‘Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum!’: It’s been 40 years since Bob Hawke proclaimed these famous words

By Esme Mathis 26 September 2023
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Forty years ago, Australia won the America’s Cup. It was followed by celebrations – and controversy.

In the early hours of Tuesday 27 September 1983, thousands of Australians were wide awake and jumping with excitement. The 12m-class racing yacht Australia II had won the America’s Cup, bringing to an end the USA’s 132-year winning streak. It was a sporting victory that gripped the nation – people took to the streets in celebration, bursting with national pride and dousing each other in champagne showers. 

The race took place off the coast of the US state of Rhode Island, so the live broadcast of the final race in the best-of-seven event wrapped up about 5.30am (AWST) in Australia. Among its viewers was Prime Minister Bob Hawke at Royal Perth Yacht Club in Western Australia. Just six months into his first term in office, he couldn’t have predicted that a booze-infused, throwaway comment to ABC News – “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum” – would become one of the most memorable moments of his career. Bursting with laughter and wearing a gaudy jacket (borrowed from a university student also attending the event) over his suit, Hawke’s personable charm and cool informality won over the Australian public. 

The races began on 15 September 1983, Australian time. Australia II, skippered by John Bertrand, had a rocky start, losing the first two races to the American defender Liberty, which was skippered by Dennis Conner. The third race was abandoned halfway through because of poor weather. Australia won the rescheduled race, America the one after. The score was now 3–1. Australia could not afford to lose another race – and then the tide began to turn. Australia II won the next two races, bringing the two competitors neck and neck with a score of 3–3. Everything rested on the seventh and final race, which Australia II won by a margin of 41 seconds. 

The victory was not without controversy. Australia II had a speed advantage due to a unique winged keel, designed by industrial engineer Ben Lexcen. Before each race, the keel was cloaked by “modesty skirts”, hiding the unique design from the prying eyes of the competitors. But after losing the Cup, the New York Yacht Club was up in arms, protesting that the measurement and certification of Australia II were not legal and had given the Australians an unfair advantage. Rubbing more salt into the wound, in 2009 a Dutch naval architect, Peter van Oossanen, alleged that he and Dutch aerodynamicist Joop Sloof had invented the winged keel and that Ben Lexcen had had only a minor role in its design. According to the rules of the America’s Cup, all yachts must be entirely designed by nationals of the country that they represent. However, the claim was impossible to prove. 

Related: Looking back: The 1983 America’s Cup win