Australian Books

Bankstown lefty

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

For Paul Keating, there have always been two kinds of politics: ‘high tone’ and ‘low rent’. High tone was to be embraced and promoted. Low rent was simply to be dismissed.

One incident from the early 1980s demonstrates these sharp differences graphically. At the time, Keating, as party president, was chairing a meeting of the NSW ALP Administrative Committee in Sussex Street. Disgruntled, at one corner of the table, sat John Morris, a trade union baron nicknamed ‘The Alligator’, for his insatiable appetite for spoils. Morris and his Liquor Trades Union had fallen out with the dominant Right faction and he had now assumed the role of populist critic of the party machine.

Suddenly, tired of Morris’s complaints and sniping, Keating turned on him.

‘O, what can ail thee Knight at Arms, Alone and palely loitering?’ Keating asked.

Morris was taken aback, not recognising Keats’ poetry. His response was to claim that he was now happy since he was no longer being ‘blindly led’. ‘No, John’, Keating replied with a chilling lethality, ‘in those days you were being blindly fed’.

Much laughter ensued. Morris was eviscerated, dismissed as a low rent character of little consequence.

Troy Bramston’s sweeping new biography of the former Prime Minister and Treasurer, Paul Keating: The Big Picture Leader, captures the essence of the young man from Bankstown who rose to be Australia’s most driven reforming policymaker. In crafting this authoritative biography, Bramston again cements his reputation as a first class Australian political historian. This book is definitive.

Among Bramston’s earlier efforts are The Dismissal (with Paul Kelly), The Whitlam Legacy (ed) and The Wran Era (ed). In all these earlier books, Bramston demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of the politics and politicians of the times. In particular, his ability to chart the eddying currents of the dark pools of the ALP have been rivalled only by writers of the calibre of Fin Crisp, David Day or Ross McMullin.

Paul Keating not only understood the culture of the Labor Party. He mastered it. In so doing, he emerged as a highly successful treasurer and PM (1983-1996) during the longest and most productive period of Labor Government in our nation’s history. From the liberalisation of the Australian economy, which opened Australia up through to policy interventions internationally such as the creation of APEC, Keating was a decisive advocate for visionary policy shifts. Indeed, it is hard to imagine John Howard and Peter Costello being able to deliver policy change without the extraordinary application and success of both PM Bob Hawke in the chair, delivering electoral endorsement and Keating, first as treasurer, then later as PM in his own right, breaking open the ground.

The road to the Lodge for Keating, however, was neither straight nor certain. But he always maintained that if a person entered political life then ‘you have to want it with every fibre in your body’. This applied absolutely to the Labor leadership and the Prime Ministership.

Bramston sketches the Keating journey: the influence of family, especially parents Matt and Min; the tutoring of ‘The Big Fella’ (Jack Lang); the impact of church and De La Salle schooling on the young Catholic lad; all of which led inexorably into active membership of the ALP.

As ALP Youth Council President, Keating was organisationally efficient and ruthless in the exercise of power. In one celebrated episode he expelled an opponent from the Youth Council by fiat from the Chair.

Lessons learned and inspired by figures as diverse as Lang and Winston Churchill, the young MEU official, eschewing a career as a rock and roll impresario, ran for ALP selection in 1968 as the candidate for Blaxland, winning at age 25, in a controversial ballot. Bramston argues persuasively:

Although young, he did not want to bide his time. He paid little attention to political precedent, less to convention, and believed that respect for authority had to be earned, not expected. Keating wanted to make his mark on Australian politics. The Labor caucus in Canberra were about to meet what one veteran member would soon call ‘a political killer’.

Keating’s parliamentary progress saw him arrive in the Whitlam Ministry in October 1975, filling a vacancy brought on by the fall of his mentor, Rex ‘The Strangler’ Connor. Weeks later, the dismissal ended Keating’s brief experience on the front bench as Minister for Northern Australia.

But he continued to grow and to learn, passionate about politics but also the arts. A close observer of Malcolm Fraser as PM, Keating was always contemptuous of the Coalition’s failure to modernise Australia economically, particularly in the 1950s to ‘60s, remaining content to ‘bag some wheat and bale some wool’.

Keating also grew as NSW ALP President, taking on the job reluctantly after an exhausted John ‘Brother’ Ducker retired. This brought Keating directly into conflict with the pestilential nuisance of the Inner City Left in Labor’s ranks.

Keating was at his amusing best:

The Balmain Lefties were all in good restaurants quaffing wine till 3.30 in the afternoon. That’s what always galled me. ….They can find a reason to be opposed to all forms of enterprise. In the end I said what it boils down to is wider nature strips, more trees, and we’ll all make wicker baskets in Balmain.

The original of that memorable quote is actually much tougher, involving Lefties eating their own …. But the picture is clear.

Bramston has written a sympathetic but convincingly detailed biography of Keating. His chapters on the Hawke Government and the challenges to Bob Hawke as PM are among the best accounts of those years for their intricacy and clarity. Above all, what is demonstrated is just how tough the politics of major reform can be and how tough the primary reformers must be.

Like Kerry O’Brien before him, Bramston has been discreetly seduced by Keating’s voluminous and annotated press clippings and by the mesmerising Keating narrative, told with both wit and wisdom.

This aside, Bramston has produced an indelible portrait of Australia’s most original and creative PM, setting a thoughtful new benchmark in Australian biography.

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