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Paul Keating

Paul Keating has been much written about; his trajectory is familiar. His is a story of leadership and the exercise of power, about a man who led from the front and – like Gough Whitlam – was willing to ‘crash through or crash’ when following his convictions. No prime minister since has displayed a similar propensity. Troy Bramston’s biography conforms to ...

Paul Keating continues to fascinate. Influential commentators such as Paul Kelly and George Megalogenis now celebrate the golden age of policy reform in which he was central, while lamenting the policy desert of recent years. Still, it is not enough: Keating, the master storyteller, wants to control the narrative of his legacy. Yet he professes disdain for biography ...

Paul Keating has an enduring allure. He has been out of politics since 1996, yet in the past year or so we have seen the ABC screen an unprecedented series of four one-hour interviews with him by an unusually respectful Kerry O’Brien; a book of his sayings still sells well, his speeches and pronouncements receive wide publicity, and now historian David Day has giv ...

Gough Whitlam was fond of replying to requests for interviews from historians by saying that all the answers could be found in the archives. ‘Go to the documents, comrade’, was his refrain. However, official documents rarely tell the whole story, particularly those from the modern era, whose authors are conscious that their words could so easily be exposed to public scrutiny. In particular, they are usually bereft of the innermost thoughts and motivations of the politicians and public servants. By contrast, politicians’ diaries can be goldmines. Written contemporaneously, an unguarded diary entry can transform our understanding of people and events.

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As of writing, Australia has six living ex-prime ministers – not quite a record. Of these, one, of course, is still in parliamentary harness, and may still aspire to the top job. Of the remaining five, all but one have provided us with voluminous accounts of their stewardship. The exception is our twenty-fourth prime minister, Paul Keating (1991–96). Not that he has not promised, or rather threatened, such an account, telling his great rival Bob Hawke, ‘if I get around to writing a book, and I might, I will be telling the truth; the whole truth ... [of] how lucky you were to have me to drive the government during your down years, leaving you with the credit for much of the success’. One can imagine how his publishers must salivate at the prospect.

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Don Watson sits low in his chair, shy and silent when faced with a group of university administrators gathered to hear him talk about management speak – those weasel words that Watson has hunted down with grim enthusiasm. He speaks hesitantly at first, struggling to recall examples of misleading expression, evasive phrases, dishonest communication. Soon the rhythm quickens. There is indignation now in the voice, derision anew at the decay of public language. The speaker rocks forward, ranging more widely as he explains the link between thought and expression. Jargon hides intentions. Clichés abandon serious engagement with an issue. This is not the pedant’s obsession with grammar, but anger when the contest of ideas is undermined by impenetrable language.

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What is it about Paul Keating that so fascinated his retainers? Six years ago, John Edwards wrote a massive biography-cum-memoir taking Keating’s story to 1993. Now Don Watson has produced an even heftier tome. Narrower in chronological span – 1992 to 1996 – Watson is broader in his interests, more personal, more passionate ...

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From Fraser to Hawke by Brian Head and Allan Patience & The Hawke–Keating Hijack by Dean Jaensch

October 1989, no. 115

The debate about the costs and limitations of power is as old as the ALP, but it has been given new urgency by the changes in the Party since Labor won government in 1983. So far this year, three books have been published which deal wholly or in part with the Hawke government’s relationship with the traditions of the Australian Labor Party: Carol Johnson’s The Labor Legacy, Graham Maddox’s The Hawke Government and Labor Tradition and now Dean Jaensch’s The Hawke–Keating Hijack: The ALP in transition.

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This book has drawn comment from press gallery journalists that the author’s background as a finance writer has led to weaknesses in its political analysis. The political sections, however, strike this reader as every bit up to the standard of the press gallery contributions on the subject, and, indeed, add some useful detail on Paul Keating’s early years, which were devoted with such unswerving dedication to entering parliament at the age of twenty-five. Both the gallery and Carew agree that Keating is an outstanding politician and enormously successful treasurer. While it is not always fair to lament that a book is different from the one you might have preferred to read – the author’s task is hard enough as it is – I would have hoped that the economic issues would have been explored with a much broader brush.

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