Paul Keating
Paul Keating's official portrait, by Robert Hannaford.

As susceptible as I can be to Paul Keating’s rhetorical powers, I nevertheless get a queasy feeling when he pops up — again and again, driving Australian progressives and political junkies into a frenzy.

Given Keating was such a pioneer and champion of neoliberalism in Australia — effectively stripping power and money away from workers and poor Australians — it’s staggering, and certainly embarrassing, to see how progressives can carry on about him.  

Every time PJK graces our screens — to talk economics, or dunk on the LNP — social media erupts in a fever dream of admiration and nostalgia, with people reciting their favourite Keating zingers, and complaining that our current lot of bloodless leaders don’t have his oratorical grandeur.  

Twenty-three years after he lost the leadership, there remains a steady barrage of glowing editorial pieces pining for the return of a Keating-like figure to descend from the heavens and “salvage” progressive politics.

Given the toxicity of our current conservative government — and the lack of meaningful resistance from Labor — this nostalgia for some mythic, idealised past makes sense: as progressives, we can temporarily escape our wretched political moment and remember a time when our Labor politicians had swagger, and our unions had real power.

Of course, the problem with nostalgia is it seriously distorts our perception of history. Keating nostalgia has progressives pining for a leader who deregulated the labour market, spearheaded privatisation, and started dismantling our social security system. More perversely, Keating nostalgia has progressives overlooking the harm he unnecessarily inflicted on Australia’s poor and unemployed workers.

Many of Labor’s often-lauded economic initiatives in the ’80s and ’90s were funded by stripping people’s social security entitlements, or kicking people off welfare rolls altogether. Under Keating, the level of the unemployment benefit significantly decreased — falling by 16% between 1991 and 1996 — and causing a devastating increase in youth homelessness.

Keating also ramped up the government’s surveillance and policing of poor Australians. He adopted the nasty, neoliberal assumption that the unemployed were lazy, individually responsible for their own poverty, and required discipline and punishment from the services previously designed to help them. As a result, by Keating’s last year in office, the number of penalties imposed on unemployed workers by employment services had reached a then-record 75,000.

Inside accounts claim that Keating cared remarkably little about the suffering of poor Australians; in fact, it’s been said he was regularly reminded by staffers to display some sensitivity to the plight of the unemployed. According to John Edwards’ 1996 biography, before a debate in the 1993 electoral campaign:

… as usual, Keating was urged to say he was distressed by unemployment. ‘Cheap sentiment’, he said, ‘is the villain of public life.’

Yet, in full public view, Keating always seemed to know exactly what to say and how to say it. His assaults on workers’ rights and social security were always glossed over by a veneer of charisma and pomp — aided by a media class who were (and remain) enthralled and stupefied by his cunning rhetoric.

Peter Hartcher called Keating’s style of speaking a “siren-song… so beguiling that, like Ulysses’ seamen, [journalists] deliberately close their ears”. Even though his speeches were often riddled with unintelligible jargon, impressionable journos ecstatically pumped out articles about how his fiery performances turned dreary economics into a popular art.

Yet, far more disturbing than all the press hysteria, is the love and devotion our politicians still carry for Keating’s bloated brand of corporate, free-market Laborism.

Chris Bowen — likely our next treasurer — idolises PJK and talks to him on the phone “several times a week”. Last month, Bowen announced that Labor is pursuing a “refreshed, updated, renewed” version of Keating-era neoliberalism. Like most reboots and remakes, this promises to be even more tiresome and needless than the original release.

Although Saint Paul himself recently declared neoliberalism is at a “dead end”, modern Labor is still offering no meaningful pathway out of the economic wreckage. While the LNP is deeply committed to worsening economic inequality, Labor is barely committed to doing anything to address it.

Newstart hasn’t been raised in real terms since Keating’s second year as PM — and still, Bill Shorten is refusing to commit to an immediate raise. Last year, unemployed workers copped an incredible 1.6 million penalties, cutting off their income support; yet, Labor has no plans to remove compliance-based punishments of the poor.   

Sadly, an incoming Labor government offers no meaningful alternative to the free-market neoliberalism that, since PJK’s heyday, has crushed workers and social security recipients.

As it stands, Labor and its supporters still seem too afraid to hope for anything better than a backwards-looking zombie Keatingism.

What do you make of the ongoing idolisation of Paul Keating? Send your thoughts to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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