Paul Keating: the big-picture leader by Troy Bramston

‘Leadership is about two things: courage and imagination.’

Paul Keating was Australia’s 24th Prime Minister, and held office from 20 December 1991 to 11 March 1996. He won office (from Bob Hawke) in a Labor Caucus ballot, and lost it (to John Howard) in a federal election.  Paul Keating was Treasurer from 1983 to 1991.  He was first elected to Parliament in 1969, aged 25.

While a number of books have been written about Paul Keating, according to the book blurb, this is the first biography Paul Keating has co-operated on in more than two decades.  Troy Bramston has drawn on around fifteen hours of interviews with Paul Keating, has had access to his personal files, and interviewed many people who know and worked with him.  Troy Bramston has also had access to Labor archives and other records.  All of this makes for a hefty 786-page book.

There are biographical details, a chronology of Paul Keating’s political life, and snippets of the personal, but the primary focus is on leadership.  It’s a book that I, as an admirer of Paul Keating and with a keen interest in Australian political history, had to read.

Some twenty-one years after the end of the Keating government, it’s interesting to read about.  The achievements I primarily remember from the Hawke/Keating years were the reform of the financial system and the economy, the floating of the dollar.  While those reforms have undoubtedly benefitted Australia, many of us also remember a period of very high mortgage interest rates, of economic recession.  But what I see as Paul Keating’s most important achievement was his speech in Redfern in December 1992, at the launch of Australia’s celebration of the 1993 International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.  Especially this aspect:

‘ .. the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.’

The passage of the Native Title Bill 1993, on 21 December 1993, is a credit to Paul Keating, Gareth Evans and the others who worked so tirelessly to make it happen.

Paul Keating always had a vision for Australia’s future.  He wasn’t always able to deliver on that vision, but he never stopped articulating it.  I’d have liked more detail as to how Paul Keating did some of these things, in addition to the detail provided of what he actually did.  Surely it wasn’t all intuitive and instinctive?  Surely the structures of government were part of the delivery mechanism?

And what about today?  Where are the political visionaries today?

‘Leadership is not about being popular, it is about being right and about being strong.’

True.  But I think it is also about being effective, about ensuring that the necessary mechanisms are in place so that they can outlast the individual leader.

Whether you like Paul Keating or loathe him, it’s worth reading. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Australian politics, to anyone interested in political leadership.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith