When the Concert Party ruled politics
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When the Concert Party ruled politics

IT IS difficult to imagine it now when there seems such little music in the hearts of Australia's politicians, but not so long ago song and mirth spread a bit of magic across the national political landscape and clear into the skies.

This week there was a faint echo of the period when Bob Hawke, 82 now, broke into a bawling rendition of Solidarity Forever, the union movement's anthem, at the ACTU congress in Sydney.

Bob and Hazel Hawke (centre right) with travelling minstrels aboard the old VIP Boeing 707. The late Paul Lyneham (second from left), leads the chorus.

Bob and Hazel Hawke (centre right) with travelling minstrels aboard the old VIP Boeing 707. The late Paul Lyneham (second from left), leads the chorus.

It seemed so exotic that radio and TV stations replayed it from coast to coast.

The truth of it is he's been doing it for years.

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In 1988, on the last night of parliament in the old white wedding cake that was Canberra's parliament house before its inhabitants moved up the hill to their new billion-dollar digs, Hawke and John Howard linked arms and bellowed Solidarity Forever together.

Hard to believe, of course, but there were plenty of pie-eyed witnesses and Howard (known those days for throwing the liveliest parties in parliament, true story) once told me he thought the occasion had proved he had a better singing voice than Hawke.

Hawke was keen to organise a musical extravaganza as soon as the parliament convened at the new big house on the hill.

He had been to Ireland, where the prime minister, or Taoiseach, Good Time Charlie Haughey, had treated him to a concert featuring the Chieftains, who had made traditional Irish music into a worldwide popular sensation. With Haughey about to visit Canberra, Hawke got his musical advisers to show the Irishman what Australia could produce.

The perfectly named bush band the Larrikins was engaged, and so was folk singer Eric Bogle. Bogle wrote a song specially for the occasion. To the tune of Rawhide he attached words unkind to Paul Keating, whom he called ''the Slasher''. Everyone but Keating thought it hilarious, and when the concert was over, the party moved to deputy speaker Leo McLeay's office, where the music continued close until dawn.

God knows what would happen if Speaker Peter Slipper were to try to emulate the occasion today. Bogle later recalled the night: ''A bunch of us musicians eventually ended up in some senator's office with Bob Hawke, who you may remember was our prime minister at the time, his then wife Hazel, and a few assorted pollies and journalists, all (with the exception of Bob and Hazel) intent on sculling back the free alcohol while it lasted, and having a rare old singsong. Of course, at one stage we all bellowed out The Internationale and as I was singing along with Bob, Hazel et al, I thought to myself 'What a great country this is. Could this happen at No. 10 or the White House?'''

In that same year Hawke took wing to the United States and found himself at a barbecue on the ranch of Texas tycoon John D. Byram.

Surrounded by open-mouthed good ol' boys in string ties, high-heeled boots and big hats and their good lady wives dripping with gold and the sort of flounce that passed for high fashion among the moneyed classes of Dallas and Austin, the Silver Bodgie couldn't help himself.

Accompanied by Australian journalists on piano and guitar, he not only bawled Solidarity Forever, but followed it with the socialist hymn The Red Flag. If the 450 invited guests - oil, property and beef capitalists all - were feeling a touch of the vapours at this bizarre turn of events, they didn't let on.

The matter of taste, anyway, was relative: John D. Byram's stupendous ranch house not only boasted a gun room with enough weaponry to fight a new civil war, but a ''game room'' festooned with a stuffed lion, a stuffed polar bear, a stuffed leopard and a stuffed seal, plus the trophy heads of rhinoceros, bison, buffalo and deer, most of them gunned down by the good John D. himself. The Australian travelling media dubbed it ''the abattoir'' and repaired to the margarita machine, revving themselves into a party that continued all night with much more song and at one point, a senior Australian public servant disporting himself with a champagne cork in each ear.

The old VIP Boeing 707 that flew a series of prime ministers around the world and has long since been canned was, in Hawke's day, something of a travelling minstrel show.

Craig Emerson, now a minister in the Gillard government, was a mere adviser in Hawke's office, and he took his guitar everywhere, regularly filling hours of travel with music. Hazel Hawke played piano, though the plane itself didn't run to such an instrument - she had to be content to wait until there was a keyboard on hand at whatever destination lay ahead. Peter Logue, an Irish-born press gallery journalist with an encyclopaedic memory of the revelry, played just about any instrument and always had his piano accordion at hand. Tony Allan of the ABC took both ukulele and banjo, and a fellow ABC journalist, the late Paul Lyneham, a long-time singer with a rock band called the Bitter Lemons, simply lent his voice.

The central cabin on the 707 became known as The Disco as Hawke and the band rocked around the world.

Hawke, unlike Keating the Mahler man, wasn't naturally attuned to the classics.

Once, visiting the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, he found himself treated to a recitation by a fine classical pianist. Hawke scandalised Yugoslavian officials when he requested that the journalist Logue take to the keyboard for party tunes once the recitation was complete.

You could hardly imagine such high jinks in these iPhone tweeting days.

Pity. We could do with something approaching rhyme and rhythm in Canberra, even if it were judged a bit off key.

Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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