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Paul Keating: The Biography

My thoughts on David Day’s latest biography on Australia’s twenty-fourth prime minister.

Paul John Keating was Australia’s twenty-fourth prime minister, governing between 1991 and 1996. Before that, he’d spent a decade as Australia’s treasurer under Bob Hawke. Famous for the witty but scathing commentaries he provided about his opponents, he was a great reformer who led Australia through its greatest-ever transformation from a protectionist closed economy to a dynamic open economic powerhouse.

Distinguished author David Day has written a new biography called Paul Keating: The Biography. In his book, he describes Keating’s single-minded determination to become prime minister from his childhood in Sydney’s western suburbs to life in The Lodge in Canberra.

Book cover
The cover of Paul Keating: The Biography

With Paul Keating: The biography, David Day’s continues his tradition of excellence in writing thoroughly detailed but engaging accounts of the lives of great Labor leaders. I’ve previously read Day’s John Curtin: A life and Chifley which I consider to be two of the greatest biographies that I have ever read. Unlike those, this is the first that Day has written about a living leader and it’s no secret that Mr. Keating did not co-operate with the writing of this book.

I don’t think that it’s any secret that Paul Keating was ambitious in office, but what we learn from Day’s writing is just how young Keating was when he started in his mission to become Prime Minister. Ruthless at times, determined and focussed, Keating left school at a young age to enter the workforce and understand the ways of Australian society. He quickly involved himself with the local branch of the Australian Labor Party (with the help of his parents) and worked his way through the ranks of the Bankstown branch and into the Young Labor movement. As a young man, he formed a close relationship with former New South Wales Premier Jack Lang, who taught him all that he knew about politics and government.

If Day’s account is to be believed, Keating was quite the numbers man and not averse to bending the rules and stacking committees in order to maintain his control and get his way. Then again, he was not the only person guilty of such offences in the ALP in the 1960’s. Keating also attempted to fight the corruption when it suited him. Day tells us that on the occasion of his preselection, he had locked wooden ballot boxes fabricated in order to prevent vote tampering. Keating was preselected and then elected as the Member for Blaxland in 1969 at the young age of 25.

Keating briefly served as a minister in the Whitlam government for four weeks in 1975 and then served in opposition under Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke. Hawke won the 1983 election and returned Labor to power. Throughout that period, Keating worked the numbers hard to ensure that he got a ministerial position. His success lay in his ability to network and research. Lacking a formal tertiary education, Keating studied hard through reading and talking to political elders and business leaders to understand how industry worked. In particular, his comprehensive understanding of the Australian mining industry was second-to-none. Keating combined his intellectal depth with a cunning wit to rule parliamentary debate, first in opposition and later in government.

Keating’s success lay as much in his relationship with Prime Minister Bob Hawke as his own merits. The two made a formidable political pair as they moderised the Australian economy and changed the nature of government whilst maintaining social safety nets and welfare programmes. As treasurer under Hawke, Keating was responsible for floating the Australian dollar, deregulating the banks (including allowing foreign competition), abolishing tariffs and privatising iconic government enterprises including Qantas, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) and the Commonwealth Bank.

Eventully, Paul Keating ran out of patience with fourth-term ALP leader Bob Hawke under whom he’d served for a decade and challenged him for the leadership. As always, such events are bloody and Keating failed in his first attempt. Sentenced to the backbench, Keating licked his wounds and plotted his second coup attempt which was successful. Following his ascendency to Prime Minister, Keating won the “unwinnable” 1993 election against John Hewson, whose unpopular Fightback! package spooked the electorate with a 15% consumption tax at a time when the economy was just recovering from recession. He governed until 1996 when he lost to the Liberal Party under John Howard.

Day describes all of these events in meticulous detail, sometimes to the point of excess. As was the case for Curtin and Chifley, Day provides extensive lists of references and souce material. It’s an impressive piece of research, although one reviewer complains that the biography relies too much on previous works including Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002) and Edna Carew’s Keating: A biography (1988). This is true, in part because Paul Keating was so uncooperative.

Paul Keating: The Biography deals sensitively with the delicate aspects of Keating’s life, including his first relationship and the disintegration of various working relationships that inevitably occurs when ambitious politicians collide. The book even goes as far as to suggest that Keating is dyslexic by evidencing various telltale clues, although the former Prime Minister strenuously denies that he is.

Where Paul Keating: The Biography falls flat is in the writing. For reasons unknown, David Day has altered his style to the historical present tense for this book and it’s been a change for the worse. Whereas Curtin and Chifley were written eloquently in the past tense (as they should be), Day’s latest book is written like a narrative of the present; as if we’re watching the events unfold before our eyes. It’s infuriating, confusing and leads to some truly awful pieces of convoluted grammer. For instance, in this passage Day switches from past tense to present tense and then ends with a sentence that breaks all world records for sheer length:

Back in Canberra, when the debate resumes, it is Howard who blinks first. He had wanted to make the land fund legislation have provisions for individual ownership, rather than community ownership. He believes that Aboriginal economic development needs to be based on individual property ownership, rather than community ownership, and that the issue of ‘Aboriginal affairs has to be addressed within the concept of a single, undivided nation’, with all Australians being ‘treated equally, governed by a common set of laws to which all of us are equally accountable and goverened by a number of common values and common principles as Australian citizens’.

Paul Keating: A biography, p.439

It’s very easy to criticise occasional pieces of bad writing in a book of this length (and I, for one, admit that I make mistakes too), but the problem with the historical present is that it makes comprehension just that bit more difficult and, I suggest, undermines the seriousness of the work. Paul Keating: The Biography is meant to be treated as an important record of Keating’s life but that purpose is lost when it’s written like a football commentary. When Day writes so very well, I am unclear why this disappointing decision was made. (I attempted to contact the author to get some insight but was ignored).

David Day’s Paul Keating: The Biography is a substantial piece of work worth reading. Whilst it inevitably relies on the works of others (and recreates scenes in some cases), the book provides an intriguing insight into one of Australia’s great prime ministers. We read of a fearless but introverted man who worked tirelessly to improve Australia for the better, but who was never entirely comfortable mixing with others socially. We read of his strengths and his failings. We see the man behind the leader. Day lets us understand Keating as best he can.

Paul Keating: The Biography can be repetitive in parts, but really the reader is only let down by a style of narration that distracts so much from the story.

Paul Keating’s life is fascinating and I’ve learnt much from what I have read about in this book. My respect for Keating has certainly grown. For those interested in one of the great reformers of the Labor movement, Paul Keating: The Biography is worth reading despite its shortcomings.

Paul Keating: The Biography is published by Harper Collins.



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