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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The Man Who Took Chances

Two new assessments of the Paul Keating years

By Derek Parker


PAUL KEATING ONCE ASKED his staff to write a "haughty" speech, when he actually meant "statesmanlike." That comment was revealing, since Australia's former prime minister had a pretty high opinion of himself. Keating liked to think he was a history-making figure, shaping his country's destiny and rectifying ancient wrongs. He didn't have much of a chance to do either. After four years in office, the voters kicked him out and installed John Howard, a man who thinks of himself more as an ordinary bloke.

The former PM has largely retreated from public life, and the assessments have begun. A good place to begin is Keating: The Inside Story (Penguin, 594 pages, $A19.95, paperback). John Edwards traces Keating's life from Sydney's "Irishtown" to his election at 25 as one of the youngest members of Parliament. The heart of the book covers his years as treasurer (finance minister) and prime minister. Edwards was once a close adviser, but even he cannot disguise the distance that grew into a chasm between his boss and mainstream Australians.

For example, Keating promoted Australia's engagement with Asia, as if he had personally discovered the place. But his main motivation seemed to be a desire to rub shoulders with world leaders, such as Indonesia's President Suharto. He never adequately explained the benefits of a closer relationship to the Australian people themselves. In many ways his well-known obsession with Asia was odd, since this collector of antique French clocks often seemed more inclined personally toward Europe. He once famously described Asia as "what you fly over on the way to Paris."

When Keating became prime minister, replacing his former mentor Bob Hawke in a bitter party room battle, he did not have much of an agenda. He wanted the top job because he felt he deserved it, and his Labor Party colleagues elected him because they believed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that he would be able to win the 1993 election. Ironically, the central issue in that election was the opposition Liberal Party's proposal to introduce a consumption tax, a policy that Keating had unsuccessfully promoted a few years before.

But then Keating never seemed to be bothered by such inconsistencies. In the early years of his tenure as treasurer, for example, he excoriated the opposition in his inimical style for its proposal to privatize government-owned enterprises. Yet, as a leading cabinet minister, he later supervised the sale of key government assets, such as the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas. And he claimed these successes as major triumphs of the Hawke administration.

Perhaps because so much of his energy was spent on pointless political squabbles, Keating did not seem to achieve much during his years as premier. He undertook a series of expensive, grandly-titled social and economic initiatives, but they did not amount to much. He promoted the idea of Australia becoming a republic and of reconciliation between white and aboriginal Australians, but his tactics made reasoned debate impossible. Many republicans think that their cause was harmed by his strident advocacy.

Keating will likely be remembered more for his time (1983-1991) as treasurer. Edwards recounts in some detail how he set about deregulating Australia's hidebound financial system and opening the economy. While Hawke was often overly cautious, Keating was willing to take chances. He cut government spending to bring the country's books into balance and pushed the powerful trade unions into halting a damaging spiral of wage and price increases.

Paul Keating: True Believer (University of Queensland Press, 380 pages, A$29.95, paperback) by journalist Michael Gordon, is a more impressionistic book, but it essentially takes a similarly sympathetic view of the subject. For most of his career, Keating was well-liked by Canberra's political journalists, although some of the ardor cooled after 1994, when they began to seriously question some of his policies, and the premier directed some of his famous venom, usually reserved for hapless members of the opposition benches, on them.

Gordon and Edwards basically accept Keating's self-serving explanation for the Labor Party's crushing defeat in 1996, namely that the party had been in office for 13 years, and the electorate thought it was time for a change. This misses the point. It was not the passage of time but Keating's personality that was the real issue. The voters had come to loathe the way in which Keating ruthlessly employed the tactics of division. People on his side were "true believers;" those who opposed him, "scumbags" or "swill."

Had Keating simply run out of energy and self-discipline by the time he reached the top job? Perhaps, though the truth is more likely that his strength and weaknesses were two sides of the same coin. The characteristics needed for national leadership are not the same as that required by a bully-boy parliamentary debater or economic reformer. To the extent that he caused Australians to lose faith in the basic decency of their political system, Keating probably did more damage to his country than good.

-- Parker was a speechwriter (1989-1990) for former Liberal Party leader Andrew Peacock


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