The PM, the cop, the punch and the 50-year cover-up

It was 50 years ago when R.J. Hawke, just-elected president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, arrived as guest of honour and after-dinner speaker at the Victoria Police Criminal Investigation Branch’s annual dinner.

Unwisely, he fronted directly from a long lunch and was spectacularly drunk.

Even so, the Police Association secretary Bill Crowley (who would later rise to the rank of assistant  commissioner) introduced Hawke that Friday night as ‘‘The future prime minister of Australia.’’ Bob continued to drink during the meal until it was his turn to speak. After all, the only drinking school harder than union delegates is hardened detectives.

He rose unsteadily and started with a joke that was flatter than his unfinished beer. ‘‘CIB,’’ he started, ‘‘stands for Criminally Insane Bastards.’’


Some detectives staged a walkout during the speech but returned later, swapping their indignation for port and cheese. The other speaker, Chief Commissioner Noel Wilby, was given a standing ovation.

One of those present was a hard-as-nails Stolen Motor Car detective by the name of Rod Shedden, who approached Hawke to tell him he was out of order. ‘‘He beat me with words,’’ says Rod, ‘‘and we ended up shaking hands''.

As was the way of detectives from that generation, the night continued to the Police Club at the back of the Russell Street Police Station.

‘‘He was lording it over everybody saying, ‘I’m R.J Hawke, president-elect of the ACTU,’ ’’ says Shedden. Multiple witness say Hawke started flirting with one of the female bar staff, eventually putting her on his knee.

‘‘I thought, ‘I’m sick and tired of this, bugger it’,’’ recalls Rod.

He went over to remind Hawke he was a guest in the Police Club and should pull his head in. Hawke, never short of a word, said as the police union owned the club and he was the head of the ACTU he was welcome at any time.

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Shedden, a big man with fists the size of ham hocks, invited the much smaller Hawke outside for a more robust discussion. ‘‘To his credit he followed me out,’’ says Rod, now 82.

‘‘He put his glasses in his top pocket and faced up and I went ‘bang’, knocking him arse over head. I was going to pick him up and give him a few rib ticklers to remind him to keep better manners but some of my mates grabbed me and said ‘Rod, no more’.’’

By this point the future prime minister had lost all interest in the barmaid, the fight and the whole evening. ‘‘I’d whacked him pretty hard in the head and he was unconscious.’’

When Crowley descended on the scene he went straight into cover-up mode, threw the still- dazed Hawke into a car and sped off, reversing into the wall of the Police Club in his haste to leave the scene of the crime.

On Monday, Shedden had to front his boss. ‘‘Rod, what have you done? Half the force wants you sacked and the other half want you promoted.’’

The twist is that a very laundered version of the story appeared in a small newspaper suggesting that following the speech there was a dispute at the Police Club and ‘‘tempers became frayed''.

An outraged Hawke sued, alleging the article implied he was ‘‘guilty of offensive behaviour in a public place and accordingly had broken the law’’.

Shedden was told that under no circumstances could he give evidence, as it would be taken as an admission of assault. ‘‘I was told if I open my mouth I’d be sacked and lose all my entitlements.’’

The case was settled out of court.

In 1988 Rod Shedden retired as a detective sergeant, refusing promotion, ‘‘because all I wanted to do was to catch crooks''. And Bob Hawke, as Crowley (who became a life member of the association) had predicted all those years earlier, became prime minister.

I first learned of the fracas and subsequent cover-up more than 40 years ago and confirmed it with Rod over more than one quiet glass of ale when no-one was invited outside (except into the beer garden). But he was disinclined to go on the record.

I rang him shortly after the May 16 death of Australia's third-longest serving and much loved prime minister. This time, mellowed with age, he said yes.

‘‘The poor old bastard’s gone now. Good luck to him.’’