Paul Keating at 70: legacy of a Labor giant

It was an elegant cocktail affair that concluded about 9pm. The birthday boy asked his 70-odd guests not to bring gifts. The request must have come as a relief. Buying for Paul Keating - who has read everything, listened to everything and sometimes, it seems, knows everything - would be a daunting task.

There were speeches, by old friends David Morgan and Bill Kelty, and by the septuagenarian's daughter Katherine. Keating, who turns 70 on Saturday but threw his birthday party last weekend, gave a short response.

It was a ''fantastic party'', according to one guest, who describes Keating-the-friend as ''an incredibly warm person, intensely loyal, great company and incredibly funny''.

Invitees included former minister and Labor kingmaker Laurie Brereton, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, broadcaster Phillip Adams, former Keating appointee and journalist Anne Summers, former senior adviser and friend Mark Ryan, former Reserve Bank of Australia governor Bob Johnston, former Treasury secretary Ted Evans, close family members and, of course, the former prime minister's grandchildren, with whom he has always been ''besotted'', according to one friend.

''He enjoyed the night. He was in a good mood,'' said Kelty, whose speech included a story about Keating breaking the tension of a difficult wage negotiation with a video of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.

''Every political leader has a touch of fine madness.''

''I think, like anybody who has had power and exercised it, they miss it a bit. But I think he's satisfied. I think, given the magnitude of the changes he made, he doesn't look back with regret.''

Perhaps not regret. But when a man reaches his biblically allotted three score years and ten, he gets to thinking about his legacy, and it must be gratifying to Keating that, after enduring great personal unpopularity in the polls, and the froideur of his own party following his devastating electoral loss in 1996, his record of reform, imagination and combat is being given the recognition he has always believed it deserves.

''What you've got with Keating is this extraordinary combination of street fighter, vaudevillian showman and aesthete,'' said former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, who remains friendly with Keating and sees him once or twice a year.

''In American terms, it is a combination of FDR, Leonard Bernstein and Mike Tyson. Absolutely totally different roles and personalities melded together in this extraordinary figure.

''You don't see that happening more than once in your political lifetime.''

The documentary interviews Keating gave to the ABC's Kerry O'Brien, televised late last year, have led to a resurgence of interest in the man, who has never written an autobiography and insists he never will.

(''If you're any good, someone else will write about you,'' he quipped to O'Brien during a Sydney Writers' Festival conversation in 2011.)

The programs, which fascinated Labor luvvies and political junkies (and enraged some of his former colleagues), aired just before the 30th anniversary of the floating of the Australian dollar, the foundational economic reform of the Bob Hawke-Keating years.

Then, in the new year, the 1986-87 cabinet papers were released from the national archives. They told the story of Keating and Hawke's drastic reduction in government outlays, so successful that spending grew at a rate below inflation and the budget was returned to surplus in 1987-88.

The public was reminded of the Keating who urged fiscal restraint, as opposed to the recession-and-deficit guy.

This was gratifying to many in Labor, who felt Keating had been treated coldly by the party while easier, less complex heroes such as Gough Whitlam were feted at campaign launches and party conferences.

Keating's party is embracing him again. It was Labor leader Kevin Rudd who began boasting about Labor's economic reform history during the 2007 election campaign. Later, then opposition leader Tony Abbott began criticising the Gillard government by comparing it unfavourably to the reformist Hawke and Keating years. Both men were honoured guests at the Labor campaign launch in Brisbane last election (seated a diplomatic distance from one another).

Rudd, a man with a firm eye on popularity and perception, even set up a photo opportunity with himself and Keating at the latter's Potts Point office during the campaign. Keating wore ruby-red loafers and Rudd a giant smile.

Keating was asked to address the Labor caucus in December to commemorate the floating of the dollar. Afterwards, caucus members queued to be photographed with him, although there were no selfies, said Bowen. ''Caucus got a real buzz out of it,'' Bowen said. ''He was in a contemplative frame of mind. He got a standing ovation when he walked into the room.''

As for politics, Keating noted his good-looking, youthful portrait in the party room, but said he didn't miss the game. Much.

''One tires of combat, although I can still throw a punch, you know,'' Keating said.

As if we needed reminding.

During his parliamentary career, Keating's capacity for vitriol, grudge-bearing and personal abuse was remarkable, even by the heightened standards of politics. His verbal assaults in question time have become legendary. His use of language was inventive and invective-laden. He could charm, but he could also destroy.

Journalists consider it a badge of honour to have received a profanity-laden phone call from him. On occasion, he has committed his thoughts to email or fax, but oratory is his true gift, be it public or private.

After verbally abusing one former Herald journalist over a particular state politics story he disagreed with, Keating told him the conversation, such as it was, had been off the record. ''Now don't tell anyone you got a spray from Keating,'' he said. Then he softened. ''OK, you can tell your mates.''

And although Keating has been intensely private following his retirement from politics, there have been some public fights.

His role in the design of the Barangaroo redevelopment has led to new enmities and the creation of new Keatingisms, notably when he attacked Lord Mayor Clover Moore as being ''for low rise, she's for sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians without any idea of the metropolitan quality of the city''.

But his greatest hatreds are the fallout from betrayed love; in this sense, Keating is the most emotional of former leaders, a passion-chaser and a self-described ''maddie''.

In 2002, when Recollections of a Bleeding Heart by Keating's former speechwriter Don Watson was published, Keating was furious. There followed an unedifying public spat over the Redfern Park Speech as both men claimed chief authorship.

Keating believed Watson had exaggerated his own role and diminished his, a charge several of Keating's former colleagues have levelled at the man himself, following the O'Brien interviews in which Keating appears to diminish Hawke's centrality to the reform agenda of his own government.

Gareth Evans said delicately that there was ''a tendency towards insufficient acknowledgement of the role of others'' and said of both Hawke and Keating that they didn't just have healthy egos, they had ''elephant-sized egos''.

''That comes with the territory. Every political leader has a touch of fine madness.''

These days Keating spends his time reading, seeing friends and family, and working as chairman of a corporate advisory boutique.

Kelty insists that, contrary to popular opinion, Keating is humble at heart. Like all autodidacts, he listens as well as he argues.

''He's determined. He's blunt. He's fun. He's mad in a loveable way.''

From the archives:PJK’s best lines

On the Liberals: ‘‘The Opposition crowd could not raffle a duck in a pub.’’ 1986

On John Howard: ‘‘He has more hide than a team of elephants.’’ 1983 ‘‘The little desiccated coconut is under pressure and he is attacking anything he can get his hands on.’’ 2007 ABC interview 

On Tony Abbott:  ‘‘If Tony Abbott ends up the prime minister of Australia, you’ve got to say, God help us. [He is] truly an intellectual nobody [and has] no policy ambition.’’ 2010 SMH 

On Peter Costello: ‘‘The thing about poor old Costello is he is all tip and no iceberg. He can throw a punch across the Parliament but the bloke he should be throwing a punch to is Howard. Of course he doesn’t have the ticker for it.’’ 2007 ABC 

On the Senate:  ‘‘Unrepresentative swill.’’ 1992

On the Whitlam government: ‘‘In terms of the Labor agenda, this government has left every other Labor government bare-arsed. We have a cabinet which has a degree of economic sophistication which puts the Whitlam government into the cavemen class in economic terms.’’ 1985 SMH

On Wilson ‘‘Iron Bar’’ Tuckey: ‘‘You boxhead, you wouldn’t know. You are flat out counting past ten.’’ 1985

On former leader of the Opposition John Hewson: ‘‘It was the limpest performance I have ever seen ... it was like being flogged with a warm lettuce. Like being mauled by a dead sheep.’’ 1989

When Hewson asked why Keating wouldn’t call an election:  ‘‘The answer is, mate – because I wanna do you slowly ... and in the psychological battle stakes, we are stripped down and ready to go.’’ 1992

On former shadow treasurer Jim Carlton: ‘‘I was nearly chloroformed by the performance of the honourable member for Mackellar. It nearly put me right out for the afternoon.’’ 1985 

On the press: ‘‘You [Richard Carleton] had an important place in Australian society on the ABC and you gave it up to be a pop star ... with a big cheque ... That shows what a 24-carat pissant you are, Richard, that’s for sure.’’ 1990 Sixty Minutes 

* Sourced from Hansard except where otherwise indicated

A political life

1944 Born in Sydney.

1958 Joins Bankstown branch of ALP.

1966 Elected president, NSW Youth Council, forerunner of Young Labor.

1969 Elected to Parliament for Blaxland, aged 25.

1975 Appointed to Whitlam ministry, three weeks before its dismissal.

1983 Appointed treasurer in first Hawke government.

December Floats the dollar.

1985 Introduces capital gains tax and  fringe benefits tax.

1986 Declares Australia could become a banana republic.

1988 Kirribilli agreement with prime minister Bob Hawke for Keating to take over.

1990 Becomes deputy prime minister.

1991 Resigns as treasurer and unsuccessfully challenges Hawke in June. 

December Sworn in as PM after caucus votes by  56 to 51 to depose a sitting Labor PM for the first time.

1993 Leads Labor to victory over John Hewson’s Coalition.

Announces legislation to implement High Court’s Mabo judgment.

1995 Second budget includes sale of majority share in Commonwealth Bank.

Signs historic security treaty with Indonesia after 18 months of secret negotiations.

1996 Labor loses general election, Keating quits as party leader.

April 23 Quits Parliament.

Paul Keating in 2011. Picture: NIC WALKER

Paul Keating in 2011. Picture: NIC WALKER


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