With the release yesterday of new unemployment figures showing the continuing strength of Australia’s economy, it was an ideal cue for another appearance by the man that almost everyone holds mostly responsible for our recent run of prosperity.

And Paul Keating did not disappoint, telling Lateline’s Tony Jones that “I was the guy who had to get the ACTU in a headlock and pull its teeth out with a pair of pliers”, and bemoaning “those kind of conservative tea-leaf-reading focus group driven polling types who I think led Kim [Beazley] into nothingness”.

Although he made some criticisms of Labor’s current approach, most of Keating’s time was spent explaining why the Howard government did not deserve credit for the state of the economy, and how it has been living off the fruits of Labor’s reforms. Which raises the obvious question: why is it left to him to make that case? Why isn’t the ALP today campaigning more on its economic record?

Phillip Adams made much the same point on Tuesday, saying:

The party cannot take credit for the boom years without acknowledging Keating.” But instead, as he put it, “When forced to invite him to a grand event … they’d usher Gough [Whitlam] through the front doors for the ritual standing ovation while sneaking Keating in the side door and editing him out of the subsequent TV screening.

No-one is very surprised when the Liberal Party forgets or ignores its past leaders, as when their invitations to Peter Debnam’s NSW campaign launch earlier this year got lost in the mail. Its lack of a sense of history is well known. But Labor is supposed to be different – so why the institutionalised forgetfulness of the Hawke/Keating era?

The truth is that the period of economic reform was traumatic: traumatic for the population at large, some of whom still remember the high interest rates and high unemployment of the 1990 recession, but especially traumatic for the Labor Party, which had to be torn away from its historical embrace of the controlled economy.

After Keating’s defeat, Labor knew it could not turn the clock back, but it had half a mind to pretend that it could. Hence it adopted the strategy of neither embracing nor repudiating the Keating legacy, but ignoring it.

The government’s attitude, of course, is equally equivocal; it would like to paint Labor as backtracking on reform, but that involves at least implicitly admitting who made the key reforms in the first place. Better to keep quiet, and just talk about “sound economic management” without ever getting into specifics.

Explanation is out of fashion, and Keating’s willingness to explain what he was doing, as displayed last night, is part of his problem. Whitlam is a better party icon precisely because he now sticks mostly to mumbled platitudes: putting Keating on a platform risks having him give voice to some unwelcome truths.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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