Seeing the big picture

PROFILED: Paul Keating at Barangaroo East, Darling Harbour..PAUL Keating held the seat of Blaxland from October 1969 to April 1996.
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That’s a long time to be in Parliament, but for all of Keating’s longevity, his term at the Lodge seemed to come and go in a flash.

At four years and two months, it was a bit more than a flash, but after all of the build-up as the great reforming treasurer, the actual Keating prime ministership was probably something of an anti-climax.

Obviously, it had its high points.

The Redfern speech on reconciliation, a year into the job in December 1992, was one of the great speeches of our time.

But the economic and political cycles were clearly against him, and Labor was deeply unpopular when Keating’s hated nemesis, John Howard, took the Coalition to a substantial victory in 1996.

But like Malcolm Fraser, Keating is a former PM whose public standing is higher now than when he was in office.

At 71, Keating, like Fraser, has become a “grey eminence”. Divorced from Annita and in a long-term relationship with actress Julieanne Newbould, Keating seems finally at ease with his public persona as a man of art and antiques, buying into the debates that interest him from his digs in Potts Point.

His biographer, this time around, is the Victorian historian David Day, the author of more than a dozen books, most of which deal with Australia, its leaders or its wartime record. The best known book about Keating came from his speechwriter, Don Watson, whose 2002 account, Recollections Of A Bleeding Heart, told the story of Keating’s “head” across more than 700 immaculately crafted pages.

Keating felt betrayed by Watson – the “bleeding heart” of the title – and the two fell famously out. According to Day, a rapprochement is still some distance away.

Watson approached his subject from a very personalised angle. Day’s work is more formal, a conventionally balanced record of a man whose economic reforms, as treasurer, were central to creating the robust economy that is modern Australia.

It is impossible to read this book without reflecting on the differences between federal politics then and now.

It’s true that the spectre and reality of terrorism had not raised its head in any major way during the Hawke/Keating years, meaning that Labor was able to govern without the weight of an issue that now permeates politics around the world.

But the “big picture” that Keating painted for watchers of Australian political life is sadly missing from today’s Canberra.

As he told Kerry O’Brien in a quote repeated by Day, “We all get carried out in the end. It’s a matter of what sort of trail you can blaze and with what sort of elan.”

Paul Keating The Biography, David Day, Harper Collins