LIFE OF A SALESMAN
Kerry O’Brien’s biography of Paul Keating should be a textbook for students of political psychology
Bob Hawke married his biographer, but Paul Keating’s relations with those who have tried writing his story have been less romantic. Early efforts by journalists Edna Carew, Michael Gordon and John Edwards — the last also for a time a member of Keating’s private office — attracted various degrees of co-operation from their subject. But matters became more complicated in 2002 when another staff member, speechwriter Don Watson, produced his modern classic Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. Keating launched the book but then refused to have anything further to do with Watson. Most recently, unsold copies of a book by experienced biographer David Day were pulped after Keating objected to the author’s claim that he suffered from dyslexia.
Unlike most other ex-prime ministers of the recent past, Keating also has resisted the urge to memoir. A few years back he had publishers salivating when, in the context of an attack on claims made in Blanche d’Alpuget’s latest biography of her husband Hawke, Keating hinted he might eventually get around to writing one himself. But as veteran journalist Kerry O’Brien predicts in the introduction to this very long book, “we are never going to get an autobiography from Paul Keating”.
So this book will have to do. And it is a rather odd beast, mainly composed of hundreds of pages of transcripts based on interviews recorded for a four-part series that appeared on the ABC in 2013, supplemented by further conversations between the two men, who have known each other since 1975. O’Brien also provides a few pages of introduction at the beginning of each chapter that unfortunately sometimes pointlessly repeat material contained in the interviews themselves.
But O’Brien’s questions are well researched, often using as a provocation lines from contemporary news commentary — he has had access to Keating’s large collection of annotated newspaper articles — or judgments by historians and biographers, or his own memory as a longserving political journalist. And while O’Brien explains at the outset that it was agreed the interviews would be “discursive” more than “combative”, his presence as an interviewer means Keating is at least challenged when his remarks stretch the bounds of plausibility, as they sometimes do.
Perhaps the most obvious example — an important moment in the book as well as in the ABC series — is when O’Brien asks Keating about those whose jobs were forever wiped out by industry restructuring under Labor: “And do you know what they found?” Keating replies, “A better job a week later, in a growing economy with big employment growth.”
“You make it sound so simple,” replies a sceptical O’Brien. And so he does: but we quickly move on to an opportunity for Keating to talk about how winding back tariffs and quotas saved Australian workers from “slave labour”, otherwise known as factory employment.
Unsurprisingly, Keating is at
least attractive in dealing with Hawke. Their partnership in government was spectacularly productive, just as their feud in the 25 years since has been bitter and unedifying. Hawke’s own bestselling (and self-serving) memoirs, published in 1994, launched so many missiles in Keating’s direction that there has never been any real likelihood of a subsequent reconciliation. Now, after many years of public brawling over matters such as whose idea it was to float the dollar, Keating insists that from late 1984 until 1990 Hawke went missing in action, that he fell “in a hole for four or five years”.
Keating was by his own account the driving force for all of this period, a de facto government leader who won the 1987 election for the Labor Party and carried through all the reforms that really mattered. Hawke did little more than preside, giving the government “no spiritual nourishment”. Keating spent the 1980s “pulling Bob through all those big economic reforms in his down years when I was at the height of my powers”. These claims seem rather farfetched. Keating himself is forced to admit that when as prime minister he was buried in the negotiations over Mabo, he neglected to keep an adequate watch on what was happening with the disastrous 1993 budget. A prime minister’s attention will necessarily be more divided than that of even the busiest treasurer. But to acknowledge Hawke fully as the active and successful head of government that he was would undermine Keating’s own claim to responsibility for the reconstruction of the Australian economy and of the nation itself. This is, after all, the central point of this book, repeated ad nauseam across its vast expanse. As treasurer, Keating turned a “slothful locked-up place” into the open, competitive economy that subsequently produced a quarter of a century of growth with low inflation. As prime minister, he turned the insular, Anglo society bequeathed by Robert Menzies into an outward-looking cosmopolitan and multicultural social democracy integrated with a dynamic Asian region.
Keating was always a compelling salesman and he is still trying to sell us something: his version of the modern Australian story, which has Keating as its lead actor. Others — Bill Kelty, Bob Johnston, Bernie Fraser, John Dawkins, John Button, Peter Walsh, Gareth Evans, Susan Ryan, even Hawke — can be acknowledged as having played supporting roles, even occasionally as putting in Oscar-winning performances, but there can be only one real star, one winner of the best actor award.
It all eventually becomes too much even for O’Brien, who can’t forbear from pointing out that Hawke was responsible for the whole ministry, clearly put in long hours, had oversight of policy development across the entire government, was active in carrying Australian foreign policy, and “was ultimately responsible for making sure that every political brush fire … was put out”. All true, concedes, Keating, yet “rote toil could never amount to inspiration or perspicacity”.
There is much more of this kind of thing: the insults fly thick and fast. “In brutal intellectual terms,” Keating claims, Hawke could have managed only “a PhD in ordinariness”. He was “a
Inside the Hawke Keating Government pathological narcissist”. Over the Gulf War, he was “the little general, a faux reincarnation of Billy Hughes”. When a few days after he became prime minister Keating met George Bush Sr in Australia, he “made it an intellectual event rather than a golf game with a bit of formal chat tacked on”. By this stage, there are no prizes for guessing which particular prime ministerial golfer Keating might have in mind.
To be fair to Keating, he has suffered more than a few provocations from Hawke through the years, and no one could seriously deny his central role in the reform of the Australian economy in the 1980s and early 90s. His claims about Hawke’s performances also clearly have some foundation in reality. Hawke did enter a particularly difficult period in his personal and professional life during 1984 and 1985. His daughter Rosslyn had a heroin addiction, leading to his weeping in front of the visiting Malaysian prime minister as well as later, at a press conference and during a radio interview. He copped an eyeful of glass after being hit by a cricket ball while batting in a “friendly” game against some journalists. He performed poorly in the long campaign that preceded the 1984 election, and Labor lost seats.
There was also the MX missile affair following the election, not mentioned by O’Brien or Keating, in which Hawke had to back out of a commitment to allow American rockets to be tested off the coast of Australia in the face of a party revolt. That was a painful humiliation for an intensely pro-US leader. Finally, there was the national tax summit of 1985, when he had to abandon the government’s preference for a consumption tax due to union, business and welfare sector opposition. His relationship with Keating, more gung-ho for the tax than Hawke, would never fully recover. Nor would Hawke ever quite recover the magic of 1983; but, given his stellar popularity in that early period of his prime ministership, it would surely be absurd to imagine he might have.
Keating’s potshots at Hawke, the complaints about his gruelling hours as treasurer and Hawke’s lack of recognition of his efforts, the
Paul Keating at
Keating and Bob Hawke in 1987, far left, and 2007, left; below, Keating at the launch of Gareth Evans’s book,