his frequent public bouts of "boozing and womanizing."
Hawke, whose long battle with "the grog" etched deep lines in his face and damaged his health before he gave up liquor in 1980, Hawke captured the leadership of the Australian Labor Party in February. He won the prime minister's job the following month in a landslide, capping an unprecedented meteoric rise in Australian politics.
Now his government is struggling to hold together a fragile "national consensus" on wages and prices at home while wrestling with Labor Party foreign policies of favoring aid to Vietnam and objecting to neighboring Indonesia's 1976 annexation of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. These policies have greatly irked Australia's Southeast Asian neighbors, causing the Hawke government to postpone implementing them pending consultations with Australia's friends and allies.
The Labor Party foreign policy, particularly regarding Vietnam, is expected to come up in Hawke's meetings with President Reagan and other administration officials. Hawke is scheduled to see Reagan today and hold talks with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and congressional leaders during his four-day official visit.
Before arriving in Washington Saturday, Hawke stirred controversy back home by announcing his intention to review his party's East Timor policy, which was ratified last year by a national party conference. The signs of willingness to accept Indonesia's takeover of the predominantly Roman Catholic territory 400 miles off Australia's northern coast have aroused the party's left wing.
A group of 72 U.S. congressmen also has expressed concern, sending a letter to Hawke Friday urging him to maintain his party's support for self-determination in East Timor.
For his part, Hawke is expected to push his party's demands for fuller disclosure of the activities of U.S. communications monitoring facilities in Australia used to gather intelligence on Soviet missile tests and other data. Despite some reservations about the bases, however, the Labor leadership continues to support their presence and Australia's alliance with the United States.
While his government appears to be taking a pragmatic approach to these and other issues, Hawke earlier in his career had gained a reputation for commitment to leftist ideals. When Hawke took over the presidency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1970, an alarmed George Meany, the late American labor leader, reportedly exclaimed, "The Aussies have gone Communist!"
Hawke developed his political outlook as a youth growing up in Western Australia. His father, a Congregationalist minister, and his mother, an activist in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, both supported Labor causes.
His political inclinations led him to write a major thesis at Oxford on the Australian wage arbitration system that still serves as a text for students of industrial law. While at Oxford Hawke also gained some notoriety by drinking 2 1/2 pints of beer in 12 seconds, a feat listed for years in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In later years, as he coped with the pressures of leading the Australian Council of Trade Unions, his drinking became a serious problem. Yet, according to a biography by Blanche d'Alpuget, "There was much that was known about Hawke--his drunken bad temper; his womanizing, including outrageously public propositioning of women when he was drunk--that was never reported and that journalists, the world's most avid gossips, were unwilling to discuss."
That changed in 1975, when Hawke admitted in a national television interview that he had a drinking problem. But in a nation of heavy drinkers, this did not hurt him, and his popularity actually increased, d'Alpuget wrote. A record company released "The Bob Hawke Drinking Song," which included a chorus, "Let's drink to Bob Hawke."
By 1980, Hawke's health appeared to be suffering. He abruptly gave up the bottle after the death of his mother, who had always condemned his drinking.
Hawke's political career also had its ups and downs. He was defeated in his first bid for election to Parliament in 1963 after a bitter campaign in which his opponents accused him of being a communist. As a union advocate in wage arbitration proceedings, Hawke had become identified with the Labor Party's left wing and its anti-American views. He was distrustful then of the CIA and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country's equivalent of the FBI, which he believed was maintaining a file on him.
Another setback came in 1971, when Hawke strongly opposed a tour of Australia by South Africa's Springboks rugby team. This stirred much hostility against him, and union ranks were split by the issue. There were anonymous threats against Hawke, and the Labor Party suffered losses in by-elections.
Hawke's vigorous, often emotional, support of Israel, especially in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East war, also aroused controversy in Australia and by some accounts nearly destroyed his career. The Labor Party government in power at the time pursued a policy of strict neutrality on the Arab-Israeli issue and was obliged to disavow Hawke's statements. Australia's Arab community was enraged, and his family became the target of a purported threat from the Black September terrorist group.
Now that he has become prime minister, however, Hawke is seen as being more sensitive to avoiding controversy and maintaining his party's grip on power, especially in light of the rocky and brief tenure of the previous Labor government under Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s.
"There's a strong tendency to be pragmatic," Sen. Donald Chipp said in Canberra recently. "The Labor Party has suffered 32 of the last 35 years in the political wilderness, and it's cold out there."