A new biography reinforces Paul Keating’s seminal place in Australian history, while acknowledging the intense debate over the merits of his leadership, writes James Curran
Alone among recent Australian prime ministers, with the exception perhaps of Gough Whitlam and John Howard, Paul Keating has kept a keen eye on how his time in office is being recorded for posterity. Much like his hero Winston Churchill, having made history he now seeks to command the writing of it as well. The wartime British PM attempted this by classifying every document that crossed his desk in No 10 as his personal property, thus giving him exclusive access to the material that would sustain the production of his bestselling history of World War II.
Keating’s approach is different but there are similarities. His office in Sydney’s Potts Point is by all accounts an archival shrine, a tabernacle in which the scriptures of the “big picture” are meticulously preserved and maintained. The records are jealously guarded, drip-fed only to the chosen few.
Steadfast in his refusal to write a memoir, Keating also has turned down repeated requests from potential chroniclers of his life and times — until now. The significance of Troy Bramston’s new biography, Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader, is that it is the first by an individual not from inside the Keating bunker, and it is the first with which Keating has co-operated, even if not fully.
Putting aside David Day’s biography last year, pulped after a legal dispute, and Kerry O’Brien’s bloated collection of appreciative interviews with Keating, the two most substantial works have been from former staff members, economist John Edwards and speechwriter Don Watson. Edwards argued Keating’s greatest achievements were as treasurer, working alongside Bob Hawke to modernise the Australian economy. Watson, on the other hand, presented the view of the “bleeding hearts” in the prime minister’s office, those who believed in revitalising the cultural soul of the nation.
The broad brush of Bramston’s narrative will be well known to the political specialists. Much of the period here has been covered by Paul Kelly in The Hawke Ascendancy, The End of Certainty and The March of Patriots, and the author also uses material from ABC TV’s Labor in Power. But his achievement is to provide a fresh account of Keating’s career.
Drawing on a wealth of new interviews with many of the key protagonists — from both sides of politics — Bramston also has diligently mined previously unseen Labor caucus minutes, Reserve Bank archives, the occasional cabinet submission, the unpublished diaries of Bob Carr and Neal Blewett, and Keating’s mostly visceral, bitter jottings on newspaper articles. The use of these materials brings verve and spark to the telling of a dramatic political life. That said, this is a deeply sympathetic, even affectionate, portrait of the man who became Australia’s 24th prime minister. Bramston has composed a hymn of praise to Keating, and while it does not shy away from some of his shortcomings, it is always quick on the draw in the defence of its subject. The result is a work that renders homage to Keating and to his ideas about leadership, power and the nation.
Keating always dreamed big. Captivated in his youth by the careers of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill, he saw his own political career unfurling on the same grand scale. His early campaigns in Blaxland self-consciously emulated those of John and Robert Kennedy; his pitch for the prime ministership lamented the nation’s lack of “one great leader” in the mould of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt; his final campaign in 1996 espoused not Labor values but his “Leadership”. If he could see no Mount Rushmore on the Australian horizon, he built his own pantheon: with room only for himself. John Curtin was a “trier”, Ben Chifley a “plodder” and Hawke a “lucky mug”, an “envious little bastard”. The country was “waiting to be led”.
But before greatness could be countenanced there was support to be won, pavements to pound, numbers to count. Keating was a bricks-and-mortar politician from the NSW Labor Right, and the first portraits of him, detailed here, depict him routinely as a “numbers man”. Blewett summed it up best: Keating was a “jugular politician” who “seizes on the man, not the issue”. His adviser Barbara Ward said Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader By Troy Bramston Scribe Publications, 786pp, $49.99 (HB) that even socialising was not for its own sake but always “for an agenda”.
There is comparatively little here, however, on what Keating thought about the world beyond the Labor branches as he climbed up the political tree. He visited the US, Canada, Papua New Guinea and Japan in the early 1970s, but we know little of what he made of these experiences. Aside from how it affected debates within the party, what did Keating think of the conflict in Vietnam, the virtual end of the Cold War in East Asia in the early 70s and Richard Nixon’s opening to China? Later in the decade, how did he think about the birth of neoliberalism in Britain and the US under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan?
This, then, is the story of one man’s all-consuming ambition and his relentless, sometimes chilling drive for power. He seemed to be, as Bill Hayden once put it, “cold blooded”. Keat- ing’s admission here that he would have placed governor-general John Kerr under house arrest following the dismissal of the Whitlam government was no reactionary fit of 70s radicalism: as prime minister he came close to authorising the military to clear a Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union-sponsored truck blockade of Parliament House.
As well as taking from his mentor Jack Lang a “capital A” version of Australian history, Keating took to heart the firebrand former NSW premier’s advice that even though he had got into parliament at the tender age of 25, in 1969, he had no time to waste. Thus, when Whitlam returned Labor to power in 1972 after 23 years in the wilderness, Keating complained about being “diddled” out of the first Whitlam ministry. Not surprisingly, some of his colleagues — many of whom had waited the best part of two decades for a ministerial berth — thought him “bumptious”. Keating would then contest, but lose, ballots for deputy leadership of the party in January 1976 and May 1977. He would have contested it again in December 1977 but Lionel Bowen had the numbers.
From this time, however, Keating always be-
Until now, Paul Keating has turned down repeated requests from potential biographers