The Great Performer

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

BOOK REVIEW

KEATING by Kerry O’Brien. 2015. Allen & Unwin, Sydney. ISBN 978 1 76011 1625.

 

Many Australian journalists have a Keating tale to tell. Not all of them are denizens present or past of the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra, though naturally that was the former treasurer’s and prime minister’s chief stamping ground.

It was a privilege to be on the receiving end of a Keating harangue. He was – is – a driven man, certain of his verities, adamant that his blueprints were the only way to go. And in truth, he was perhaps the best reforming treasurer Australia has ever had; as prime minister he was less spectacular and came to a sticky end, but he deserved the gig when he was finally to persuade the Labor caucus that it was time to chisel away the ancient, concrete-hard chewy by which Bob Hawke had fixed himself to the leader’s chair.

Those of us who only had visiting rights to the Canberra gallery – the visiting fireman trips we used to make for special occasions, such as one or other of Keating’s budgets – and therefore a closer acquaintance with the world outside the febrile Capital Hill environment were less often in his sights.

But there’s one incident that I treasure. It was when he was prime minister, during the 1993 federal election campaign in which he saw off the hapless Hewson, and he had been having trouble with the editorials in The Courier-Mail. (This was when The Courier-Mail was a responsible broadsheet newspaper.)

The editorials had been asking questions about the sustainability of the Keating matrix for market-based superannuation. The question in chief was what would happen to people’s super when the market crashed, in, say, 25 years.

(In fact the editorial writer’s timeframe was slightly out of sync. The market crashed well short of the quarter century and we’re all still paying the price now.)

Keating arrived at The Courier-Mail’s offices one day, at very short notice. A group was hastily gathered together to listen to the prime ministerial lecture (I called it the Wigging Group when then chief executive John Cowley rang me up to say I’d better be there, since I’d been writing the editorials.)

We sat in a sort of acolyte semicircle in the boardroom annex and were harangued non-stop for 45 minutes. Towards the end, Keating fixed us with a trademark Question Time stare and said, “Do you agree with me now?”

No one from mahogany row or the loftiest peaks of the editorial domain said a word. But he knew it was me who had been writing the disgraceful things that so signally failed to acknowledge the future paradise of which he so lyrically spoke. So I stepped up to the plate. “No,” I said.

He looked displeased – well, he would, and one of his minders made a note to this or that effect – and shortly after he left, escorted back to the big glass doors and his white limo by a shambling, informally disorganized crocodile of executives. Cowley said to me in a stage whisper – we were two back in the crocodile, possibly just out of earshot – “He doesn’t like your editorials…”

It is a priceless vignette from my life as a scribe: a never to be forgotten moment.

Kerry O’Brien’s book naturally covers a much wider field of anecdote and policymaking. It is an engaging read, especially perhaps for readers who know both the protagonist and his interlocutor. It’s drawn from a wide reading of Keating’s archives and other sources, and is in Q&A style.

O’Brien sets the scene for each new chapter, and asks the questions. Keating responds, often at length, sometimes less so. He is engagingly honest in much of what he says, sometimes brutally. In some of his responses, he is a little more opaque. He is devastating on Bob Hawke, reasonably dismissive of Peter Walsh, kinder to many than one might expect or even think is warranted, and amusingly direct on some of the international leaders he corralled into his prototype APEC.

A picture emerges of the Keating you thought you knew – and are delighted to find that it is the Keating you actually did know. He was always an inclusive, pleasant host – in my case only rarely, since I was Brisbane based and only occasionally within a thread-length of the Zegna suit – and a genuinely nice man.

He was (still is) the consummate politician. He was a killer in Question Time, but he always valued the forms and principles of parliament. He was never a warrior in the class sense, or a hater. You do what you think is right, or what you must, but away from the battle, you’re a normal person.

Well, perhaps a slightly abnormal one. Not so many modern politicians embrace fine arts and ancient clockwork in quite the way that Keating does.

O’Brien’s book, and the photographic collection it contains, reveal the political animal, but also allow us glimpses of the man behind the carefully constructed public image.

Keating’s legacy lies in the open Australia that he created – financially, the finest of his political elements – and in the invitation that he has left on the table, for us all, to view Australia outside the parochial prism that politics and constrained public empathies continue to mandate.