When Mr Keating Came to Town

Just a quick note, on current matters.

Paul Keating will be feeling pleased with himself. He’s managed to distress a number of luvvies, media and otherwise, with his remarks at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday. He even got a reprimand from the prime minister for daring to say that diplomacy was about rather more than handing out money. Foreign minister Penny Wong and deputy prime minister Richard Marles are hardly tender flowers. They’ll survive an assault with any number of French empire clocks.

Naturally, being PJK, he went too far with his illiberal rhetoric. But he’s always done that. It’s part of his innate charm. He does have a way of focusing attention on the game rather than the run of play. That’s an important part of his value, not only as a statesman but also as a Labor grandee. The media in particular, which found itself in his sights at the NPC on this occasion, is guilty of following the run of play in politics. Who said what to whom and about whom always interests the gallery. I’m not sure the punters feel quite the same way about it.

Anyway, in the spirit of the moment, I offer a vignette from my now distant past that puts a rather different complexion on Keating’s complexities, if you will.

Thirty years ago, when PJK was selling his super plan and I was writing editorials for The Courier-Mail in Queensland, he took a dislike to the line the paper’s editorials were taking. An aside: in those distant days, when The Courier-Mail was worth its capital T and was a broadsheet newspaper of record, it published reasoned, analytical editorials, at length.

Anyway, one day we got word that Keating was coming to see us. We all knew why, and we hastily got together an editorial and management group that he could tell himself was worth speaking to.

And speak he did, in the boardroom annexe, he from a chair set in front of a semi-circle of others, in which we sat. It was, from memory, a thirty-minute lecture on the unquestionable benefits of Keating Super. He made a good argument, though he evaded the question of what would happen to his super market if the economy crashed in years to come. Not going to happen, was the PJK line on that.

It was lovely, at the end. No one had spoken a word, except of course the man himself. He suddenly said, “Have I convinced you?” He was looking at me because he knew I wrote the editorials. No one said a word. Eventually, to keep things moving (I had an editorial to write), I said, “No.”

I like to think that he looked disappointed, though I don’t think he was. He was merely irritated. He stood up, followed a heel-click later by his travelling aides who had hurriedly gathered up their papers, and began to walk out.

We followed him, a double crocodile file, and waved him off in his limousine.

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