The Shadow of Paul Keating

Maxim Salvador Otten-kamp

Since 1996 Australian politics have languished in the shadow of a single man, and the era he ushered in. All the leaders who followed him have been held up to the same standard as a man who never finished high school and never attended university. This is not to say he does not have detractors, but they are overshadowed by his popularity. Now, this is not to say his legacy is not well earned – the shadow he casts is not from an enormous metaphorical statue. Paul Keating had a sense of youth and vibrancy which he brought to his time in government in the highest office. He had a deep passion, and the citizen of Australia were never unsure of where he stood. In regards to his economic and social reforms, Paul Keating defined the last 30 years of Australian political positioning – so too with his stances on encroachment with China, opening the economy and pushing for complete Australian independence.

When Keating won the 1993 unwinnable election, he scared the nation against change, and this was change that arguably would have been bad for the country. However, this was not the Keating strategy: his was to say the transformation of Australia by the Liberal Party was wrong, but the change of the Labor right was correct. Our case concerns the FightBack! document of that year and how it outlined the Liberal Party’s doctrine for the next 26 years. Fightback outlined a series of extreme cuts to all levels of government and at least a sense of a return of social conservatism. All Paul Keating had to do was not rock the boat too severely and scare the Australian people against changing paths. This is the classic argument from power: the party was elected on a certain platform, so why should they work to change the status quo against their original propositions? It is the job of the opposition to push an alternate vision no matter how poorly received or conceived it may be: that is their role – and if anything, the Fight Back document was this alternative. In many ways Fight Back was a change – but a reactionary change, a call-back to a time that never existed and to a time that could never be in the modern world.

We look at the modern politics of Australia and our state of Queensland, and we wonder why the name of the game is slow and steady wins the race? Because that is what has worked for decades now. The parties would adopt different tactics if they felt most Australians wanted massive change, at least if the majority did. There is also another aspect to be considered here: the old guard of parties maintain power over time, especially the ALP. I would attempt to give some analysis of the Liberal-National coalition, but that party do not represent a profound shift in this country besides being conservative business lobbyists. So, the ALP being the vessel of change in this country has seen attempts not to follow this status quo. When Mark Latham ran in the 2004 election, he opted for a far smaller target strategy than that of Kim Beazley, the long-term opposition leader. Then, with Kevin Rudd, he worked with a small target strategy, but it felt different to the electorate, enough that the election victory soared through. There was a sense of change in the air, in the same vein as Barack Obama’s election. It is also worth noting that these two leaders can also be paralleled in that they both represented significant progress and yet did not deliver, either from timidity, or through Third Way posturing until their governments were made immobile or thrown out.

It would be wrong to not admit my personal bias, and suggest that it was not all bad under our Third Way overlords. There were significant pushes for environmental protections, action on Climate change, Education and Health reform. These centre-left governments did make headway in significant areas, but their rule was not the big change that their supporters had hoped for. It was a return to the previous government of the 90s. That style, by the late 2000s, had already become adequate in an ever-increasingly radical world. The Rudd-Gillard governments were relatively moderate entities that pushed some decent policy without a long-term agenda for the nation, then let us pick up from 1996. In some ways, they accomplished this, but they failed to adapt to a newly a-temporal Australia, in that they rejected the very force that had them elected: observing the minor push back against government policies, and steadfastly adhering to propaganda networks sent them into a tailspin. This is most obviously demonstrated by the removal of Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010 – and this is not to say Rudd was a radical of any sort. The party elders merely feared that he was, and that he could cost them an election. I would, however, hypothesise that he was also removed partially due to his erratic nature of policy announcement and grandiose rhetoric. Much like how the lesson from the government under Gough Whitlam was not to try too much too quickly, this too was too much for the Australian public. Despite Gillard being on the left side of the party it was Rudd’s faction that brought him under.

I know this article is meant to be about Paul Keating and his influence on our politics, but we seem to have strayed from any discussion of Paul John Keating. He has appeared in the public sphere several times in the last few years, particularly in his music (which I would recommend giving a good hot go) but also in 2013: when Rudd returned and toppled Gillard, and called an election, whom should he invite to chat? Not Whitlam, whom he admired most, not Hawke, beloved by the country, but Keating, a Prime minister who won an election on fear. What was 2013 election about? Fear. The fear of cuts and the chaos of the Abbott government. And as we were to discover, this fear was not without foundation – leadership challenges, an explosion of debt, massive cuts, and many other gaffes. This year, Bill Shorten again called Keating back into action to appear at his campaign launch, where he made a series of comments that were not necessarily wrong, suggesting primarily that the security agencies’ responses to Chinese influence were somewhat overblown. If Keating is treated as the ultimate authority and all discussion is directed back to him, our national conversation is being held back. It seems that every time he opens his mouth the entire national conversation must return and respond to this one man.

Paul Keating was the neo-liberal treasurer of the 80s, and the prime minister of the 90s. But his brand of neo-liberalism must be defined clearly: it was not like his contemporaries in the UK, USA, Russia or China. This was the slow, pragmatic, progressive pushing of a non-academic candidate who touted what became a successful model of social progress mixed with economic liberalism. Tony Blair saw the Australian experiment and hoped to replicate it accordingly. Recently, however, Keating decided to reveal his thoughts on the current situation facing our nation, which were typical Keating: Australia, as the nation we are, should not rock the boat too much. The Americans’ belligerent reaction to the rise of China is one we can placate through economic cooperation, avoiding military confrontation. This follows the recent comments he made about China during the federal election, and essentially the same story told in the 90s.

Keating, even taking his positive qualities into account, is of his time, and has to be left in the past. He once said that Australia is a ‘weak outfit’ in terms of becoming a republic: “I mean, we are not going to take our republic, we are going to wait till the old lady dies or leaves,” he said. “Of course the next day King Charles and Queen Camilla will be there. And of course, they’ll say, `Let’s give the new bloke a go.” His own situation is the same: we don’t want to take his crown while he’s still kicking. We will just wait until he dies and then laud his (likely mediocre) replacement.

This is not to point the finger at Paul Keating for all the woes put upon Australia. One man can only have so much influence. He had a vision for this country becoming a republic, and something greater than we were. However, that vision must change with the times. The mentality of Keating and his peers, which has influenced a generation of Labor and Australian politics, needs to go away for us to move forward. Paul Keating is 75 years old, and he left office over 20 years ago! Yet his shadow looms large over this great nation. We do not have to diminish his legacy to say it is time for new thinking and to change our ways before it is too late.

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