Paul Keating, Master Storyteller
“This year two thirds of all world growth has come out of the developing economies. And we think we can have a debate about the circumstances of someone’s birth and their complexion and how they look. I mean, it’s sick, sick, sick. It’s truly sick.” Paul Keating’s recent conversation with Robert Manne at the Melbourne Recital Centre revealed a man still passionate about the value of conviction politics. It also allowed a born political storyteller space to tell his stories - and there were several major themes.
In classic Keating gladiatorial form, the former Prime Minister reiterated his belief that, were the federal electoral cycle four years rather than three years, he would have beaten John Howard in 1996. “I just needed more time,” he told Robert Manne. Keating blames a Royal Commission involving Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia that took up most of 1995 - at the time he called the commission a political stunt. “By the time I got on to Howard, I had him a blithering wreck … He didn’t know whether he was coming or going. If I’d had another year I would have done to him what I did every other day, was tread on him. He never got on top of him in the polls … and I would have massacred him in 1996 if I’d had another year, but I didn’t have the time. I just didn’t have the time.”
On the issue of illegal refugees, Keating berated the ALP for not having the courage of its convictions. “One of the primary duties of a Prime Minister is to protect a country from prejudice,” he says. At the time of Tampa, Keating recalls having advised the then Labor leader and opposition leader Kim Beazley that the ALP couldn’t hope to outflank Howard’s conservative reaction: “The Labor Party should have stood its ground.” This leads Manne onto the topic of the Labor Party’s mixed fortunes since Keating. He asks, has Labor lost its way? “Labor hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story,” Keating replies. “This is another transition. This is perhaps the biggest transition in 300 years. This is the transition to the establishment of China’s position of primacy again in the international system. A change in the way the world works, from West to East. And … here we are, a primary exporter to this.” The Labor Party, he adds, should be “constructing a story of transition”. The transition “should also be a cultural one”, he says, and thus Keating comes to the tagline that made the papers the next day: Australia should derive its security in Asia, not from Asia.
This is Keating’s biggest theme, one he returns to repeatedly in the course of the conversation. The rise of China is the great story of our generation. “All great states claim strategic space. And if you don’t give it to them they take it.” Keating warns that refusing to accord China the strategic space it demands may lead to catastrophic results. “Accommodating China a new construct is … the most important thing facing Australia.”
Keating concludes his Wheeler Centre appearance with another classic aphorism that summed up his political fortunes: “You don’t necessarily give the public back what the public wants. You give them what the public needs. If you give them too much of it they get sick of you.”