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Kerry O’Brien’s Keating

G22nd January 2020

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Tbook reviews, politics

A review of Kerry O’Brien’s interview-style biography of former Australian prime minister Paul Keating.

Paul Keating was a controversial leader in Australian politics. For years, he served as treasurer under Bob Hawke before toppling him as leader in 1991 and going on to win another term in office in his own right. To this day, the “Hawke-Keating” government (1983-1996) is regarded as one of the best Australia ever had.

Much has been written about this period by various authors, including David Day who published an unauthorised biography in 2015 (which I have already read and reviewed).

Kerry O’Brien’s book, Keating, is a little different than the others because it is based on a series of interviews conducted for the ABC Television series of the same name and is written in conversational format. O’Brien introduces each chapter with some background about the period covered before the book changes into interview format.

Front cover of 'Keating' by Kerry O'Brien
The front cover of Keating by Kerry O’Brien.

O’Brien’s book is probing and thorough. Keating is given every opportunity to provide context to the events discussed, but O’Brien also takes the opportunity to challenge Keating’s assertions or offer a different point of view. O’Brien brings the same standard of journalism that he’d have employed during his time as host of The 7:30 Report, and it’s clear that he has done his research thoroughly.

Keating’s own words provide far more insight into his thinking than what any biographer could. The reader is initially taken back to the 1960’s when Keating was a young member of the Bankstown branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). From there, we learn about the chaos of the Whitlam government from a young participant, who actually managed to become a minister for four weeks until the Governor-General stepped-in and dismissed the government. The value for me in reading this was not a re-telling of the history, but the glimpse into the reality of being an Australian politician at that time and the toll that it took.

From there, we start to get a sense of the rivalry that would emerge between Keating and his socially-conservative but equally ambitious rival from the Liberal Party, John Howard. It is clear that Keating still enjoys revelling in the many triumphs he had over Howard, until Howard finally beat him in the 1996 election.

The glory days of the 1980’s seem to have been the high water mark for Keating, when he reformed the economy under Bob Hawke which included deregulating the financial sector (allowing foreign banks to trade in Australia), floated the dollar and worked towards removing tarrifs. These were controversial changes, especially for a Labor government, but Keating describes how he was able to persuade an often skeptical caucus. Keating is adamant that “old Labor” was “confused by means and ends” and uses this to justify his reform agenda which undoubtedly made Australia wealthy but hurt many in the process of change.

Many of these changes were made possible by a growing economy, a weak opposition in the Liberal Party and the personal charisma of Bob Hawke to bring the public along. Keating speaks at considerable length about Hawke, his strengths and weaknesses and the nature of their working relationship.

Despite the many reforms, Australia’s fortunes changed in 1990 when unemployment skyrocketed in what Keating described as the “recession we had to have“. These words didn’t go down well with the public, many of whom regarded Keating as arrogant and out-of-touch.

Despite this, Keating managed to topple Bob Hawke for the prime ministership, fight off John Hewson’s notorious Thatcherite Fightback! campaign and win the “unwinnable” 1993 election against the odds. From there, he set about changing Australia in a number of other ways; engaging more with Asia, pushing for a republic, supporting the arts and establishing native title legislation.

O’Brien diligently challenges Keating about all of these events. Did keating acknowledge that the must-have recession caused so much pain? Did he have to push tariff reform through such a miserable period? Was he too over-stretched and distant as PM, ultimately leading to Labor’s 1996 election loss? It’s all covered.

Keating is an absorbing book because it brings the readers so very close to the source and the events. It’s candid, honest and insightful.

Keating himself has vowed never to write an autobiography, so this is as close as it gets. Keating’s observations about modern Australian politics in the final chapter, whilst brief, are of interest in a book that takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through a remarkable period in Australia’s history.

Keating by Kerry O’Brien (ISBN: 9781760294090) is published by Allen and Unwin.

   

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