Keating: interviews for the true believers

The full story of the Keating years – and their aftermath – is both far more complex and contentious than the man himself would have us believe in his ABC interviews. AAP/David Crosling

The ABC’s four-part series of interviews with Paul Keating, which has just finished airing, displayed the former prime minister and treasurer in all his complexity, both at his best and at his worst. This is a man who could describe painting his big picture of the nation’s future while “high as a kite” from listening to three or four symphonies.

In another moment, Keating would describe telling a staffer what he (figuratively) planned to do to John Howard:

I’m going to put an axe right in his chest and rip his ribs apart.

No wonder Keating continues to be such a polarising figure, although the interviews suggest that he seems singularly unconcerned about his detractors’ opinions. Keating is convinced that he made a difference. He used the interviews as a platform to make his case that he changed the course of Australian history for the better.

Love him or loathe him, the Keating interviews portray a highly accomplished political leader who still has the ability to cut through, even allowing for skilful editing. Contemporary Labor voters will be wishing that Wayne Swan had half the ability Keating still does to explain complex economic ideas simply, clearly and in language that grips.

Labor voters might wish for today’s MPs to have the same turn of phrase as Keating. AAP/Lukas Coch

Indeed, Keating suggests that the wheels partly came off his government when subsequent treasurers were unable to sell key economic policy ideas. Keating argues that his achievement lay in not just implementing economic changes, but in being able to sell them. Admittedly, Keating’s task was made easier than Swan’s by the fact the Liberals supported many of his key economic rationalist reforms.

Keating appears to have no doubts that his economic agenda was the correct one and set Australia up for a prosperous future. Interviewer Kerry O’Brien’s polite but skilful probing of any inconsistencies in this narrative fails to shake his certainty.

For example, faced with a question regarding the cost of internationalisation policies to those workers in areas such as manufacturing, clothing and footwear who lost their jobs through tariff cuts and other measures, Keating has no hesitation in asserting that they found new jobs in the services sector within weeks and were much better off for doing so.

There is no recognition of those workers who failed to be re-employed, who lost skilled employment and long-standing work-based identities, or who ended up swapping full-time jobs in manufacturing for ones in the service sector where work was uncertain and casualised.

Nor does Keating’s account of reorganising industrial relations by encouraging enterprise bargaining allow for the fact that many workers felt forced to make excessive concessions in enterprise bargaining and that that legacy, coupled with a history of past real wage cuts in a time of increasing profits, had cost Labor dearly at the 1996 election (as at least one ALP report of the time made clear).

Yet, Keating also claims to have a “Labor heart”. He talks movingly of the role that his government’s Working Nation policy – with its introduction of individual case management – played in getting some unemployed workers back into jobs. He rightly points out that this was one Keating government policy (of many) that Tony Blair’s British Labour government took over.

Keating depicts himself as being on the side of labour rather than those with power and capital – as a leader who wanted to lift the 95% and not the 5% – and remained confident that his economic policies would work.

Therefore, Keating’s favoured tale is a heroic one of how he created a model for Labor that would get labour and capital in sync so that labour could become the locomotive of an economic restructuring that would increase the size of the economic pie for all. It was an economic narrative in which, according to Keating’s highly contentious account, Bob Hawke played at most a bit part.

Having weathered the recession he claimed we “had to have”, and having got the economy ticking over “like a Swiss watch”, Keating says that he then moved on to fix Australia’s image of itself, to seize the initiative of a leader and “paint” a “new horizon”. He argues that Australia needed a different identity, one that was efficient, competitive, open, cosmopolitan and signalling its desire to be better integrated into the Asian region.

This was also a postcolonial identity – one based on becoming a republic and reconciling with its indigenous people; and an identity that recognised Kokoda rather than the imperial war of Gallipoli. It was a brave vision and one that, as Keating admits, burned political capital. Many still prefer Keating’s vision to Howard’s so-called history and culture wars, but it was Howard who won, and his influence is still apparent in the Abbott government.

Keating finishes the interviews with a call to engage with Asia. He argues that the most important issue currently facing Australia is a “psychological” one of Australia’s relationship with Asia. We are adjacent to the fastest-growing part of the world and we need to embrace being “in it”.

The Keating interviews were absolutely riveting television for political junkies. However, there was not much new in them. The economic narratives and narratives about Australia’s identity were well articulated in speeches Keating gave during his time in office.

Similarly, his call to engage with Asia was made many times while prime minister and in a book that he wrote after leaving office. The jousting with Bob Hawke over their respective contributions to reforming the Australian economy is an old one.

The Keating interviews were another chance for the former treasurer to ‘one-up’ the prime minister he served, Bob Hawke. AAP/Paul Miller

Nor is there any sustained reconsideration of the downsides as well as the benefits of his agenda. To put it delicately, Keating is not a self-reflective man. There are issues that could have been addressed in more depth. These include not only acknowledging the downsides for some workers of economic restructuring and of real wage cuts that have already been alluded to, they also include debates over just how much the Keating government’s economic reforms contributed to Australia’s subsequent prosperity.

Keating’s embrace of free market policies also posed problems for Labor’s larger narrative. After all, the more social democratic governments rely on market-based mechanisms, the more they undermine one of their traditional rationales: ameliorating the inequities of market capitalism. Similarly, as both he and subsequent Labor prime ministers found, the more Labor justifies fiscal conservatism, the harder it then becomes to justify budget deficits in times of global capitalist downturn.

Keating was well ahead of his time amongst Western leaders in recognising that the economics and geopolitics of the world would shift to the Asian region. While he was absolutely correct to identify the potential benefits of that shift for Australia, he has always underestimated the potential challenges.

For example, Keating, like his Labor successors as prime minister, has long emphasised the benefits that will come from Australia being able to sell services to the massively expanding Asian middle classes.

However, Keating tends to overlook the extent to which highly skilled white-collar jobs, in areas ranging from graphic design to architecture and accounting and legal work, are being outsourced to English-speaking Asian workers in countries such as India and the Philippines, where cost structures are cheaper. The very new information technology that Keating championed is facilitating this.

In short, it won’t just be workers in manufacturing or clothing and footwear who will face competition from Asian countries, but also in the broad service industries that Labor sees as Australia’s salvation.

Nonetheless, Keating tells a compelling story. As he says in the interviews, all contemporary political leaders eventually get “carried out”, but the issue is what trail you have blazed and with how much “elan”.

Keating certainly passes the “elan” test. Many would agree that he left an impressive trail for others to follow, with even Liberal politicians praising his internationalisation of the Australian economy despite criticising other aspects of his economic management.

However, the full story of the Keating years – and their aftermath – is both far more complex and more contentious than Keating would have us believe. These were interviews for the “true believers” indeed.