Crawl Back Under Your Rock, Keating

It’s a new book providing the pretext for re-emergence this time…but for years, Paul Keating has behaved as if he was never booted from office. Reviled as Prime Minister, ultimately rejected by millions, it’s time for the “Lizard of Oz” to crawl back under his rock — and stay there.

Reading Paul Kelly’s interview with Keating in today’s Weekend Australian, it struck me that when it comes to the former PM, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mind you, unlike many conservatives — who regard Keating with visceral loathing and positive hatred — I have nothing against him personally, and whilst I’ve never met him, I’ve been assured by those who have that the published accounts of his personal warmth and charm are correct.

But his agenda is something I have a very large problem with — and so do those of our countryfolk who tossed his government from office in 1996 in one of the biggest landslides in Australian history.

And that agenda, it seems, is unchanged.

After the chaos of the Whitlam years, and after the patrician, right-wing authoritarianism that so coloured perceptions of Malcolm Fraser’s government (but infected few if any of its legislative achievements), the climate in Australia was ripe for the consensus politics ushered in following the election of the Hawke government in 1983.

Hawke was successful because he always sought to take the electorate into his confidence and to ensure that the majority in the political middle were carried with him.

I’ve always found it ironic that having been in politics throughout, and having witnessed these episodes in full — Keating was first elected in 1969 — that his government is looked back upon as one of the most divisive in our history, Whitlam’s own government (in which Keating was a minister) the only competitor for that dubious mantle.

Indeed, the agenda of Keating’s government was, in many ways, Whitlamesque.

Much of what Keating covers in his interview with Kelly I have no quarrel with, but eventually — and typically — the agenda resurfaces: the focus on the elites, the arts, the minorities, the republic, the insistence on Australia being an Asian country in preference to a focus on more traditional links…all the stuff that left the majority of Australians feeling alienated, overlooked, and forgotten.

The people who elected John Howard on slogans like “For All Of Us” and “Building A Better Australia Together.”

It might surprise readers to know that my objective is not to tear the Keating agenda apart — that’s no longer necessary, receding in the rear-view mirror of history as it is.

Rather, my point is to question the relevance and value of former leaders like Keating, who resurface at intervals to share the benefit of their “wisdom” long after they were despatched at the ballot box.

Bob Hawke and John Howard surface very infrequently; Howard’s messages are generally limited to the economic management credentials (or otherwise) of the ALP; Hawke’s typically limited to comment on issues facing his own party.

It’s a moot point these days when it comes to Gough Whitlam, now aged 95 and obviously in the twilight of his life.

And Kevin Rudd, still a serving cabinet minister — a vocation that will lead God alone knows where — is best overlooked in the context of this discussion.

But Fraser’s noblesse oblige-driven agenda since leaving office has seen him increasingly resemble an unreconstructed socialist more so than the small-l liberal he purports to be, and certainly more so than the right-wing authority figure he was characterised as in 1975.

And then there’s Keating, clinging determinedly to the minorities, the elites, the republican ideal, and to Asia.

It’s certainly true of Keating that he sees his place in Australian history and is prepared to fight for it; it’s also certainly true that he has — and had — a vision for Australia.

The problem is that his vision was not shared by the men and women of Australia, who terminated his tenure in 1996. The truth be told, they would in all probability have terminated it three years earlier, had Keating been faced by anyone other than the politically useless John Hewson at the 1993 election.

At what point does the relevance of an agenda such as Keating’s cease?

Malcolm Fraser these days is widely viewed as completely out of step with majority opinion in Australia; his party had moved on from him long before he moved on from it; and his views are hardly taken seriously in political circles today (except, perhaps, by the Greens).

It is well-known that Keating could never accept the legitimacy of Howard’s government or of his own defeat; whether through arrogance or denial, or sheer strength of conviction, he remains determined that he was right and that even now, more than 15 years later, that Australia should embrace his vision and his agenda.

The point is that I question how much value — if any — is added to political debate by beaten leaders endlessly trundling their wares in front of an electorate which has assessed their wares, and passed judgement on same at an election.

I will, in all likelihood, get a copy of the Keating book and read it, perhaps over Christmas.

But I do think that having made their contribution — the merits or otherwise not in question — the likes of Keating, Fraser et al should retreat from the field, and let the current generation of elected representatives get on with doing what they are charged with, and for the reasons they have been allocated those tasks by voters: running the country.

And so, to use the vernacular, I think Keating should crawl back under his rock; for the self-styled “Placido Domingo” of Australian politics, the show was over many, many years ago.

What do you think?