Bob Hawke, former Australian Prime Minister, dies aged 89

The longest-serving Labor prime minister was a popular and larger-than-life 'larrikin'

epa07574905 (FILE) - Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke speaks at the National Press Club during the book launch of Gareth Evans' memoir 'Incorrigible Optimist' in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, 04 October 2017 (reissued 16 may 2019) Former prime minister and Australian Labor Party leader Bob Hawke has died on 16 May 2019 at the age of 89.  EPA/LUKAS COCH  AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
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Bob Hawke, Australia's longest serving Labor prime minister, has died at the age of 89, his wife and the party confirmed on Thursday.

Hawke, who served from 1983 to 1991, died just days ahead of a federal election in which the opposition Labor party is leading the polls by a small margin.

"With his passing, the labour movement salutes our greatest son... and Australians everywhere remember and honour a man who gave so much to the country and people he cared for so deeply," Labor leader Bill Shorten said in a statement.

Hawke, known for his everyman appeal, was never voted out by the public. He won four elections from 1983, eventually leaving office in a party room coup to Paul Keating in 1991.

Under his leadership, Australia opened its economy to global competition and 'floated' the Australian dollar.

The Australian people loved Bob Hawke because they knew Bob loved them, this was true to the very end

Blanche d'Alpuget, Hawke's second wife, announced his passing in a statement and said a public memorial service would be held in Sydney.

"Today we lost Bob Hawke, a great Australian - many would say the greatest Australian of the post-war era," she said.

“I and Bob’s children, Sue, Stephen, Rosslyn and stepson, Louis, and his grandchildren, will hold a private funeral. A memorial service will be held in Sydney in coming weeks.

“Among his proudest achievements were large increases in the proportion of children finishing high school, his role in ending apartheid in South Africa, and his successful international campaign to protect Antarctica from mining.

“He abhorred racism and bigotry. His father, the Reverend Clem Hawke, told Bob that if you believed in the Fatherhood of God then you must also believe in the Brotherhood of Man. Bob would add today the Sisterhood of Women.

“Bob was dearly loved by his family, and so many friends and colleagues. We will miss him."

Hawke played a significant role in fighting apartheid by encouraging fellow Commonwealth countries to boycott foreign investment in South Africa. He hosted a visit to Australia by Nelson Mandela in 1991.

The larger-than-life former Labor leader was a popular "larrikin" (a beloved rogue) figure among Australians of all political persuasions.

When Australia won the America's Cup yacht race in 1983, a jubilant Hawke sporting a white blazer printed with the words 'Australia', memorably said: "Any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum."

Nonetheless, he helped forge a consensus between labour unions and business, and used his appeal to win broad support for economic reforms which sometimes saw critics accuse him of moving the Labor Party to the right.

Hawke's death will rock the final two days of Australia's federal election campaign. An Essential Poll for The Guardian newspaper on Thursday showed Labor ahead of Scott Morrison's coalition government by a margin of 51.5-48.5 on a two-party preferred basis where votes are distributed until a winner is declared.

On Wednesday, Hawke wrote an open letter of support for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to win Saturday's poll.

Mr Shorten described him as a "leader of conviction - and a builder of consensus".

"In Australian history, in Australian politics, there will always be B.H. and A.H: Before Hawke and After Hawke. After Hawke, we were a different country. A kinder, better, bigger and bolder country," Mr Shorten said in a statement on Thursday.

"The Australian people loved Bob Hawke because they knew Bob loved them, this was true to the very end.

"At our Labor launch I told Bob we loved him, I promised we would win for him. I said the same to him the next day at his home, when I visited.

"The Sydney sun was out, that famous silver mane, now snow-white. Cigar in hand, strawberry milkshake on the table, the hefty bulk of his dictionary holding down the day’s cryptic crossword.

"I gave the man who inspired me to go into politics a gentle hug, I tried to tell him what he meant to me, what he meant to all of us. I couldn’t quite find the right words, few of us can, when we’re face-to-face with our heroes."

* Additional reporting by AFP