Paul Keating has launched a further personal attack on Bob Hawke and his record in government, saying that Hawke had effectively been asleep for five years at the height of his government — from the time in 1984 when it was announced by his wife, Hazel, that his daughter was struggling with a heroin addiction, right up until 1989, when a new round of economic and policy reforms began. Keating — speaking at the launch of Inside the Hawke-Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary, the published diaries of Gareth Evans from 1984-1986 — differed with Evans’ assessment that Hawke had been out of action for no more than a month after the announcement.

Keating said “the role of a leader was to nourish the government’s ideas” and that Hawke had ceased to do that in any way whatsoever. “I had to talk him into things,” Keating said, “he had stopped nourishing the show.” Keating’s new and increasingly critical version of the Hawke-Keating years was peppered with further anecdotes and criticism, noting the time that he and Evans had visited Hawke at The Lodge and Hawke had received them while sunbathing nude beside the pool, and Keating muttered something about political midgets. Keating was especially harsh on Hawke’s alleged failure to further the cause of land rights for Aborigines with effective leadership.

Keating said that Hawke allowed cabinet discussions to go on endlessly when something he didn’t care about was not at stake, but would be focused when it was matter of personal concern to him, and that his failure to lead on land rights was a major casualty of his inaction in the mid-1980s: “Bob always cried for Aborigines, but he wouldn’t do anything for them.”

Keating took the opportunity of launching the diaries to give a comprehensive account of the years in government and once again accorded himself the key credit for substantial structural reform of the Australian economy and state, saying that he had spent years reforming the country for the betterment of the Australian people, but he wasn’t going to spend five years of his life writing about it for their entertainment. The reference was to repeated importuning from MUP Publisher Louise Adler that he write his memoirs of the period, as this was the great missing memoir of the last 30 years.

The audience — which included a bevy of luminaries, including Chris Bowen, Tanya Plibersek, Paul Kelly, and Hawke-Keating era veterans such as Susan Ryan and Bob McMullan, seated among five Buddhist monks — knew they were in for a serious session when Keating began an extended discourse on the importance of allocative efficiency in the second minute of his 55-minute launch speech. But the extended nature of the attacks on Hawke marks a new level of intensity in Keating’s public animus towards Hawke, and goes far beyond the picture of the trio of Hawke, Keating and Evans as portrayed in Evans’ diaries.

Essentially, Keating is further revising the public record of the Hawke-Keating years, which had largely held that Hawke, while making some disastrous errors, such as the extended election campaign of 1984, had led the government effectively through the 1980s, allowing Keating to practise a series of major economic reforms and transformations, while at the same time restraining him from pursuing a Roger Douglas-type assault on Australian social democracy — as had been practised with disastrous results over the same period.

Keating raised a few eyebrows when he claimed that Hawke, having largely dropped the ball for years at a time in the leadership of the government, then went on to write “that dreadful book [The Hawke Memoirs], which was a fiction, of course”. The Hawke Memoirs were of course, commissioned by MUP publisher Louise Adler when she was at Reed Books, and largely inaugurated the current cycle of political mega-memoirs.

Following Keating’s speech, the audience had various things to say, but perhaps the greatest wisdom came from Thich Quang Ba, Canberra’s senior Buddhist monk, who had known Evans and Keating for more than 30 years after he first lobbied them concerning the rights of persecuted Buddhists in Vietnam. “The most important thing that a politician needs,” he said, “is to find the compassion that is in his heart. Everyone has compassion in their hearts.” “Even Christopher Pyne?” I asked. The monk just laughed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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