Where the majority of Paul Keating’s recent public pronouncements have been excoriations of other politicians (in the tradition of those flamboyant parliamentary smackdowns), Keating — an interview series that debuted on the ABC last night — is a wide-ranging exploration of his life, times, obsessions and motivations.
It covered the first thirty-odd years of Keating’s life. It made me feel like a prodigious wastrel. And it seems a little ridiculous that this was merely the first instalment of four.
There was a decent amount of soft focus in last night’s series premiere, but — perhaps unsurprisingly — it was light on actual revelation (beyond the take-home point that Keating is looking properly elderly these days). It was the only character study that a man of such unremitting self-possession would ever allow, and as such we learned only what he would have us know.
Kerry O’Brien did an exemplary job, but there was no question of who was in charge: The really interesting stuff was in the omissions, the dead-bat responses, and the tell-tale twinkle in the eye, as high-minded Keating revealed, at times unwittingly, a relish for the dirty work of politics.
In roughly chronological order, though, the key Keating characteristics revealed were thus:
Keating described his upbringing in Bankstown, “the land of the fibro house”, with no small nostalgia. He saved his mistiest reminiscences, though, for his mother and grandmother. On his mother: “Like a lot of women born in the twenties – suffered the Depression, then the Second World War – they never got their shot at life, really.”
From a guy who, let’s be honest, relished being an utter jerk at times, the following tribute was revealing, and rather moving:
My grandmother and my mother invested a ton of love in me…I walked around with that grandmotherly and motherly love, and it gives you that inner confidence…you go through the fire, but you don’t get burned, because someone loves you – you are complete… When you’ve gotta get the sword out for real combat, have a love quotient working for you is very, very powerful.
On his father’s sudden death at 60? “You never get over it, but you don’t want to get over it. There is a place for sadness and melancholy … we don’t want to be sparkling and happy all the time … we need the inner sadness. It’s what rounds you out.”
O’Brien: Why were you interested in learning about power at 18?
Keating: That’s the business I had decided I wanted to be in.
In case you didn’t already know it, Keating is ruthless. He overcame fierce, passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive opposition from the Labor’s left faction to win preselection in his home seat of Blaxland. Throughout his career he sought the advice of powerful men at the end of theirs, reasoning that “people at the end of their careers give you an honest summation of what they’ve found.”
On O’Brien’s implication that branch-stacking was rife in the campaign for Blaxland, Keating almost-conceded, with a glint in his eye: “It’s a matter of whether they stay … Most of the people who joined the party in my day stayed for their lives.”
Throughout, you got the sense that power, not politics, was Keating’s true vocation: that he wanted the world not only to know his name, but to be shaped by his hand.
O’Brien pointed out that being an avowed lover of classical music would have made life difficult for a young aspiring politician from the working class. In his smirking acknowledgement, though, you got the sense that the young Keating was too enamoured of his self-image as a man apart to be playing it beige. Ditto the Jaguar E-Type he drove to party meetings, and the pocket watch that cost three months’ wages for a fifteen-year-old clerk.
Keating spent his whole career as the younger, more ambitious, better-dressed man among his peers and rivals, and you get the sense that he was happy for them to know that he knew it: an angry opponent is a rash opponent, and Keating could push buttons with his mere being.
On The Eternal, And The Arts
The one and only dandy of Australian politics, Keating’s thoughts on art, design and music were always going to be intriguing. On his noted love affair with classical music, he had this to say: “Our DNA is wired for music. What the great composers know is how to play with us. Classical music opens up a vista.”
He is one of the rare politicians who views the arts as holding a central place in Australian culture: “I always thought the arts were central to a country. Anyone that has had an emotional connection to the arts gets that. Anyone that hasn’t, doesn’t.”
As a lover of the arts, I did a little fist-pump at that quote — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was drawing something fundamentally different from the music that so took him. I would never have thought that someone of such earthly obsessions – the will to power – would appreciate, let alone seek, the possibilities of the transcendental.
Keating’s view of that connection became clear in the following exchange, regarding the ‘Arcadian period’ that followed the French Revolution:
Keating: If you’re looking for something, look for that which is most perfect.
O’Brien: And yet democracy is the practice of the deeply imperfect. I mean, the concept of democracy is great, but…you’re searching for perfection as a politician, in what is a fundamentally imperfect art.
Keating: I always believed that you have to have, in these more revolutionary – the reconstruction of the Australian economy was a revolutionary phase – you have to have an anchor…where is Arcadia? Where is the distilled time?…There’s no such thing as the ideal (in politics), but it’s a useful guide.
And he’s a big Tom Jones fan. “I always loved star power. Jones was the greatest individual artist of my lifetime.”
On Old Labor
Probably the most depressing aspect of the whole was Keating’s summation of his early years in the Labor party: “It was a civil war…around the future of the party: would we ever see…an electable federal moderate Labor party again? [But] it did train you in combat.”
The caucus he entered in 1969 was utterly riven between the left and right factions. “They’d talk to Liberals before they’d talk to each other,” he says. Eerily familiar, huh? His will to power long having taken root, you got the sense that this was when Keating’s political philosophy truly began to crystallise. In the caucus he entered, “people were interested in the Vietnam War…Aboriginal affairs, social security. Not much interest in treasury matters – you wouldn’t find anyone interested in minerals and energy.”
Keating shared Rex Connor’s interest in “the wealth machinery of the country”, and he became noted for seeking out old bureaucrats in his efforts to “work out how all the organs function”. Basically, he was still studying power, and coming to the conclusion that if Labor wanted to drag Australia out of the “Menzies torpor”, private investment and proper exploitation of Australia’s mineral wealth had to come before even the most admirable social agenda.
On the subject of his wife Annita, from whom he is now separated, Keating attempted to draw up the boomgate. But love, tenderness, guilt, regret all flashed across his face. This was the one passage in which O’Brien truly dictated proceedings.
O’Brien: She’s a beautiful, sophisticated globetrotting woman from Europe. Suddenly she’s in suburban Bankstown, alone a lot of the time, with the children when they come along. Do you think you realised what you were asking of her?
Keating: Well, it was tough, and ah, no. I probably didn’t realise quite what it would be like.
This is what the dags and the tragics were waiting for. Keating had a front-row seat at the most dramatic political event in Australian history: The Dismissal.
He was far from complimentary on Gough’s tenure, noting that it was “the old Labor party again, the confusion of ways and means”, blighted by “the incapacity to run the budget” and “the tearaway level of government spending.”
But in spite of his misgivings about Gough the politician, Keating was quick to align himself with Gough the symbol, handing Whitlam the megaphone for his famous ‘God Save The Queen’ speech – he knew a martyr when he saw one.
Keating was visibly seething when the question of the dismissal arose.
A lot of ministers took it in their stride…but what had happened to him was a coup. Clear as day…illegal, a coup…This kind of exercise of reserve powers is not a matter for the High Court…I knew that the blade had been lowered.
Of course, when I briefly raised the idea that we should arrest this guy, it was met with complete derision. They’re just dead lucky that I wasn’t Prime Minister, because even I wouldn’t have known what would have happened, but it wouldn’t have been to take it lightly.
Go watch it on iView now, and bring on round two — which lands at 8.30pm on Tuesday November 19, on ABC1.
-Edward Sharp-Paul is a freelance writer and drink-pourer from Melbourne, who has written for FasterLouder, Mess+Noise, Beat and The Brag. Follow him on Twitter @e_sharppaul.