Bob Hawke’s Boon Companion

In the mid-1950s Australia’s future Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a boon companion of a left-wing Canberra economist named Dr Ron Hieser. A socially wayward associate of Labor’s then federal leader Dr H.V. Evatt, Ron Hieser embodied attitudes and a way of life that Hawke needed to eschew if he wished later in life to become a prudent and successful prime minister. Hieser’s life, because of his eventual role as a warning beacon for Hawke, is of importance to anyone interested in Australia’s modern political history.

Ron Hieser was descended from the German diaspora in South Australia. Born in Adelaide in 1921, his original name was Hüser. At the age of eighteen he was working as a clerk in the state public service in Adelaide when the Second World War was declared. An advertisement in a morning newspaper prompted him to apply for a position as a clerk in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was accepted after he confirmed that he was “of pure British descent, both parents having been born in Australia”.[1]

This article first appeared in our May 2012 edition.
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Life in various RAAF bases in Australia seems to have politicised the young South Australian. Until 1941 the war was fought far from Australia’s shores. Before Russia was involved there was widespread left-wing muttering to the effect that Australia’s deadliest enemy was not abroad but at home. The Australian people, communists insisted, had become enslaved by a handful of wealthy owners of monopoly capital who were bent on impoverishing them. In 1940 the Left Book Club published a widely read pamphlet which proclaimed this message.

Hieser, seemingly, subscribed to this defeatist position. In the winter of 1940 he was charged with having made a disparaging comment about the heroism of King George VI. Found guilty by a court martial, he was demoted from his position of pay sergeant.[2] At the end of the year the RAAF discharged him after he again engaged in “subversive talk”. Back in Adelaide he mixed in left-wing cultural circles, on one occasion taking part in a play, staged by the Labor Youth Theatre, which celebrated the impact of science on life in the USSR.[3]

A good sportsman (cricket and football) who never said no to a beer, Hieser was in many ways a normal 1940s young Australian male. Nevertheless there was always a jarring element. His insistence on publicly airing strong political opinions was a constant barrier to smooth social intercourse.

After he was discharged from the RAAF, Hieser returned to the state public service (the Motor Vehicles Department, to be precise). It was soon clear that the disputatious ways so evident in the RAAF would not be tamed. His work colleagues found him “unbearable” because of his “communistic utterances” and he was forced to resign.

In April 1941 Hieser was called up for army service. Over the next eight months or so he spent some time undergoing training in an Adelaide military camp. He became a full-time soldier at the end of 1941, by which time the war had become ideologically acceptable to the Communist Party. In 1944 he formally changed his name to Hieser.

After peace came in 1945 Hieser enrolled at Adelaide University and after three years diligent study obtained an honours degree in economics. His left-wing position solidified. He was, as some crucial oral history testimony held by the Don Dunstan Foundation indicates, active in a communist cell at the university. Other members of the cell included, if briefly, South Australia’s future Labor Premier Don Dunstan.[4] Hieser also was the inaugural secretary of a Socialist Club at the university. Dunstan, now a factional foe, belonged to the non-communist wing of the same club but was edged out.[5] The future Premier had his revenge some years later when the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation interviewed him on the subject of the extent of Communist Party membership at Adelaide University. Dunstan admitted that he had been in the party for a while and confirmed that Hieser and his future wife, Deretta, had also been members of the party whilst at the university.

Hieser never hid his ideological colours. He was proud to side with the workers against the perceived capitalist enemy and wanted to deploy his economic expertise on their behalf. In 1948 the trade movement in South Australia used him as an expert witness in a state wage case. He submitted evidence to the effect that the position of low-paid wage earners had “greatly deteriorated” since the war.[6]

In 1949 Hieser moved to Victoria to complete an accountancy course conducted by the Federal Institute of Accountants. He offended a landlady by brandishing communist tracts and expressing the hope that one day he might visit Russia. Controversy continued to dog him even when he upheld the aims of the organisation that employed him. He supported the imposition of federal price control mechanisms[7] and yet a period spent as an Investigations Officer with the Commonwealth Prices Branch in Melbourne ended when he resigned because of “friction” occasioned by his unbridled expression of left-wing opinions. He then secured employment in Sydney as a research officer with the Overseas Telecommunications Commission.

Hieser continued to be associated with Adelaide University as an external postgraduate student. In 1952 he completed a masters thesis. His subject was monopolies, that bugbear of the wartime Left Book Club. The key contention of his thesis was that monopolies were indeed “deeply rooted” in capitalist society. They were not a casual abuse but a crucial phenomenon demanding prolonged academic analysis to measure their degree and effects.[8] Hieser intended to persevere with such analysis. In 1953 he received a scholarship to undertake a PhD thesis at the Australian National University in Canberra. His thesis would comprise his biggest study yet on the role of monopoly power in a market economy

Hieser’s reputation as a difficult person to cope with was entrenched by the time he arrived in the national capital. His explosiveness was fuelled by a mixture of undiluted left-wing ideology and alcohol. Hieser’s fearsome reputation as a “gargantuan” consumer of liquor of all sorts is on the public record.[9] A fellow mature-aged ANU postgraduate student (Russel Ward) has noted in his memoirs that his first encounter with Hieser was when he came across him (“trembling a little”) waiting for a Canberra hotel to open so that he could get in and start drinking.[10] Another Canberra acquaintance later stated that Hieser was “aggressive drunk or sober”.[11]

The heavy drinking and argumentativeness were unattractive but for the moment they did not seriously hold back Hieser’s career as a professional economist. He was highly intelligent and capable of hard scholarly work. His detailed work as an economist quickly garnered academic recognition, among economists both in the United States[12] and locally. Even before he gained his doctorate he was, at the instigation of the ANU’s Professor Trevor Swan, recruited as a lecturer in the Economics Department at the Canberra University College.

In Canberra, Hieser joined a circle of academic economists whose sympathies lay with the Australian Labor Party and its trade union affiliates. The head of his Economics Department, Professor Heinz Arndt, was a member of the ALP. Horrie Brown, Reader in Economic Statistics in the Research School of Social Sciences, was another like-minded soul. Brown testified on behalf of the ACTU in the 1952–53 national wage case.

In the traumatic ALP split of 1955 Hieser sided strongly with Labor’s federal leader Dr Evatt against his internal anti-communist opponents (“the Groupers”). In September he joined Russel Ward and Dr John Burton in trying to assist Evatt when he came to prepare his formal response to the report of the Royal Commission into Soviet espionage in Australia.[13] He reportedly drafted the bulk of Evatt’s policy speech for the 1955 federal election. Some of the speech was prepared by his academic colleague Bob Gollan (still for the moment a member of the Communist Party) but its economic content was certainly Hieser’s handiwork. He was entrusted with providing Evatt with a credible statement on economic management even though his own personal finances were in a wretched state because of the excessive amount he spent on alcohol.[14]

The strain told. Hieser was hospitalised early in 1956 but by the time the academic year resumed he was, as Heinz Arndt noted, “quite well and cheerful”.[15] His recovery was greatly assisted by the arrival in Canberra at this time of Bob Hawke who was proposing to undertake postgraduate studies into Australia’s industrial relations laws. The highly gregarious Hawke quickly gravitated to the same drinking establishments that Hieser haunted.

Convinced that Hawke “did not have a student’s discipline and dedication”, Hieser found it all too easy to distract him from the solitary life that is the lot of a true research scholar. A great friendship resulted. It featured much hard drinking but there were more substantive bonds as well. A key point of contact was the strong interest that both Hawke and Hieser had in the workings of Australia’s conciliation and arbitration system. At first Hieser had the greater practical exposure to its intricacies, dating back to his time when he was an expert witness in South Australia. Hawke, though, quickly surpassed him. In 1957 the two men went to Melbourne to help prepare the submission in support of the ACTU’s latest wage claim. Hieser was delighted to discover that Hawke approached the cause of cost-of-living adjustments with a “holy zeal”. By the following year Hawke was working virtually full-time for the ACTU.

There was a political convergence as well. Hieser was pleased to find that Hawke seemed to share his own visceral hostility to the Groupers and their heroes, B.A. Santamaria and Archbishop Daniel Mannix. “I thought he must be seeing the light; must be moving to the left,” was how Hieser later described his view of Hawke’s factional position in the wake of the Labor split. Hieser sought to sweeten the connection by introducing Hawke to Evatt although this move backfired when Hawke made it clear to Evatt that there were limits to his respect for the embattled Labor leader. Evatt’s leadership clearly was no longer “viable”, a rubbery concept which, Hieser could not help noticing, Hawke put great store by.

But amidst their endless conviviality it was all too easy to smooth over any evident differences of opinion. Alcohol remained a powerful social lubricant. For a while Hawke and Hieser, together with the journalist Maxwell Newton, formed a merry trio. They drank together in the saloon bar at the Hotel Canberra and indulged in spirited japes across the suburbs of Canberra. Some Canberrans such as Manning Clark saw their liquor-induced antics as refreshingly “unconventional”; others would have seen their behaviour as improper, such as when Hieser and Hawke (though not Newton) waltzed into the Treasury building and proceeded to unroll a trail of lavatory paper and paper towels which snaked up to the office of the formidable bureaucrat Lenox Hewitt.[16]

Hawke’s friendship with Newton has been described by his biographer Blanche d’Alpuget as “unstable and electric with challenge”.[17] Hieser, in contrast, was a closer friend, although the Hawke–Hieser combination still had elements of competition as well as collaboration. Hieser knew that he was the brainier of the two in an academic sense and could out-argue Hawke. He disparaged the younger man’s grasp of advanced economic ideas. 

Hawke, in contrast, was better fitted for survival in the rougher world outside of theory. He was resilient and full of vitality whereas the more sensitive Hieser was prone to despair and rage when he got drunk, especially when, as was usually the case under Evatt in the mid-1950s, Labor’s fortunes were low.

Hieser’s pro-communist profile in wartime Adelaide had led to his becoming the subject of a security dossier the content of which was inherited and updated by ASIO. If not still actually a formal member of the Communist Party by the time he lived in Canberra, Hieser undoubtedly remained a strong sympathiser and supporter (in which capacity he distributed copies of the latest Tribune). He was thus of continuing interest to ASIO. Its agents tracked his often fraught contacts with fellow members of Canberra’s intelligentsia in the mid-1950s. Names such as John Burton, Manning Clark and his colleague Don Baker, Bob Brissenden, Helen Brown (Horrie Brown’s wife), and Bob Gollan appear in Hieser’s ASIO file.

One name though is conspicuously absent. Hieser’s ASIO file as released to the public in 2011 (with only a few scattered entries remaining under embargo) does not refer to a single instance of Hieser ever having anything at all to do with Bob Hawke (or with Max Newton for that matter) even though Hawke and Hieser were considered to be “inseparable” (Manning Clark’s description) in Canberra. Hawke was of no great political consequence when he first knew Hieser, and yet ASIO remained uninterested in the Hawke–Hieser connection even after Hawke became far more significant politically after he moved to the ACTU. By the end of the 1950s, ASIO’s file on Hieser was no longer being updated.

An observer would have thought that at some stage ASIO might well have become interested in the attempt by the anti-capitalist Hieser to groom Hawke as Australia’s premier industrial advocate but such, apparently, was not the case. Hieser’s ASIO file sheds no light on their connection and furthermore there is no indication that ASIO ever opened a security file on Hawke even though Hawke himself was convinced that it must have, given his connections with left-wingers in the labour movement beginning with Ron Hieser.[18]

ASIO may not have dwelt on the close relationship between Hawke and the disruptive Hieser but everyone else in Canberra seemed to encounter it in action. Peter Coleman, when he was a postgraduate student at the ANU, often met Hieser in Hawke’s university apartment. To Coleman, as with most people, Hieser came across as “an unpleasantly aggressive lefty”.[19]

Hieser and Hawke nearly became colleagues in the same university department. In 1958 Hieser’s departmental head Heinz Arndt offered Hawke a lectureship in Industrial Relations.[20] Hawke was tempted but turned the offer down when Horrie Brown, his senior mentor at the ANU, successfully pushed for his formal appointment as Research Officer with the ACTU. Hawke gave up his doctoral studies (it was no great sacrifice) and moved to Melbourne. In 1959 he became fully responsible, as ACTU advocate, for the presentation of its annual submission for higher wages.

After Hawke left Canberra, Hieser used to visit him in Melbourne, where they could discuss the details of the ACTU’s successive wage claims as well as continuing to frequent hotels where besides drinking they could encounter and bait Groupers. Hieser, as befitted his status as a left-wing academic, sought to provide Hawke with a stronger than usual theoretical underpinning for the ACTU’s wage demands. In 1960 he published an article in the Australian Quarterly in which he contended that with business dominated by monopolies it was the duty of Australia’s trade unions to provide a strong countervailing force by not letting up in pressing for increased wages.[21]

A credit squeeze and resulting unemployment in 1960–61 sealed the case in Hieser’s mind for more and not less control of business activity. The stop-go policies of the Menzies government had failed. More deliberate national planning, Hieser insisted, was needed. It was time for Labor, aided by the new science of social accounting, to push for greater collaboration between government and business to fix targets and priorities for industry within the framework of a formulated national economic plan.

It seemed for a fleeting period at the start of the 1960s that the prime ministership of Robert Menzies might indeed be coming to an end. Dr Evatt retired and was succeeded in an orderly fashion by Arthur Calwell, who came within a single seat of winning the 1961 federal election. A Labor win at the next federal election beckoned.

As its prospects waxed, there was no doubting Hieser’s connection to the broad labour movement. Through Hawke he was linked to the ACTU and his association with the top echelon of the ALP had never been better or more productive. In fleshing out this latter point we can shed fresh light on the perennially fresh topic of the role of “faceless men” in Australian politics.

In preparing for the longed-for next federal election Arthur Calwell’s gifted speech writer Graham Freudenberg, in the wake of the thrilling 1961 result, ghosted a book-length manifesto under Calwell’s name, Labor’s Role in Modern Society. In drafting this book Freudenberg drew on various sources of expertise. For its economic policy content he relied not just on the work of Shadow Treasurer Frank Crean; he also was assisted, as he indicates in his memoirs, by “our ANU advisers”.[22]

These academic experts would have had to include Hieser because his ideological fingerprints are all over Labor’s Role in Modern Society. Calwell’s book targeted the sinister and manipulative role of monopoly companies. It was Labor’s role in modern society to curb their power by promoting rational economic planning and imposing public accountability on business in all sectors of the Australian economy.

The next federal election, in short, was going to take the form of a crusade against the handful of “faceless men”—Freudenberg used this very expression in his book[23]—who controlled the big corporations of Australia. Such language was in tune with everything that Ron Hieser had been saying or reading about monopoly power since 1940.

But there was to be no Labor electoral triumph in 1964. Menzies brought an election on a year early and won it by diverting attention away from the economy (which had recovered in any case) on to less congenial issues for Labor including national security.

Political demonology underwent a startling metamorphosis in the 1963 election. Labor’s attempt to have Australia’s big monopolists branded as a sinister clique of faceless men was gazumped. Menzies, aided by photographs arranged by the Packer journalist Alan Reid, got in first and succeeded in attaching the exact same unflattering label to the thirty-six delegates who, at a special ALP conference in March 1963, determined Labor’s official response to a proposed US naval communications base. This act of appropriation led to a great Liberal Party election victory.

For Ron Hieser, 1963 was a bad year all round. Labor lost the federal election, with the roll of defeated candidates including Bob Hawke in the manufacturing seat of Corio. The result ushered in a new period in Australian politics in which economic management ceased to be a decisive election issue as events in South Vietnam increasingly crowded out the political agenda.

On the personal front, Hieser finally felt the full impact of incessant drinking. Perhaps the only surprising thing about his inevitable departure from the ANU is that the act of separation took so long. In the fatal year of 1963, long after it was known that he was an incurable alcoholic, the effects of Hieser’s addiction to drinking made him no longer able to stay in the paid labour force.[24] Campus legend has it that the tipping point came when he unleashed a stream of profanity in the presence of a group of nuns.[25] An entrenched pattern of heavy drinking and associated acts of misbehaviour obliged him to give up his position at the ANU.

Newton and Hawke lost contact with Hieser as he spiralled downwards. Manning Clark, who had a sentimental regard for Hieser consistent with his tendency to romanticise all aspects of drunkenness, deplored their action even though they had done nothing exceptionable. The conclusion among most people who ever met Hieser was that sooner or later his presence became intolerable.

But by the same token those people who shared Hieser’s interest in politics could never simply brush him aside as just another disruptive drunk. As Peter Coleman realised at the time, amid the alcoholic haze Hieser’s combative intelligence, combined with his unwavering commitment to his brand of leftism and apparent inside knowledge of the workings of government, shone through and were impressive assets. Such qualities made him immensely appealing to Bob Hawke when they were thrown together in Canberra.

Hieser’s plight certainly appears to have weighed on Hawke’s mind long after their friendship ended. At an ALP National Conference in Surfers Paradise in July 1973 he felt the need to unburden himself to another of the delegates who knew people in Canberra who still knew Hieser (this was John Molony, the ACT delegate). An emotional Hawke indicated to Molony that he had had to “seriously consider” whether or not to maintain his friendship with Hieser. The answer ultimately had to be in the negative, given the havoc that Hieser’s alcoholism was wreaking. Hawke was relieved to hear from Molony that the election a few months earlier of the Whitlam government seemed to have had some effect in raising Hieser’s morale.[26]

There is no doubting that there was a Whitlam-induced revival in Hieser’s mood. Following the December 1972 election he exhibited a renewed zest for life. He believed that he could still make a contribution to intellectual discussion and debate. In 1973 he published an analysis of the economic consequences of zero population growth[27] and around the same time was invited to address an academic seminar.[28]

There was a hitch, though. It was unwise for Hieser’s happiness to be tied so closely to the ebbs and flows of political fortune. Labor may have triumphed in 1972 but within two years or so a series of events began which led ultimately to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11, 1975, and an ensuing election disaster a few weeks later. Against this background Hieser’s revival ended and there was no turning back. By the end of the decade he was a confirmed invalid who had not been regularly employed for years. He died in 1980, still in his fifties. At the time of his death it seemed entirely likely that his name would never again impinge on the public at large.

Against the odds though, Hieser was able to cheat oblivion. Two earlier biographers of Bob Hawke (Robert Pullan and John Hurst) failed to mention the connection with Hieser but Blanche d’Alpuget, the third of Hawke’s biographers, was better informed. Prompted perhaps by her subject, she interviewed the dying Hieser about his link with Hawke and dwelt on their former friendship when crafting her biography.

D’Alpuget’s biography was published in 1982 when Hawke was undergoing a startling metamorphosis. Back in the 1950s Hawke shared Hieser’s contempt for right-wing Laborism. He was elected President of the ACTU in 1969 with the support of left-wing unions and seemed to share their worldview. But by the time he finally won a seat in federal parliament in 1980 things had changed. A decade of brokering deals with employers in his role as ACTU President indicated a preference on his part for pragmatic results above anti-capitalist purity. A factional shift reflected this changing direction. Hawke won preselection for a safe Labor seat in Melbourne in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Socialist Left faction. Sharply divergent attitudes to Israel made the gap unbridgeable.

In positioning himself for his final dash for the prime ministership, Hawke was careful to come across as the very opposite of an abrasive and divisive trade union firebrand. There would be no radical confrontation with Australian capitalism on his watch. It would not be bankrupted by uncontrollable wage campaigns. Conflict would be resolved, not fomented. Consensus trumped confrontation after a Hawke government came to office in 1983.

As reprised by d’Alpuget, Hieser’s fate provided Hawke with a telling reminder of the value of prudence and moderation at a crucial time in his career. If he wished to achieve practical results as a Labor leader he would have to keep clear of everything that his former boon companion Ron Hieser was strongly associated with, ranging from alcoholism to truculent leftism. In a final sacrificial twist Hawke dramatically forswore alcohol as a condition for becoming prime minister. It had destroyed Hieser but it would not destroy him.

Bob Hawke, whether acting consciously or not, was able to acquire an extended lease at the Lodge in 1983 by resolving to steer a course which would take him far away from things that Ron Hieser had once championed or sought comfort in. Hieser embodied attributes that Hawke used to share but chose wisely to abandon in a decision replete with consequences for his party and for Australia at large. 

Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer


[1] RAAF File, Australian Archives

[2] ASIO file.

[3] Advertiser, 19 November 1941, p.4.

[4] Don Dunstan Oral History Project, Don Dunstan Foundation, Adelaide, interview with Milton Smith (2008).

[5] Advertiser, 10 April 1946, p.8; Smith oral history interview.

[6] Advertiser, 29 April 1948 p.4; 11 May 1948, p.5.

[7] Advertiser, 10 January 1948, p.2.

[8] R O Hieser, ‘The Degree of Monopoly and the Theory of Value’, M Ec thesis, Adelaide University, March 1952

[9] Blanche d’Alpuget, Robert J Hawke A Biography, East Melbourne, 1982, p.67.

[10] Ward, A Radical Life, South Melbourne. 1988, p.223.

[11] D’Alpuget, Hawke, p.67.

[12] R Hieser, ‘Elasticities, Cross-Elasticities, and Market Relationships: Comment’, American Economic Review, June 1955, pp.373-382.

[13] Ward, Radical Life, p.220.

[14] See his ASIO file

[15] Arndt MSS.

[16] D’Alpuget, Hawke, pp.67-68.

[17] D’Alpuget, Hawke, p.67. 

[18] D’Alpuget, Hawke, p.88.

[19] Email message from Peter Coleman 20 December 2012 

[20] Peter Yule, ‘Hieser, Hawke and Harsanyi’, Margin, ANU College of Business and Economics Quarterly Magazine, autumn 2011, pp.22-23. 

[21] R O Hieser, ‘Money Wages and the Arbitration Commission’, Australian Quarterly, September 1960, pp.31-40.

[22] Graham Freudenberg, A Figure of Speech, Milton Qld, 2005, pp.34, 47.

[23] A A Calwell, Labor’s Role in Modern Society, Melbourne, 1963, p.104.

[24] Yule, ‘Hieser, Hawke and Harsanyi’, p.22.

[25] Email message to author from Emeritus Professor J N Molony, 19 December 2011. 

[26] Email message to author from Emeritus Professor J N Molony, 19 December 2011. 

[27] Economic Record, June 1973, pp.241-262.

[28] R O Hieser, ‘New approaches to the production function and the measurement of capital’, Paper presented to Department of Economics staff seminar, Canberra, 13 June 1973

1 comment
  • Jody

    I’ve always thought that for a man brought up by a caring and aspirational father who was a clergyman Bob Hawke had a too-ready sneer as part of his mien. I never liked him but I recognize he caught the union tiger by the tail and it didn’t bite him.

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