Reviewed by Revelly Robinson
A detailed portrayal of an enigmatic but undoubtedly visionary leader who steered the country through the most momentous changes of the century.
Troy Bramston is an author that refuses to do things by halves. Clocking up over 600 pages, 15 hours of interviews and over 100 interviewees, Bramston’s epic biography of Paul Keating will no doubt prove a welcome addition to the annals of Australian political history. The account chronicles the life of one of Australia’s most fascinating politicians, attempting to shed light on his motivations and beliefs to come to an understanding of why Keating was on such a fast-track for success. Bramston painstakingly recreates every pre-selection battle, every caucus ballot and each of the federal elections Keating played a role in to piece together an archive of events that go a substantial way towards explaining how Australia became the nation it is today.
Growing up in Bankstown, the boy from western Sydney was no archetypal future Prime Minister. Leaving school at 15 to study electrical engineering and mathematics at technical college, Keating consciously steered away from tertiary life like the majority of students from his school, De La Salle Brothers. Instead he opted for more unconventional roles, such as managing a rock and blues band, which as Bramston remarks, would have set Keating up for a very different career had the band proceeded. Despite his eclectic choice of careers, Keating remained resolutely fixed on the Labor Party. While working for Sydney County Council, Keating struck up a mentorship with ex-Premier Jack Lang. This relationship cemented the enduring desire Keating had always harboured to make a career out of politics.
As the eldest of four children, his siblings recall that he was always the golden child. His father Matt and mother Min placed the utmost faith in his upbringing, discussing politics with him around the dinner table at an early age. Keating recalls handing out how to vote material for the party at the age of ten and identifying with Labor values from a young age. These are the values that Keating attempted to instil throughout his leadership, a strong sense of equity and family values.
Despite writing a book that spans well over the width of a brick, Bramston dwells on Keating’s childhood only as much as necessary, to some extent glossing over how Keating’s upbringing paved the way for his remarkable career. The focus is squarely on the role of politics in Keating’s life, a force that dominated his seminal years and saw him elected as the then youngest Member of Parliament for the seat of Blaxland when he was 25. This early awakening set Keating up for an astronomical rise to power, which he eventually reached the pinnacle of at the age of 47.
Throughout these years, excruciating attention is given to the internal tussles of the Labor Party while Keating was in Parliament, starting with the demise of Whitlam’s leadership and culminating in the transition from Bill Hayden to Bob Hawke. Keating gives an unbridled assessment of the inner turmoil of the Labor Party during that time, recognising the lack of discipline that cost it the ultimate price of political exile. Perhaps it was these experiences that helped shape Keating’s partnership with Hawke as one of the most successful in Australian political history.
Bramston’s interviews for the biography span the political divide. Tony Abbott, Peter Costello and John Howard provide anecdotes, as well as countless other political figures. That so many figures are willing to contribute to the assessment of their political antagonist is testament to the indelible impact Keating has had on the Australian landscape. Bramston even delves into Keating as being the inspiration for pop culture works, such as the stage show Keating! The musical which depicts a very different result to the 1996 election that saw Keating’s departure from politics.
Bramston’s biography is a lot to take in. Anything but light reading, the dry, fact-laden style of the prose makes for an intense read. Lapsing into first person from time to time to shed light on Bramston’s perspective of the interview breaks up the prose to some extent, but also interrupts the flow of the narration. The focus on details and historical accuracy displayed by the author matches the forensic mind of the subject himself. Bramston recounts being shown newspaper clippings stored by Keating for decades on which he had made handwritten notes to recount his version of events. Such a predilection for maintaining artefacts from the past would be consistent with Keating’s passion for antique collecting and classical music, two hobbies which he resolutely maintained throughout his hectic political career.
Bramston’s chronicle of one of Australia’s key political figures is an illuminating picture of potentially the most divisive figure in political history. While even his fiercest critics appeared to pay disgruntled respect to the luminary leader, there’s no doubt that his perceived arrogance jeopardised his popularity in the public eye. Despite waning appreciation of his reforms and a weary government, Keating managed to secure a term of office in his own right following the transition of prime ministership from Hawke. It was during this time that Keating could focus on some of his most progressive reforms. After the High Court decision on Mabo was handed down, Keating steadfastly worked towards enacting the Native Title Act 1993, bringing into the Prime Minister’s portfolio an issue that had previously been sidelined in indigenous affairs. Keating’s policy pursuit for a republic also gets a fair bit of airplay with intense scrutiny given to the momentum for a referendum and the formation of the Republic Advisory Committee as a pet project for Keating.
Ultimately, Bramston writes a fitting tribute to a man that set the course of change for the country; the effects of which are still being felt today. Bramston distinguishes Keating’s personality from his colleagues with precision and identifies the key force underpinning Keating’s drive for change – a keen desire to recognise Australia’s full potential and shape its future for the better. There is no doubt the reforms enacted by Keating during his time as Treasurer and later Prime Minister were brazen, bold, ground-breaking moves displaying a courage too often vacant in the current political arena. It is only fitting that the encapsulation of his legacy is a mammoth achievement in and of itself.
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