Skip to content

Paul Keating on Mabo, John Howard and ‘Bunyip Lawyers’

Read Friday, 23 Oct 2015

Last night in Melbourne, we presented an extended discussion between Paul Keating and master interviewer Kerry O’Brien. The result was a fast-moving conversation that dove into Keating’s relationships with US leaders, British monarchs and their silverware; the pleasures of acupuncture and classical music; Keating’s assessments of past and present Liberal leaders; the need for a treaty with Australia’s Aboriginal nations; and the former prime minister’s evaluations of his own political legacy.

We’ve collected some of Keating’s illuminating and florid observations from the night.

Share this content

On why he hasn’t (yet) written his own autobiography:

‘Writing your own story is a bit pathetic … and the other thing is, you know, it’s so subjective. Biographies are so subjective … and they have to be, because you see it from a certain direction. So therefore, this book is more real, because I’m getting prodded by a professional prodder.’


On the push for a republic:

‘No great country can be a derivative society.’


On his meeting with the Queen, at Balmoral Castle in 1993:

‘When I told her, with all the love I could muster, we didn’t need her anymore, she said, “I could do with a stiff drink.”’

On Mabo:

‘The blacks were always sold out, always sold out … and I was never going to sell them out. I used to say to my office, we’ll never do any good with the blacks until we own up to it all. Until all the tricky words are swept under the carpet. So when I made [the Redfern] speech, I said: “We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We took the children from their mothers. We did the murders.” … The country had to come clean. To wash away the stain, we had to at least acknowledge the dispossession, and our brutality in doing it.’

On constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, and the need for a treaty:

‘If you had been here 40,000 years, would you be happy with an amendment to a law written by … bunyip lawyers in the 1900s? We need to acknowledge the dispossession that we did – and form a treaty with Aboriginal Australia.’ 

On the state of indigenous reconciliation in New Zealand:

‘New Zealand’s done this much better than we’ve ever done it … Australia will be stronger and better when we take a much larger composite of Aboriginal identity into Australian identity. We will not just be a European enclave in Asia, we’ll have a stronger identity.’


On the greatest challenge facing Turnbull:

‘Shifting [the Liberal Party] from the right to the centre. You can’t be a reasonable person running a fundamentally unreasonable party … and Malcolm is a reasonable person.’

On whether Keating believes Turnbull has changed over the years he has known him:

I think Malcolm Turnbull’s defeat at the hands of Abbott five years ago has made … Turnbull a better leader now than he would have been five years ago.

On Howard – and the challenges involved in taking on three opposition leaders in quick succession:

‘I just didn’t have the time [before the 1996 federal election ] to tear him to bits.’

On what Keating believed to be the press gallery’s tendency to repeat Howard’s assertions as fact in the lead-up to the 1996 election:

‘If Howard says he’s a wombat, is he a wombat or is he John Howard?’

On the question of whether, ultimately, Keating respects Howard:

‘He was a little suburban white picket fence racist … [but] what I liked about Howard was he had to work his way through the Liberal party. He actually believed the things he believed. I mean, none of the things I believed, mostly – some things I believed in common with him – but … I always thought Australia could be an open, competitive, cosmopolitan republic integrated into Asia. John never believed any of that, you know? He wanted the old derivative model. You go back to the United States or you go back to Britain and Whitehall, you know, so … he and I never agreed on the policy, but he was a battler, a parliamentary battler. And I had more time for him than I did for a lot of other Liberal leaders I reckon never had his commitment to public service. I don’t doubt at all Howard’s commitment to public service. It was just of a Menzian Australia, a small Australia, you know, a constrained little dimunitive Australia.’

On the importance of the arts:

Without the fantasy, without the dreaming – to be just a deducer – is way not good enough.

On his approach to policy while he was in office:

I had to go for the big ones.

Coming soon, we’ll share video of this event in Broadcasts; meanwhile, listen to it on the Wheeler Centre podcast.

Stay up to date with our upcoming events and special announcements by subscribing to the Wheeler Centre's mailing list.

View our privacy policy
Acknowledgment of Country

The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.