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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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