Kerry O’Brien’s bi­og­ra­phy of Paul Keat­ing should be a text­book for stu­dents of po­lit­i­cal psy­chol­ogy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Sydney’s Baranga­roo

Keat­ing and Bob Hawke in 1987, far left, and 2007, left; be­low, Keat­ing at the launch of Gareth Evans’s book,

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