There’s really no figure like Paul John Keating.
He reigned as Labor treasurer in the 80s and then PM until the mid 90s. For 13 years, he either set the course for a more prosperous and inclusive nation or presided over the worst recession in 60 years.
Regardless, there’s no denying PK punched way above the rest of the dull unimaginative corporatised meat sacks that largely inhabit politics. In his own words: ‘All tip and no iceberg.’
On a good day PK could take apart the opposition with comedic brilliance, and he literally has an answer for everything. For example, debating John Howard at one point was ‘Like being flogged with a warm lettuce’.
Yet challenge him on his economic policies and the answer is considered, argued with conviction and brimming with endless self-confidence.
Kerry O’Brien’s new – and first – book Keating is an extension of the ABC TV series of interviews in 2013, and puts him and his governance further under the microscope.
And while it’s full of detail, the book is an easy read and a must for any aspiring political enthusiast or anyone passionate about big socio-economic reforms in a sharp suit.
Most astute observers would know about PK’s love for antiques, classical music and the arts.
And his attention to self- image is almost unparallelled; the book reveals for example his strategy to arm himself – two suits generally – light navy for casual and dark for formal. The tie is the modifier.
Then there’s his weekly acupuncture sessions that helped invigorate him to push through policy obstacles and opposition.
Yet more than that, the book gives a sense that he was his own man, and led a blistering regime of reform that went against the grain of focus groups and even his colleagues and staff. Mabo, pressing for a republic and industrial reform are just some achievements.
He won the unwinnable 1993 election in his own right at a time where nearly a million were out of work and we had been weathering a recession. Additionally his tax promises didn’t really add up.
But it didn’t matter, because Keating told us at the time it was the ‘recession we had to have’, implying that he could fix it.
Yet by the time John Howard swept into power in 1996, it seemed he had lost interest in lecturing and educating the media, and presumably the rest of the population, on his great reforms.
As for writing the book, O’Brien says using existing material was an easier format to compile than writing anything from the ground up.
‘It was a good way to come at your first book because the structure was all there,’ he says. ‘Having him as my wellspring, as it were, was also very valuable.’
And while it’s being touted as an authorised biography owing to Keating’s involvement, it’s not a uncritical puff piece. O’Brien claims in the book’s introduction that Keating only added suggestions for better readability and didn’t interfere with what was said or written.
Q&A with KO
I was interested how hard it was to escape the influence of Keating’s charisma, charm, hypnosis and Jedi mind skills.
Kerry O’Brien: [Laughs] I had been interviewing him for decades – and over time that professional relationship deepened… No one would accuse me of going soft on him.
There are plenty of times in both the TV series and book where he answers with gritted teeth, but there’s also a comfort zone… of course, he has a great poker face.
What do you consider Australia’s lesson was in the Keating legacy – i.e. not Keating’s lesson from Australia?
KO: There were many, massive programs of economic reform while he was treasurer, including industrial relations reform.
It was very much an un-Labor-like program, and it changed the nature of the Labor movement – it was actually a neo-liberal agenda.
As a result, we became an open economy to the world with more efficient industries.
I’m by no means a Keating advocate, but I remember in the 70s – after decades of union protection – unions and factory owners were running inefficient outdated factories and had no need to invest in the future because of government assistance. He also embarked on a national identity program – the republic.
As he said, it was about ‘repointing the raft to Asia and away from Europe’. Then there was native title and Mabo…
He went against the grain on most issues. Do you think he would have lasted longer if he was more accommodating and negotiated more?
KO: To him, it wasn’t considered important how long you were there, it was what you did. Labor had won five elections in a row; four under Hawke and one on his own.
He knew the chances of winning another was unlikely, and was conscious of time ticking. He frustrated staff and colleagues with policy that wasn’t likely to win over popular opinion. For example, in 1993, he devoted eight months to shaping the Mabo legislation.
And a pattern emerges in the second half while in office, where he acknowledged he got bored with politics and the press and concentrated on policy.
He even accused the press of taking John Howard at face value. At one point he asked the gallery: ‘If John Howard said he was a wombat, would you report he was a wombat?’
Kerry O’Brien will be in conversation with Barrie Cassidy to launch Keating at the Byron Community Centre on Wednesday November 11 from 6pm