Reviewed by Michael Sexton

Paul Keating:  The Big-Picture Leader By Troy Bramston,

  • Publisher: Scribe 2016
  • ISBN (13):9781925321746
  • RRP $49.99 (hb)

In 1986 I was one of the 99 delegates to the ALP National Conference in Hobart as a member of the NSW group. On the last night of the conference a number of the NSW delegates met for a drink in one of the rooms of the Wrest Point Casino where the conference had been held. At one point Paul Keating made a speech that was filmed by an ABC Four Corners unit. It was making a program about the conference that was broadcast the following week.

I took no notice at the time but, when the program went to air, I could be seen for a few seconds standing in a corner of the room. Quite a number of people in the Labor Party, whom I had known for many years, simply stopped speaking to me.  They saw Keating as a devil figure who was intent on destroying all the party’s traditions. Only a few years later, when he was Prime Minister, the same people adopted Keating as a hero and still accord him that status. This was something of a lesson in the vagaries of human behaviour but it is also an illustration of the strong passions that Keating stirred both inside and outside the Labor Party over his political career.

This political career began when Keating won pre-selection for the safe Labor seat of Blaxland in late 1968 at the age of 24. Bramston’s account of the pre-selection is exhaustive and reminiscent of Robert Caro’s extraordinary detailed account of Lyndon Johnson’s victory in the 1948 Senate race in Texas. As in the case of Johnson’s success, there have been allegations then and since that Keating did not have a majority of the votes but, in this case, he was awarded the victory by the Labor administration in New South Wales. The truth is that most Labor pre-selections then and now are contests in who can break the most rules and get away with it and it can be assumed that Blaxland was no different.

In any event, Keating arrived in Canberra in October 1969 after an election where Labor made up enormous ground from its crushing defeat of 1966 but still remained in opposition as it had been for 20 years. Dick Klugman, who was elected at the same time as the member for Prospect, used to tell the story of how the new NSW members were addressed by Whitlam who remarked what a good thing it was that some professional men – Klugman was a doctor – were coming into the Parliament instead of the usual ignorant Irish Catholics from NSW Labor. As an Irish Catholic, Keating was no doubt bemused.

Keating was the youngest member of the parliament and he was a young man in a hurry. When the Whitlam government came to office in December 1972, he stood for election to the ministry and just missed out on the last vacancy. When the government was re-elected in May 1974 he stood again for the ministry but did not come so close. Keating was finally elected to the ministry in October 1975, as Minister for Northern Australia – 21 days before the government was dismissed.

The great saga of Labor’s next seven and a half years in opposition was, of course, the struggle between Hayden and Hawke for the leadership and the book gives a graphic account of this conflict. Hayden was largely deprived of his opportunity to become Prime Minister by a vote of the Caucus in June 1977 when Whitlam defeated Hayden in a leadership ballot by two votes. Keating voted for Hayden but Whitlam’s utterly irresponsible and selfish behaviour in clinging on to the leadership meant that the election result in 1977 was the same as for 1975. Although Hayden went close to winning in 1980 and would have done so in 1983, he was forced out of the leadership by Hawke on the day that the 1983 election was called.

Keating had spent almost all the opposition period as shadow minister for resources and energy but shortly before the 1983 election he became shadow Treasurer and then the Treasurer in the new government. As the book makes clear, the relationship between Hawke and Keating, although often convivial in the early years, was bound to end in tears. Keating thought he had got to where he was by more than 20 years of bloody conflicts whereas, in his mind, Hawke had been handed on a silver platter the post of ACTU presidency, a seat in Parliament and then the Labor leadership. Hawke, on the other hand, considered that he had always been destined to be Labor leader and would always remain the party’s best prospect for winning any given election. As the government continued in office and Keating saw himself as its major player, he became increasingly impatient to assume its leadership and pressed Hawke to name his departure date.

One of the earliest clashes between these two prima donnas occurred at the national taxation summit in July 1985 when Hawke failed to support Keating’s proposal for a broad-based consumption tax. Keating regarded this as a public humiliation and never forgave Hawke for it.  This was an example of a failed economic reform but, in comparison with the do-nothing Fraser period, the Hawke-Keating years did remove some of the long-standing irrationalities in the Australian economy and did so in the context of serious efforts to prevent budget blow-outs. To a large extent, these trends continued in the Howard years but have largely stopped since that time.

Keating’s greatest failure as an economic manager was the extraordinary rise in interest rates in the late 1980s when the cash rate reached 18 per cent in November 1989 and the standard variable mortgage rate 17 per cent, with many business loans over 20 per cent. In these circumstances, it was quite a feat for the government to be re-elected, albeit narrowly, at the election in March 1990. In December 1991, Keating finally forced Hawke out of the party leadership, although by a very small margin in the final vote, to become Prime Minister. All of these events are described by Bramston in meticulous detail so that the book is one of the most complete records available of Australian political history over the period of Keating’s career.

In the election of March 1993, the government increased its share of the two-party-preferred vote and gained two seats. This was a rather remarkable result after ten years in office and appeared to be a product of the Liberals’ GST proposal and, in a foretaste of the July 2016 election, doubts raised by Labor about the Liberals’ commitment to Medicare.

This last period of government featured a number of Keating’s agendas – engagement with Asia, movement towards a republic and legislative recognition of native title.  But when the next election arrived, in March 1996, the government had been in office for 13 years and the Coalition received 53.6 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote – a landslide result in Australian terms.

Except perhaps for Whitlam, Keating seems to have struck the greatest chord with members and supporters of the Labor Party amongst the leaders of the post-war years. His combination of passion, invective self-confidence and personal warmth made him an unusually attractive character to those on the Labor side of politics, although Hawke certainly had greater popularity in the general community.

Bramston has skilfully captured this volatile mix of talents and produced a work that will remain the last word on its subject for a long time to come.

Michael Sexton SC is the NSW Solicitor General