Ex Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating is a fascinating man.
Uncompromising, arrogant – and even aloof – certain of his own intellectual superiority, frequently hilariously funny, master of Despatch Box wit, he was responsible for some of the most major reforms in Australian political history, including opening the country to free trade, and ensuring all Australians have some sort of superannuation to fall back on in retirement.
Not for nothing was one of his mentors former Labour hero Gough Whitlam.
They shared a love of fine things, were both uber-brainy dandys, and neither brooked much opposition.
They controlled their caucuses by diktat, but they were so patently the most impressive guys around that no one really minded all that much.
To remember how good Keating was, one really only has to admire the strong, internationally-engaged economic state of the nation that John Howard inherited from him.
And one only has to trawl some of his more famous quotations – usually insulting put-downs – that framed the debate for year after year.
It would be easy to dismiss them as mere vitriol, but they were much more than that. Keating had an ear for what ordinary “little” people thought, and the imagination to wrestle that into pithy quotes.
On Opposition Leader and then Prime Minister John Howard:
- “The little desiccated coconut is under pressure and he is attacking anything he can get his hands on”
- “What we have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him.”
- “He’s wound up like a thousand day clock.”
- (Of his 1986 leadership contest) “From this day onwards, Howard will wear his leadership like a crown of thorns, and in the parliament I’ll do everything to crucify him.”
- “He is the greatest job and investment destroyer since the bubonic plague.”
- “But I will never get to the stage of wanting to lead the nation standing in front of the mirror each morning clipping the eyebrows here and clipping the eyebrows there with Janette and the kids: It’s like ‘Spot the eyebrows’.”
- “I am not like the Leader of the Opposition. I did not slither out of the Cabinet room like a mangy maggot.”
- “He has more hide than a team of elephants.”
- “Come in sucker.”
On Federal Treasurer, 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, but of course he doesn’t have the ticker for it.”
- “He has now been treasurer for 11 years. The old coconut (John Howard) is still there araldited to the seat.The Treasurer works on the smart quips but when it comes to staring down the prime minister in his office he always leaves disappointed.He never gets the sword out.”
Just because you were in the same party as Keating, that was never protection from his wrath.
He could dish it to his own side, too.
Like this stoush with John Browne and Bob Hawke (who he memorably named “Old Jellyback” because of Keating’s perception of his preparedness to compromise on principle) when he was Treasurer:
- “Now listen mate,” [to John Browne, Minister of Sport, who was proposing a 110 per cent tax deduction for contributions to a Sports Foundation] “you’re not getting 110 per cent. You can forget it.This is a fucking Boulevard Hotel special, this is.The trouble is we are dealing with a sports junkie here [gesturing towards Bob Hawke].I go out for a piss and they pull this one on me.Well that’s the last time I leave you two alone.From now on, I’m sticking to you two like shit to a blanket.”
To then Leader of the Opposition John Hewson:
- Hewson: [if you’re so sure of yourself] why don’t you call an election?Keating: Oh no, Hewson, don’t think you’re going to get out of it that easily mate. I’m going to do you slowly, son …” The relish with which Keating delivered the word “slowly” has passed into Australian political history …
And about him:
- “Captain Zero”
- “I did not insult the Honorable Member for Wentworth. I merely implied that he was like a lizard on a rock – not dead yet, but looking it.”
- “[His performance] is like being flogged with a warm lettuce.”
Most memorably, Keating would fire up whenever confronted with the teasing of extreme right-wing MP Wilson Tuckey from the seat of O’Connor in WA.
Unparliamentary language? For sure. But rather wonderful nevertheless.
- “You stupid foul-mouthed grub.”
- “Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig!”
- “You boxhead you wouldn’t know. You are flat out counting past ten.”
- “You filthy, disgusting piece of criminal garbage!”
Anyhow, without demonstrating quite the same level of vituperative humour, Mr Keating has made a memorable intervention in the 2013 Federal Election to opine that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had steered the country through the “valley of economic death” in 2008-09 to be what no other country in the world has been.
“No recession, no great dip in employment,” Mr Keating said, launching the campaign of Labor minister Bill Shorten in his Melbourne seat of Maribyrnong on Friday, to rousing applause from party faithful.
“This is not like Europe. This is not like the United States. We’ve kept people in employment and given them real wages growth.”
Since 1991, real wages had increased 36 per cent and disposable incomes by 40 per cent, he said.
“This is the only country that has done this. It came from the policies of the Labor government. It didn’t come from the Tories. They know what they’re against. They never know what they’re for.”
Mr Keating credited Labor for creating equity in health, superannuation, education and now disability care.
“The others never do these things. They’re always mean. Mean little people,” he said.
“No imagination, no bigness and no heart. Just the natural cycle means every now and then they get another go.”
Mr Keating said Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had to do more than offer slogans.
“Stop the boats, he says, we’ll get rid of the mining tax, and we’ll get rid of the carbon tax,” he said. “These slogans can never be an organising principle for the nation.”
Mr Keating accused the Liberals of walking away from accountability standards, saying they ignored former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello’s decision that treasury publish public accounts before an election.
“This is a very bad thing which is happening. Bad for the core integrity of the financial system, the way the country operates, bad for trust in the system.
“We’re facing a sort of flimflam opposition, one without standards.
“Even the previous conservative government accepted that standard but they’ve walked away from that.
“Cynical Joe Hockey says, ‘oh people are bored with numbers’. Really, Joe? They’re not bored with you are they?”
Except for his obligatory defence of Rudd, Gillard and, er, Rudd, Keating has nailed the Liberal’s essential intellectual vacuity, and he should be listened to. Sadly, the problem is that the alternative to Paul Keating is Kevin Rudd, and there is no cure for that.
Is there any doubt that Labor could win this election with Keating at the helm, instead of the Milky Bar Kid?
What as shame he seems to be thoroughly enjoying his retirement.
- Keating still on side of ‘angels’ (theage.com.au)
- Reality dawns on Kevin Rudd (theage.com.au)
- Rudd needs miracle to stop Coalition victory (nzherald.co.nz)