James Walter reviews 'Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader' by Troy Bramston

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 that account. There is new material upon which to reflect, a valuable fleshing out of decisions, policies, and events, but there are no startling revelations that would cause one to revise the Keating life history. Still, this is a book with considerable virtues.

Its daunting length is offset with manageable sub-sections within chapters, providing logical reading breaks which nonetheless connect fluently with subsequent sections. Bramston’s capacity for clear narrative exposition maintains one’s engagement. His work is unusually well-informed, the product of diligent and intelligent research. It is enormously comprehensive, with a level of detail that no previous work on Keating has achieved. It has the advantage, granted to few, of Keating’s cooperation. It provides a deep history of the federal parliamentary Labor Party of Keating’s time, of caucus and cabinet, and of virtually every major policy issue with which he was concerned. It amply justifies the contention that Keating was a remarkable politician and a formidable leader whose boldness has rarely been matched. This is the best biography of Keating yet produced, and arguably the best single source for those needing an insight into this subject. This is indispensable reading, then, but with caveats.

Bramston is, he concedes, a ‘broadly favourable’ biographer. This does not prevent him from considering the views of those who disagreed with, or even hated, Keating. Hence the book rightly registers many of the arguments and questions that others have raised about such an intensely committed policy activist – not only the reform breakthroughs, but also the corrosive aggression, and the unforeseen consequences of, and (sometimes) the collateral damage from, the changes he wrought. Yet, in the main, Bramston comes down on Keating’s side: setbacks were, on this account, rarely a product of Keating’s decisions, but of incorrect Treasury figures, implementation failure, or the bastardry of others.

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Published in March 2017, no. 389

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