The Wheeler Centre
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It was the prime ministerial event we had to have. On this special Sunday evening presentation, Paul Keating joined Robert Manne for a conversational marathon, coinciding with the publication of his post-prime ministerial speeches. From art to literature to music, from indigenous issues to economics and politics to his continuing vision for a better Australia, their discussion was laden with the flair and turn of phrase you’d expect from our most quotable public figure.
Beginning the conversation, Manne asks Keating to elaborate on what Tony Blair claimed — fifteen years later, according to Keating — as his ‘third way’, balancing an efficient economy with ‘things that matter socially’ rather than choosing one or the other. In quick succession, Keating runs through the industrial agenda of the Labor Party, the fate of his superannuation policies under John Howard’s subsequent government, and that same government’s repealing of social wage reforms, demonstrating ‘a kind of viciousness’.
Discussion turns to Keating’s predecessor and close colleague Bob Hawke. ‘We fell out in the end because he stopped doing the hard stuff he didn’t want to do any more’, Keating explains, citing the turning point of their partnership as being the end of the ‘reform period’ in 1989, when Hawke became ‘no more use’ to him. (Later, Keating mentions Hawke’s reluctance on legislative land rights reform as far back as 1984.)
Another colleague mentioned often throughout the evening is former ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty, whom Keating credits as a key ally in his wage reforms.
The former PM elucidates the rate crisis leading up to what he now infamously labelled ‘the recession we had to have’, noting how he couldn’t instruct the ‘truly independent central bank’ he wished to engineer to lower rates.
Manne raises the Keating cultural vision for which his prime ministership ‘will probably be noted by historians’ once the work of economic reform, completed ‘in the nick of time’, had largely been addressed. Keating’s hopes beyond the 1996 election had included deepening indigenous reconciliation, he says. (At this point, he also begins to mention, for the first time of many through the event, his desire to strengthen connections between Australia and Asia.)
1992’s landmark Mabo decision was ‘very important and great’, Keating continues, describing how he ‘hocked the government on native title’. Further, he introduced broader social measures which extended beyond native title (which he characterises as a ‘material response to colonial dispossession’): namely his social justice package, the land fund to buy back pastoral leases and the children in custody Royal Commission.
Asked why Australia hasn’t accepted the ‘simple truth’ about the injustice of the dispossession, Keating responds that he’s never understood why this fact has been such an affront to conservative Australia. ‘History is not an affront,’ he says, dismissing those who refuse to acknowledge it.
‘The thing about the conservatives of Australia: you’ve got to drag them all the time to everything,’ he goes on, citing Medicare and superannuation, and — with a glimmer of his famed wit — declaring Howard a ‘shellback’. ‘I just needed more time,’ he says of the 1996 election defeat. ‘If I’d had another year, I would have done him. What I did every other day was tread on him, you know?’
Pressed further by Manne, he talks about political correctness and the challenges which faced his big picture vision of 1996, arguing that the ‘rats and barnacles’ of the Canberra press gallery became bored with the reform agenda. This sentiment caused him to generally ignore the media between 1993-6, something in hindsight he admits he should not have done.
Once Howard took office, Keating laments, Australia’s moral compass was lost: and it remains to be recovered. Indeed, it requires an exorcism, he argues, pointing to the absurdity of the race debate in the face of global economic dominance by non-Europeans. ‘It’s sick, sick, sick… this is truly sick.’
Kokoda and Gallipoli both occupy strong symbolic places in Australia’s wartime memory, and Keating has always attended more diligently to the former. He describes his understandings of the two conflicts and what each represents about Australia’s place in the world, broadening his argument to describe nationalism and patriotism, and the effect each has had on the national psyche.
On the state of his party today, he opines that ‘Labor hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story.’ What the party does well is manage transitions, and he sees an opportunity for it now as the region and the world adjust to the dominance of China and other emergent powers, again emphasising his message that ‘Australia must find our security in Asia, not from Asia’.
Of course, Keating is appearing to talk about his book, After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches. The core of the book, he explains, is ‘about the world’ — not parochial conversation — as he outlines the central ideas of the work.
Finally, the capacity crowd is allowed to ask questions of Keating, and they ask him about his ‘unfinished revolution’ and what Australia needs to do now, the odds of him returning to politics (his ‘dash capability’ is spent, he retorts), the role of reciprocity in Asia and his advice for Simon Crean’s National Cultural Policy (Keating explains why music trumps the visual arts, setting the audience off in waves of amusement).
And, when asked how social media can help politicians respond to what the public wants, Keating invokes the late Steve Jobs, arguing that a politician’s job is to give the public what it needs and not necessarily what it wants: and emphasising via the tech entrepreneur’s approach that people don’t always know in advance what they want or need.
‘The key ingredient in public life,’ he offers, ‘is imagination.’