View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Keating, on life, politics, and the day he suggested arresting the Governor-General

Former prime minister Paul Keating: ‘There is a place for sadness and melancholy.’ Image provided by the ABC

National politics has moved on a long way but it’s the familiar Paul Keating - pugnacious, brooding, reflective, funny - who bursts through in the first of a series of interviews with the ABC’s Kerry O'Brien.

As O'Brien says, the former prime minister has written no autobiography. These interviews, done in his Sydney office – the room and its contents testament to his artistic taste as well as his political career - are something of a substitute, as well as an important exercise in oral history.

We see glimpses of the political scrapper, proud of his battle scars, still bearing some grudges. Equally on display is the sentimental figure, casting back to the deep, nurturing love that flowed from his grandmother and mother and became his “asbestos suit”.

Keating had been a junior minister a matter of weeks when the Whitlam government was sacked by Governor-General John Kerr on November 11 1975.

“I just briefly raised the idea that we should arrest this guy, lock him up”, he says, adding that “of course it was just met with complete derision” from colleagues.

Gough Whitlam, he thinks, went too quietly when the “coup” was mounted. “Gough was a legal, constitutional kind of guy. … I knew that the blade had been lowered, that this was a coup.

A still from Kerry O'Brien’s interview with Paul Keating. Image provided by the ABC

"They are just dead lucky that I wasn’t the Prime Minister, because even I wouldn’t have known what would happen – but it wouldn’t have been to take it lying down”.

Much of this initial discussion – there are four programs in the series, which starts on Tuesday night - is about his early life, and its influence on him for later years, especially the role of his mother and grandmother who “invested a ton of love in me”.

“If someone puts you on a pedestal – and the big pedestal builder first was my grandmother – something sticks with you all your life.” He recently went to his grandmother’s grave “because I thought, there is the person who most believed in me.

"You’ve got to go through life with someone thinking you’re special. You know, when you’ve got to get the sword out for real combat, I think having the sort of love quotient working for you is very powerful.”

This grandmotherly and motherly love “radiates for you and gives you that kind of inner confidence. It’s almost like wearing that asbestos suit – you go through the fire but you’re not going to be burned because someone loves you, you are complete, you are together.”

His father, who began as a tradesman and then started a business with two others making concrete machines, was a “sweet-hearted guy” who “didn’t believe in the conflict model at all … whereas Mum would be into the conflict” – she was “an absolute killer”.

His father died suddenly at the age of 60. He’d walked down the street to put a bet on the races and “he died sitting on the side of the road”. Keating was washing the car when someone came along looking for his father’s house. It was a decade before be could even talk about it. “It’s always with me. You kind of never get over it. But you never want to get over it. There is a place for sadness and melancholy.

"We don’t want to be sparkling and happy all the time. You need the inner life, the inner sadness. It is what fills you out”.

One of young Keating’s heroes was the legendary Labor figure Jack Lang, a firebrand who had been sacked as NSW premier by the governor (and had considered arresting the governor). Keating recalls his visits to the old man twice a week for about seven years. Lang was very formal and called him Mr Keating, even though he was only 18.

He remembers Lang saying: “Mr Keating, you’ll never be anyone until you have a reasonable stock of enemies”.

“It is just so true … And of course having enemies worries some people; for me, it is a badge of honour. I don’t care about it – it has never worried me that a group of people would have not a bar of me”.

A young Paul Keating in 1979. Wikimedia commons

Asked why at 18 he was so interested in power, he says, “Because that was the business I’d then determined I wanted to be in”.

Keating - who had been elected to Parliament in 1969 - describes his first ministerial meeting in 1975 as “a bag of fun.”

“There was a long dissertation by [minister Kep] Enderby … I saw Gough grimacing, annoyed, and finally it gets the better of him and he says, ‘Enderby, you garrulous so and so, when will you shut up?’ And Enderby says, ‘What, me?’ And he says, ‘Yes, you!’ And Gordon Bryant, another minister, says ‘you shouldn’t speak to him like that.’ And he says, ‘You shut up’. ‘Don’t speak to me like that either’, said Bryant back.”

The interviews, revealing, meaty and provocative if the first is a guide, will probably set off a round of “Keating wars”. His admirers will love to see their man in fine verbal fettle, feisty as ever. The detractors will have new fuel to stir old fires.

Listen to Senator Sam Dastyari on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.