KEATING AND THE BATTLE HYMN OF HIS REPUBLIC
In 'Keating - the Inside Story', John Edwards confides
that on Thursday May 28th 1992, six weeks after I'd grabbed the
Federal seat of Wills in a by-election brought about by Paul Keating's
triumph over Bob Hawke, union leaders George Campbell and Anna Booth
were seated in the Cabinet Room pleading with the Prime Minister
to introduce a pause on tariff cuts or face the prospect of more
'independents like ... Phil Cleary'. Keating was unmoved.
My turn to savour the Keating fare came a couple of months later
when ALP Minister and Hawke supporter, Nick Bolkus, escorted me
to the Oval Office for 'a meeting with the Boss'.
As the upgraded 'A True Believer' by Michael Gordon, and the Edwards
tale confirm, once the Bankstown Boy had fought his way to policy
triumph, only opportunism or expediency could shake the faith. Although
Keating's economic recipe was outlined - drink coasters, fountain
pens and disparate inanimate objects simulating the tenets of the
economic gospel according to Paul - in perfunctory style that day
in his office, an evangelical undertone was unmistakable. It was
However unlike David Williamson and Tom Keneally, who Gordon says
left a private Keating lecture 'convinced the economy was in the
very best of hands', my experience in the backblocks of Wills left
'It's no good walking the back corridors with Ted Mack [the Independent
for North Sydney]. You've got to be part of the main game. It's
not what's in your heart that counts, the fact that you've got a
heart is all that matters to me,' Keating had said, clasping my
hand as I prepared to depart.
The story of his father's inability to convince an 'f... officious
bank manager' to lend him the money to expand his concrete mixing
business into Asia, recounted in classic New South Wales Right idiom,
was riveting. That's why you deregulated the financial markets,
I thought. I was to learn that this tendency to develop homespun
theory from everyday practice was a Keating trademark.
From 1992 to 1996 I watched Keating smother the Opposition in a welter of invective diced with tongue-in-cheek, good-natured street humour. All the while I tried to reconcile the rhetoric darting across the Chamber with the economic rationalist policies the True Believer and his eventual enemy, R J Hawke, had blithely promulgated over the previous decade. The sale of the State and Commonwealth Banks, flogging off Qantas, the deregulation of Australia Post, the destruction of manufacturing jobs in the old heartlands and their replacement by job-training and casualisation of work, the duplicitous attack on John Howard's decision to part-sell Telstra when Paul Keating would have done more, were Labor sins there for all to see.
By contrast, when Keating took on the racists and charlatans on
Mabo he was as passionate as anyone I'd seen and as articulate on
technical matters of land law as any QC in the country. At the War
Memorial his ode to the uncelebrated, amidst a speech which debunked
the deceitful history of the war mongers and affirmed what had traditionally
been the preside of the Left, was probably 'as good as it gets'.
I remember Joan Kirner saying to me, 'You and he will get on well.
You're both Black Irish'. At the War Memorial and Redfern and in
his exchanges with the graziers and the Anglophiles who mythologised
the world of Bob Menzies, Keating was just as Joan had said. For
much of the rest, the exquisite rhetoric, the provocative finger-pointing
and the twinkle in the eye couldn't camouflage the deception.
Myopic homilies to unbridled and distorted free trade to a symphony of comical slogans - 'exports are going gangbusters', 'imports of capital goods are driving the economy', 'four quarters of growth, you illiterate', and the like - and a seeming inability to grasp the fact that APEC and the Republic couldn't hold a candle to one family's struggle for economic security in the heartlands, were part of the problem. At the War Memorial Keating's attention to the uncelebrated was quintessential. Sometimes however it was abysmal.
Michael Gordon's blow-by-blow, journalistic-style account of Keating
blazing his trail and John Edwards' less racy study of the man and
the triumph of his economic credo should be read, less for what
they say about where Paul Keating placed Australia in relation to
the world, than for their exposure of the tawdry and ego-driven
world of Parliamentary politics. About Keating's role, neither is
But it's John Edwards who could be stamped a catspaw for the Keating
economic model. His line on tariffs and the alleged inefficiency
of government enterprise has the familiar ring of the Treasury mandarins
whose abstract models rarely stood the test of the real world, yet
were treated with as much reverence by the PM as an Empire clock.
Regrettably, the real 'big picture', not the 'big picture' according
to P J Keating, is easily lost in the minutiae of power struggles
and factional deals and character studies.
Paul Keating was not only limited by the extent to which he could
carry the electorate, but by external factors such as the global
economy's tendency to diminish national economic and cultural sovereignty.
Spruiking for the arts and a piano-playing mate was a far cry from
protecting a way of life, cultural or economic, from the hegemonic
forces of the USA. To hold the middle ground Paul Keating, Labor
Prime Minister, was forced to sell off the holy ground then find
a set of slogans and modernistic jargon to justify the heresy.
These books are entertaining, but they don't tell us why certain
character types, Whitlam and Fraser, Hawke/Keating, and a Howard,
alternate at the helm of a sinking way of life. Nor do they address
the question of why it is always Labor Prime Ministers, Curtin -
national unity and the emotional severance of the ties with Britain
for the new imperial power America, Whitlam - tariff cuts, and Keating
- the Accord, labour market deregulation, and the destruction of
jobs in the interest of globalisation - who are afforded the role
of renovating the system only to be sent packing when the job is
Paul Keating has renovated Australia, now the Liberal Party prepares
to tighten the screws. Why is it so? Sounds like the title for a
PHILIP CLEARY 23 August, 1996
Phil Cleary was the Independent Member for Wills from 1992 to
1996. His book, "Cleary Independent" was published 1998.
SUNDAY AGE 1/9/96
REVIEW OF 'A TRUE BELIEVER' by Michael Gordon'
and THE INSIDE STORY' by John Edwards