Yes, inspired by the musical of the same name. And the recent revival of interest (triggered by the four Kerry O’Brien interviews) in Paul Keating’s time in the political sun.
Keating’s tenure was the last time I was actively proud of a Prime Minister of ours. Certainly he was hugely egotistical, abrasive at times, and as with so many intelligent people overly dismissive of those of lesser intellect. I know now that there’s no credit to be taken for having high intelligence, any more than the colour of hair or eyes – it’s just an accident of birth and upbringing. What matters is what you do with it. I was often the smartest kid in my class, but only got average results because I coasted on it rather than working hard. But he did what he judged was right for the country, and did not bend to the political winds.
There’s a story which illustrates his breadth and depth of interests well; he visited Berlin after the reunification, as of course did many world leaders. The Mayor greeted him in an official reception, and showed him plans and models of the projected rebuilding scheme. Keating amazing him by whipping out his own annotated copies of those same plans, over which he had been poring for some time, and diving into a deep discussion of the architectural and town planning merits of different approaches to city-building and reconstruction.
I am conflicted though, because in a way I blame Keating for John Howard PM and all the ills that fell to us through that. Let me explain.
Keating won the “unwinnable” 1993 election by efficiently demolishing his opponent John Hewson’s programme of politics. Keating utterly dominated Hewson in Parliament. Amazingly despite having championed a GST himself just years before, he was able to run a successful scare campaign against Hewson’s proposed GST and won through. But he failed to draw the right lesson from the unexpected win; I believe his ego did not allow him to recognise that he hadn’t won through the superiority of policy and leadership and intellect (Hewson was probably just as intelligent, but in a more academic and less street-smart way) but through hitting the electorate’s hip-pocket nerve – in fact his own tenure as Treasurer and then Prime Minister triggered a substantial degree of public education in economics and he was able to use that against Hewson. People may not have liked Keating but they believed he knew what he was talking about, economically. But he started to believe the myth of his own political and economic genius, and especially that that would be enough for future battles as it was for the past ones. He didn’t so much win the election as provoke Hewson into losing it.
Then came John Howard. His election as opposition leader was seen as an act of desperation by the Liberals, who had voted him in as leader and then out twice before – Lazarus with a triple-bypass, as he was known at the time. Keating underestimated his old/new opponent, and like a general who fights the last war not the current one, treated him just like he treated Hewson, assuming the same outcome. But he never got under Howard’s skin like he did Hewson’s, and worse than that he failed to realise it and change his tactics. This went on to the extent that he declared his last election (1996) as a referendum on Leadership – which would have suited him if it were true, but all it did is remind people of how much they hated his leadership style. He was, for people, wearing thin, and he needed to re-invent himself. In essence he went to the well once too often.
He couldn’t get under Howard’s skin because, I believe, it was too thick. I know little about Howard’s childhood but if I were a betting man I would wager real money that he was bullied for his unprepossessing manner, nerdish appearance and hearing disability. Awful as a childhood like that is (as I know) it hardens one to bullying in your adulthood, and that’s essentially what Keating was trying to do – break Howard by intimidation and confrontation. But (unlike me) Howard took this in his stride and it made him all the more determined to stand his ground. Keating needed to find some other way to get to Howard, but failed and we ended up with 12 years of debilitating class warfare, middle- and upper-class welfare, splurging of budgetary surpluses on tax cuts for everyone except those who needed them, and an uneven and inflexible GST. Family ‘benefits’, baby bonuses, bailing out his own brother’s failing company from public funds, involvement in two illegal and unnecessary wars, Pauline Hanson and One Nation, a cynically manipulated referendum on the issue of an Australian Republic, and the dudding of the world’s newest and poorest state Timor Leste of their rights to oil and gas in the Timor Sea.
The one beneficial policy that Howard put through was the restrictions on gun sales and ownership after the Port Arthur massacre early in his first term. Indeed I think it’s fair to say that only a right-wing PM could have implemented what would normally be thought to be a left-wing policy, in the same way that perhaps only Ariel Sharon could have got Israel and the settlers out of Gaza.
That aside Howard was a tragedy for Australian society, economics, diplomacy, poor and disempowered, and especially the Aborigines. After the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke/Keating governments real social progress had been made against discrimination and making public racism unacceptable. Had Keating defeated Howard in 1996 Howard was finished for all time, and we would have had most likely 6 or more years of similar such progress, making 30 years or a whole generation. But we had only 24 years and so fell just short, and Howard’s shameful dog-whistle tacit approval of Hanson’s vile xenophobia rewound the whole painful process back to pre-Whitlam years.
So, much as I admire Keating’s economic management, leadership, intellect and breadth of interests, like General Montgomery and his WWII Market-Garden airborne operation he fell one bridge short of breaking through to clear ground and utterly defeating those who we must eventually end up defeating anyway; it will just take longer and cost more than it needed to.