Paul Keating: A Lust For Power
Sydney Morning Herald
Friday September 23, 1988
IT would be 15 years before the 23-year-old union official stacking Labor Party branches in Bankstown could become the powerhouse of the most successful Labor Government Australia has ever had. But even back then, even as he won preselection in a rorted ballot to became the youngest Member of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, the goal was not just to sit in Parliament but to enter as quickly as possible into the holiest of holies, the inner sanctum, where you were entrusted with secrets you were never permitted to reveal: the Cabinet.
"Once you've been a minister, Robbie," he once told Bob Carr, "you've been a minister." Both knew that nothing higher or more complete could be said on the subject. Keating fought to get into Cabinet in 1972, when he was still under 30 and had been in Parliament for only three years. He fought every subsequent Cabinet vacancy except (to his colleagues' astonishment, and perhaps his own) the one that occurred unexpectedly while he was away on his honeymoon, when he had been denied the vacancy which went to Western Australia's Joe Berinson. He was so angry and frustrated that he told John Armitage in the corridor outside their offices that he was seriously thinking of quitting politics altogether.
Finally elected in October 1975 in a close contest with Mick Young, he was able to attend only two meetings of the huge Whitlam Cabinet before it was dismissed: two meetings in which the slim 31-year-old - with his olive skin, long tapering fingers, his fine suits and his lethal tongue - was able to sit on one of those 27 chairs in the crowded Cabinet room. And at one meeting of this final and solemn conclave, he distinctly heard the Prime Minister, this imposing figure who had brought Labor from nothing to Federal Government within the short space of Keating's own career, check the flow of the Attorney-General by addressing him as a "garrulous c..." ("I thought, 'This is the Government of Australia?'" Keating told Clyde Cameron a little later, both men feigning shocked delivery.)
Keating had gone into Cabinet in his seventh year in Parliament, and attended two meetings in three weeks, and he would be there roaming the corridors, haunting the office of The Australian Financial Review, diverting himself with his family and cars and antiques for another seven years before he returned to the Cabinet room. And meanwhile there was another political rite of passage, the destruction of the leader of the Labor Party. Within four months of Labor's fall, Keating (so deep was his conviction that he could never return to that Cabinet room with Whitlam as leader) was telling Caucus that there was no doubt at all that Whitlam believed the Labor Party would be getting money from Iraq when he met Iraqi representatives in Sydney during the 1975 election campaign, and that Whitlam should seriously consider tendering his resignation, to which the leader responded in the corridors of Parliament that night by calling Keating a "sneaky little c...".
Keating's goal was then the deputy leadership of the Labor Party, which, no matter what, he could not take from his old enemy, the man who had very nearly arranged his upset a decade before in Bankstown, Tom Uren. He wanted the deputy leadership, and knew Hayden would win it if he ran, so it necessarily followed - quite apart from Hayden's superiority over Whitlam as a leader -that he would have to persuade Hayden to run for the leadership against Whitlam rather than the deputy leadership against Keating. So he was a Hayden supporter in 1978, while his mentor and chief in NSW, John Ducker, remained a loyal backer of Whitlam and thus came into rankling dispute with his protege, the youngest and brightest star of the NSW machine he had refashioned from the ruins left by Colbourne and Oliver, and which helped to create the first NSW Labor Government in more than a decade.
It was a difficult decision for Keating, torn between his own view of the leadership and the mighty fist of John Ducker, so that for one of the few times in his life, he seemed to obscure the record, now privately urging his support of Hayden, now publicly supporting Whitlam, and even months later, his colleagues in Federal Parliament were not quite sure, in the end, how he had voted. "I had to play along with my mates in NSW because I needed their votes," he told Clyde Cameron, one of Hayden's supporters, "but I was playing along with you for a long time and you didn't know it." "Treachery |"concluded Cameron in his diary.
With Whitlam out and Hayden in towards the end of Keating's second seven-year term as a fruitless parliamentarian wondering as he approached 40 whether it was all worth while, he was astonished and confounded by what we can now see to be the crucial decision of his career, one not made by him, but by the man he would soon assist in destroying, Bill Hayden, the Labor leader who offered him the shadow portfolio of Treasury as, he said, the only frontbencher tough enough to take on John Stone.
It was an offer of which Keating was so deeply suspicious, and yet so attracted by, that he discussed it in deepest confidence and at length with Ducker, then head of the Public Service Board of NSW, and with Graham Richardson, then secretary of the Labor Party in NSW, confiding in them and, as he gave them to understand, them alone, yielding at last resolutely and with conviction to their assurance that he was the man for the hour; though he could be found in another part of Sydney, not long after, pondering it again with antiques dealer Bill Bradshaw and with speech-writer Grahame Freudenberg, who chanced by while walking his dog.
With a man of such complexity as Hayden, a man of such difficult and subterranean motives, a man who seemed open and pleasant enough, but who you knew could look at you with such happy transparency only because it was almost a tenet of his character not to let nice Bill know what nasty Bill was really thinking, with such a man, was the offer of the shadow portfolio of the Treasury the key that would unlock Keating's now frustrated career or was it an invitation to suicide? And in either case - such was Hayden's dark brilliance - was it something he could refuse?
It was all the more confusing because by now Keating was an opponent of Hayden's, and it had been three years since the meeting with Hawke in the Boulevard Hotel, a meeting which Hawke, at least, saw as a firm agreement on the support of Keating's formidable faction for Hawke's run against Hayden, and which Keating saw as an offer for joint leadership of a Labor Government -a combination of Hawke's inexplicable, almost unfair, popularity, and Keating's acumen.
"He hasn't got much idea, Bob," Keating would tell Carr after the meeting. "I had to give him the broad picture, put it together for him. He is very naive."
Accepting the job nonetheless from Hayden, he found himself, through a set of circumstances which neither he nor certainly Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser predicted, in the midst of an election campaign a few weeks later, soon to be a minister in the first Hawke Government, with this new Labor leader, in one of his first exercises of the authority he had sought for so long, telling Keating that unfortunately he had a commitment to his old mate Ralph Willis, and would Keating mind not being Treasurer? To which Keating replied, with utter and iron finality, that the fact was he had the job, and he was keeping it.
Hawke had every right of precedent and the rules of the Caucus to give the Treasury portfolio to whomever he wished, but - no matter what rule or precedent allowed or what obligations to old mates demanded or even what the judgment might be as to the relative competence of his Melbourne mate who had a university degree in economics compared with this man who had not only happily left De La Salle Bankstown at 15, but who had acquired some of his father's dislike of the very idea of going to university - no matter how these considerations might weigh in the leader's mind or those of his growing entourage of advisers, he was in no position, no position whatever, to refuse this lean and well-dressed figure what he wanted.
Their destinies were bound, and would stay bound.
EVERY 20 minutes or so, a train clatters west out of Sydney's Central. It stops first at Redfern, where Paul Keating's father Matt grew up, and then Erskineville, St Peters, Sydenham and Marrickville.
By then, it has left the terraces of the central city, and the cottages on either side are old brick with red-tiled roofs and small gardens. It clatters on through Dulwich Hill, Hurlstone Park, Canterbury, Campsie, Belmore, Lakemba, Wiley Park and Punchbowl - the houses becoming newer, the gardens becoming bigger - until it reaches the hub of the line, Bankstown.
In those days the furthest and wildest frontier of Sydney's westward spread, Bankstown is where the boilermaker Matt Keating and his wife Min, like thousands of other low-income people leaving what were then inner-city slums, moved after they were married.
For a decade, the line between Bankstown and the city was the axis of their first child Paul's life.
When he was a young man, it took him into the Labor Party offices opposite Museum Station in Elizabeth Street, where he made his first contacts with the officers' group that ran the party in NSW. It took him into youth council meetings, where he achieved his first political successes. It took him to his job as a pay clerk at the Sydney County Council and to his next job as a research officer for the Municipal Employees Union. It took him to Repin's coffee shop, were he and Laurie Brereton and Bob Carr and a dozen others talked about the Labor Party and how they would change it.
Alighting at Town Hall, Keating went to annual Labor Party conferences in NSW, where he first met John Ducker. He first discussed a political alliance with Laurie Brereton on the train between Town Hall and Central, and, while walking towards St James station, he first cajoled his ally Ron Dyer into not running for the presidency of the youth council.
And at night the train took him back west to Bankstown, back to the fibro cottage at 3 Marshall Street and, later, back to the new big house at 8 Gerard Avenue in what is still locally known as Top Bankstown.
Later, he would fill his own house at 12 Gerard Avenue with antiques so there was, he told Craig McGregor in 1977, "more good taste in this room than in most Establishment homes".
He would find a wife in Holland and, later still, he would live in Canberra and restore a mansion in Elizabeth Bay. He would collect Mercedes-Benz cars and clocks and silver and settle for the dead chic of the Empire ("It never goes off").
But Keating would always, nonetheless, be Bankstown to his blood and bones, and not simply in the realisation of these dreams of the western suburbs, but also in his language and his manner. His opponents would always be harlots, sleazebags, frauds, cheats, blackguards, pigs, mugs, clowns, criminal intellects, boxheads, criminals, friends of tax cheats, brain-damaged, loopy crims, stupid foul-mouthed grubs, pieces of criminal garbage, clots, fops, gigolos, hillbillies, ninnies, scumbags, thugs, dimwits and gutless spivs.
He would always dress self-consciously well, down to the gold cufflinks fashioned from ducats of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And, however far he made it into the world of Sydney money, he would always insist on a phrase or mannerism that defined his background; so that once, when he had left an eastern suburbs Sunday lunch, the host giggled that Keating was coming along very well, very well indeed, and would do much better if only he would stop ostentatiously cleaning his teeth with his fingernail.
Even when Father Michael McCarthy was assigned to the Keatings' church, St Brendan's, in 1965, a plot of land at Bankstown could still be bought for 1,000 pounds ($2,000). McCarthy, who had grown up in Randwick, thought it would be "the stone end".
When he was ordained and sent as assistant priest to St Brendan's after seven years of seminary training, he thought, heavens, he recalled last year. "Bankstown then was new," he said, "or, at least, there were still large new developments. It was the pits in a sense. I thought: distance, deprivation, concrete. But I found it a wonderful experience. They were hard-working people who had known what it was to go without. They worked to get their school and church going at St Brendan's. There was strong co-operative spirit. No-one had any notions of grandeur."
Marshall Street then was much as it is now. There are a few more brick homes today and, not far away, there are new two-storey brick homes ornamented with white concrete pillars. But there are still fibro houses in Marshall Street, though they now cost more than $150,000 and are unattainable by the poorer people living further west, like the Vietnamese taxi driver who recently drove me around Bankstown.
Near Marshall Street there are a canal and a grass field known as Ruse Park, where the Keating children could have played. At the end of the street there are shops and light industry. One small factory produces metal screen doors, another produces electrical motors.
Nearby on Northam Street is St Brendan's, a long low red-brick building with yellow windows, a stone facade at the entrance and, above it, a neon-illuminated cross, now rusting. Next to the church are the buildings of St Brendan's school (the present set opened in 1961), where Paul learned his reading, writing and arithmetic, and nearby is the church hall, which advertises bingo on Friday nights.
It is a simple, ugly building of the kind that would pain the later Keating, but it was on the stone steps of St Brendan's that he first stood out from the crowd after Mass, lingering for an hour or so talking, always well dressed, always well groomed and with a sort of intelligence and energy that McCarthy could still recall more than 20 years later: the sort of energy and intelligence that made him a leader in the Catholic youth group and which drew McCarthy into frequent conversation and finally friendship with him; though he noticed that, when he was talking to Paul, he wasn't necessarily listening to what Father McCarthy was saying.
Even then, Keating's mind was racing on to other things, just as today his tongue whips furiously around inside his closed mouth when you are speaking, waiting for you finish.
The Keatings lived in Marshall Street, and when Paul and his oldest sister Lyn were growing up they were still struggling. They had no car and Min Keating trundled the baby carriage to Bankstown central to shop. It was years before Matt's cement-mixer business (which ultimately employed several hundred) began to flourish and they were able to buy a house in Top Bankstown on Black Charlie's Hill, the dress-circle of the district. Gerard Avenue is a street of two-storey houses with double garages and speedboats on trailers in the drive, of gums and lawns and bright gardens.
Once in Top Bankstown, the Keatings worshipped at St Felix de Valois, a grander church which today has renovated its pioneers' cemetery under a Bicentennial grant. There they lie, their gravestones newly cleaned - the Faheys, the Egins, the O'Neills - on land donated by John and Bridget Abbot in 1854 in what was then known, according to a graveyard sign, as Irishtown.
Attending Labor Party meetings was as much a part of his culture, Keating later said, as attending church.
Matt was a highly respected figure in the local branches (he was variously a Langite, a grouper and a minor official of the Boilermakers' Union) and Paul was handing out Labor leaflets at 12. He lied about his age to join the party at 14. He was a delegate to electorate councils from age 19 and president of his branch at 21.
Paul left De La Salle High School after third year and was, anyway, not particularly good in class. But the culture of his Catholic boyhood is still the most important key to his character. Father McCarthy says it would have been "perfectly normal" in those days in Bankstown to leave school after third year, particularly since the local Catholic education did not extend to fifth year.
Keating did his Leaving Certificate at night at Belmore Tech and began an electrical engineering course. ("Connor and I should have been engineers," he once remarked.) So the usual trajectory would have been to continue working during the day and studying at night.
But his career wasn't usual. He saw a chance to win a Federal electorate, and he took it.
(By the time Greg Keating, who is 11 years younger than Paul, was going through school, a year had been added to secondary school in the Wyndham reforms, and a separate school for fifth and sixth forms had been added to the De La Salle system. It was constructed in the grounds of the De La Salle complex. With free periods and separate teachers for each subject, it was considered experimental. Matt and Min Keating were by this time doing quite well, which helped; so Greg continued on through fifth and sixth forms and is today a partner in McClellands firm of solicitors.)
It was normal to leave at third year, but another reason Paul would have left was that Matt Keating didn't like the moral world of full-time students. Min was much more sympathetic. Greg got through sixth form, but then he won his law qualifications at night in the Solicitors' Admission Board system, while working in McClellands during the day. "It was a compromise between Mum and Dad," he says. "She was happy that I was doing the course and he was happy that I was working."
McCarthy's moral and social point of view in 1988 is probably close to the view Keating would have had in 1969, and which, to some extent, he retains today. "It was a disciplined Catholic formation," McCarthy says. "The Sisters ran a very tight ship St Brendan's. That was true of all Catholic schools then. You didn't speak in class unless you were spoken to. You didn't have this sort of general discussion that is now apparent from Year 1 even. And I would question it. I can't, for the life of me, see the value of people sharing their ignorance. In those days, the teacher spoke and you listened."
Then Keating moved on to De La Salle. "Brother Michael Johnston would have been the principal, and he ran a fairly tight ship," McCarthy said. "That was a perfectly normal system of Catholic education in those days: a child being obedient, silent and co-operative in the classroom. It is the same principle that operates in a library. If you have a free-for-all, which is what you are getting into now, well, I think you can see the results.
"His father had a strong Catholic family background himself and extremely strong principles which he applied totally. Min is also a very disciplined person. Catholicism is part of Paul's way of life. That's the best way we can see Catholicism, it just becomes part of a way of life. As each of the children came along, I have baptised them; the first in Central Bankstown and the last in Canberra. It's a pattern or way of life whereby one is always striving to grow in one's knowledge of God."
Keating told Bob Carr about the same time: "The old church has got a role. A bit of morality is good for you."
Social attitudes were conservative. University students were no-hopers. Women should not go out to work.
"It would have been a normal belief at that time that women should not got out to work", says McCarthy, "especially among Catholics. My father would have been horrified, as I am sure Matt would have been, at the thought of Mother going to work. During the war, women got used to working, but I can still remember that people would still speak of going to help a friend or of going to a business. They would never admit they were working. The norm would have been for the husband to believe he was the breadwinner; and for the wife to work diminished him. That was perfectly common and Paul would have subscribed to that."
AT 6.15 one evening in 1966, just before the assistant secretary of the Labor Party in NSW, John Armitage, was to attend a meeting of the party's organising committee, the secretary, Bill Colbourne dropped by his office.
For years, the party's youth council had been acrimoniously split between a far-right-wing faction dominated John Forester and a far-left faction which included Trotskyists and other alarming people. Every meeting was a brawl and every meeting made the party look bad.
Colbourne had a solution. "Jack," he said, "why don't you ask the organising committee to abolish youth council?" Armitage thought there might be a less drastic remedy, and that night the organising committee gave him the brief of producing a new leadership at youth council.
In the first year of transition it was Peter Gould; but then Gould got married and began a family and Armitage had to find some new recruits. One group was out at the University of NSW, where his son Bill introduced him to a young member of the Labor Club, Bob Carr. Another was Laurie Brereton, already active in the eastern suburbs family fiefdom in the Labor Party. And another one he was introduced to by Brereton one night in Repin's coffee shop, 22-year-old Paul Keating, was beginning to meet other future leaders.
Keating met Barrie Unsworth, a man who would become his closest ally in NSW, "at a party function at a big house in Killara" on the night of the Corio by election in 1967. "I was impressed with him," Unsworth recalled recently.
John Ducker first met Keating during the annual June conferences in the mid-1960s. "He was youthful, vigorous, pleasant, if not charming, quite full of fun. He enjoyed life. He was tough with an enormous capacity to read the signs and understand circumstances and events. He was ambitious and determined to succeed with his ambitions. But he always had a care for the welfare of the Labor Party and the ordinary people that the Labor Party represents."
Keating had already attended a few youth council meetings and he was on the list of reliable people brought in as delegates to support the new leadership of Gould. A little later, on a train between Town Hall and Central, Keating proposed that he and Brereton take over youth council themselves: Keating as president, Brereton as secretary.
One of Gould's supporters, Ron Dyer, had a claim on the president's job, so Keating had a talk to him too. Walking beside Hyde Park near David Jones one night, Keating told him he wanted to run and asked if Dyer would postpone his own run. Keating needed the youth council presidency to strengthen his campaign for preselection. Dyer agreed, Keating ran and, for the next two years until he resigned in 1969, he and Brereton ran the youth council.
Of his closest friends in those days, Bob Carr wanted to be Foreign Minister for Australia and Laurie Brereton wanted to be Premier of NSW. Carr worked as a reporter, a union official and then a reporter again while focusing his political work on tending the branches to succeed Lionel Bowen for the Federal seat of Kingsford Smith.
Keating used to say to Carr in those days: "What are you doing with yourself, Rob, hanging round like a mangy dog waiting for Lionel to retire?There will have to be a new seat out in that Strathfield area, you ought to look at that." To fill in time before Bowen's retirement, Carr stood for the local State seat of Maroubra when it became vacant in 1983 and, within a few years and to his astonishment, found himself leader of the NSW Opposition, the unanimous choice of his factional leadership, who offered him, it is said, that or nothing.
Carr thought it rather brazen of young Keating to be running for Federal Parliament in 1968 and he was similarly shocked when Brereton told him that he planned to run for Federal Parliament, too. The Federal seat of Kingsford Smith was becoming vacant. Lionel Browen, who was then in State Parliament, also wanted the Federal seat. Brereton told Carr that he would run for the Federal seat if Bowen was not allowed to leave the State Parliament; and, if Bowen was, then he would run for Bowen's state seat of Randwick.
Bowen was given permission to resign and run but the State leader, Pat Hills, strongly objected to Brereton's running for the State seat.
With Bowen out of State Parliament, the only lawyer left in the Opposition was old Billy Sheahan. Hills said he needed a younger lawyer to serve as Attorney-General if Labor was returned to government.
Brereton ran for preselection anyway, and won it; but it was only a temporary victory because it is said that Hills then let it be known in the right places that, if there must be a redistribution anyway, he would contain his rage if Laurie Brereton was to be redistributed right out of Parliament. Brereton first suspected something of this when, passing the Premier's parliamentary office one morning, Sir Robin Askin leaned out and said cryptically to Brereton: "Now I know what you fellas mean when you say last in, first out."
After a redistribution is made, sitting members receive envelopes with a maps showing their new electoral boundaries. When Brereton opened his envelope, it had eight separate maps showing where various bits of his electorate had gone.
Brereton was out, but he retreated to his family bastion in Botany, where he vowed to defeat the sitting member in a preselection ballot. This he duly did, setting in train another set of circumstances which terminated several promising political careers. Brereton's career prospered but was soon overshadowed by one fatal defect. Asked by the party higher-ups to produce a favourable zoning decision for a Botany property owned by News Limited, Brereton found himself thwarted by Labor members of Botany Council, who were forced out of the party. The incident ultimately ruled him out as leader of the Labor Party in NSW, so that he now finds himself 20 years later once again lining up to take the Federal seat of Kingsford Smith, while Bob Carr attempts to become Premier of NSW.
This was the mid-60s, and in the mid-60s the mood of the Labor Party was very different from now.
It had lost in NSW after 20 years of government, and the Government which lost was sad and elderly, not the kind of Government which people then in their 20s admired. It would be more than a decade before it returned to government, and then only after a change of leadership contrived and carried through against the wishes of the party in Parliament. Federally, the party had been out of power for nearly two decades and, with Arthur Calwell as party leader, it was decimated in the 1966 Federal election.
The party's fortunes had never been so low and, for young people then entering the party - people like Keating and Carr and Brereton - it was not at all obvious how it would recover.
The Left dominated the party in Western Australia and Victoria and it could usually count on allies in South Australia and Queensland. Closed-door meetings of the Federal executive, which still excluded the party leaders in Parliament, presumed to dictate policy to the party in Parliament. The policies on issues like the American alliance, the North-West Cape and Vietnam were ones on which Labor could not hope to win.
There was only hope federally, and that was Gough Whitlam. Carr had been drawn into the party as a Whitlam supporter, and he and Keating thought of Whitlam as the hope for the party's renewal. And to Keating there was one great hope in the machine, a machine that was disintegrating, with Colbourne retiring, Armitage going into Parliament and State president Charlie Oliver preoccupied with opposition in his own union. The only hope lay, Keating told Carr, "with Johnny Ducker".
Carr recalls: "We had imbibed Labor history from our parents and from Fin Crisp's book on Chifley, and the Lang books and all the rest. The question was always how Labor might be revived, since this was the period of its greatest decline.
"It was a ramshackle joke. It had Calwell as national leader. It had lost in NSW. There was no vitality in the party except in South Australia, and even they had lost after one term. The one hope on the horizon was Whitlam. But Whitlam had precious little support in the party outside of NSW. So all our conversation in the coffee shops after youth council was about how you could combat the Left, which was then easily demonised with Joe Chamberlain and Bill Hartley, who had very significant influence and opposed Whitlam's reforms. That was the climate."
They talked politics and they enjoyed themselves.
"Keating had an infectious sense of fun," says Carr. He liked Johnny O'Keefe, and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire records. He liked classical music, and Carr recalls phoning him once at home and hearing music in the background. "I'm soaking up Tchaikovsky," said Keating. Later he told Carr that he used to listen to Mozart all the time, though he'd "gone off it now".
McCarthy recalls: "He'd bring battered old clocks home, pull them apart, clean them up, restore them, so they became beautiful things". He was interested in budgerigars. He managed a pop group. Later, Keating's interests seemed to multiply, depending on the number of interviews he gave. He was just about to take his flying licence, he told one interviewer. He told another his only interests were sailing and flying.
Keating had jobs then and took courses. There was a job at David Jones, another with the house builders Gavin and Shalala, then there was a job as a pay clerk at the Sydney County Council and finally there was a job as an industrial officer of the Municipal Employees' Union.
There was the Leaving Certificate at night, the engineering course and there was the industrial law course while at the MEU.
There were jobs and courses, but the only job on which he focused was getting the numbers to win the Federal seat which became Blaxland, and the only subject that really interested him was politics.
Carr recalls visiting him at the MEU, taking down a youth council leaflet to be roneoed; and Keating would come out and take the sheet, ignoring the union members waiting around the inquiry counter, and disappear back inside. "The only book I ever heard Keating refer to, other than Lang or Labor texts, was Teddy White's Making of the President 1960," recalls Carr.
Keating was interested in policies, which distinguished him from most machine politicians, but they were of an unusual kind. Carr recalls him putting his head into a youth council foreign affairs committee meeting one day and saying, mysteriously: "The Treaty of Rome, look at the Treaty of Rome|" Carr says: "It was pure Lang, though, of course, as it turned out in our world today of great trading blocs, it was a very important treaty".
Ron Dyer, now a member of the Legislative Council and a member of the Opposition shadow Cabinet, recalls Keating being interested in "unusual economic issues" - of which one example, which seemed at that time to be much on Keating's mind, was roll-on roll-off cargo handling. Long before Keating became a disciple of Rex Connor, he was an admirer of Charlie Court, the West Australian Minister for Development and then Premier.
Somehow, and quite early, Keating thought of the economy as some sort of giant national enterprise which politicians ran at the centre, a vision similar to that of Rex Connor and not uncommon among young politicians. In that respect, Malcolm Fraser was similar, as were all politicians, and talked expansively about "national development".
But the young politician interviewed by Margaret Jones for the Herald in October 1969, just after he became the youngest member of Federal Parliament, had a long road to travel. He wanted a referendum to give the Federal Government powers for "the rigid price-control" and he wanted Federal control over business other than in the Federal Territories, since "this would help the Government to block overseas exploitation of Australian resources and to encourage domestic development, particularly in oil and minerals".
Mr Keating, Margaret Jones wrote, is very strong on the social ownership of key industries ("an old Lang Doctrine", she interpolated) and on control of prices, which he regards as essential to the stability of family life in Australia. "For a young man brought up in an era or working wives," she wrote, "he takes an unusually traditional view of young mothers going out to work, seeing this as a tragedy which erodes the whole family structure. His remedy: Prices geared to the family's wage packet, so that women would no longer have to go out to work."
WHEN Bill Colbourne got back to the Elizabeth Street Labor Party office after his pre-retirement trip, six months after Keating had won preselection for the new Federal seat of Blaxland, he was not at all happy with John Armitage.
"If I had been here, he never would have won it," Colbourne said. He hated Lang, he knew Keating had been to visit Lang twice a week for years and, anyway, he thought young Keating was an upstart who should wait his turn.
Of the inner group at the time, Armitage now says he did not oppose Keating's run in Blaxland, and John Ducker, who was then a party vice-president and just about to take over and completely transform the party in NSW, supported Keating. Party president Charlie Oliver probably didn't warm to him, but he was completely preoccupied by an internal revolt in the Australian Workers' Union in NSW which threatened to depose him as secretary.
With Colbourne away, with Armitage neutral and tied up with an electoral redistribution in NSW and then winning preselection for his own seat of Chifley, there was no-one to stop Keating. There was no-one to lend a helping hand to Barney French, a party vice-president and secretary of the Rubber Workers' Union, who had been active in the area for years and wanted the seat for himself.
But when Barney French added up the numbers, he could see that Keating already had them. Armitage spoke to French, who said he was interested; but when he spoke to him the next time, he said he thought young Paul had it. In between, Armitage thinks, there must have been some sort of right-wing caucus out there in the branches at which "Paul would have had the numbers, as always".
Colbourne would have tried to stop him but, by the time he arrived back in Sydney from his trip, Keating already had a difficult preselection won, Colbourne was retiring, Armitage was going into Parliament and a new and extraordinary period in the party was beginning as John Ducker took control and brought a new group, which soon included Paul Keating, into the controlling nucleus of the party in NSW.
For a decade, Ducker would rule the party, often in conflict with Keating and other members of the inner group, but always having the last say, until his sudden and quite unexpected decision to abandon it altogether for a government job within the gift of the Premier he created, Neville Wran.
Keating had Blaxland and nothing he would ever do again would be as difficult, as time-consuming and as uncertain of outcome as putting together the 146 votes he needed for preselection. It hadn't been easy, it had very nearly been calamitous and, even 20 years later as a Treasurer pushing to be Prime Minister, the means by which he won it would continue to haunt him.
It had been a four-year struggle and he was still only 23 when he faced the decisive ballot in 1968. "You have to get out of bed very bloody early to do that," he later remarked.
Carr recalls: "Paul was more mature than the rest of us who were students because he realised quite early that the route to power in the ALP was preselection."
Keating needed to win preselection, and to win preselection for a safe Labor seat he needed to bring in enough new Labor Party members who would be committed to him to overwhelm other potential candidates like Barney French or like the candidate of the Left who went within a whisker of defeating him, Bill Junor.
Matt Keating had long been active in the branches and Paul had been for nearly a decade by 1968. But they were close to Tom Uren's electorate of Reid and the Left had much greater power in the branches than it could deploy on the floor of the June annual conference. There would certainly be a Left candidate against Keating, who by this time was already identified as the officers' man at the youth council. And there would perhaps be other right-wing or unaffiliated candidates. Keating didn't know it in 1967, but there would also be a sitting member. As he later told Carr, in an indignant tone, "In my first preselection, I was opposed by a sitting member."
Keating had to get the numbers and he got them where he could. Carr says: "He had to get out there night after night to persuade people to join an ALP branch. You had to talk to friends of friends. You get familiar with problems like what happens when you get a new branch member and then you get his girlfriend and then they break up. Can you still get the former girlfriend to take out a ticket?"
Carr had much the same experience himself. "The best people to recruit are little old ladies. Lang had told Keating that, and he was right. I was to discover this when I got serious about lining up the numbers for Maroubra in the early 80s. Little old ladies who were in the Labor Party with their husbands in years past, they will back you through thick and thin. It is one of the eternal laws of rank-and-file preselections. There is a Left mythology that he just got Catholics into the party. He told me once that wasn't the case; you got them where you could find them. Friends of friends, people from clubs. That's how it works."
To join the party, a potential member needed to attend one meeting to be proposed and seconded and then another to be admitted. Keating had to make sure the member came to the first and then not only came to the second, but came with the money to buy his or her ticket. "It's the hardest task in the world, Robbie," he later told Carr.
Carr says: "Of course, in one-third of cases you get them to their first meeting and then they are not able to come to the second. So that means you have to get them to come along to the one after that or you lose them. Then you have to make sure they sign the attendance book and take their ticket out and have their money to take the ticket out and sign the roll book. Then you have to make sure you get them to come back for another two meetings within 12 months."
Ron Dyer recalls visiting the Keating home in those days and seeing on the wall of Paul's bedroom the cardboard chart which had his supporters' names down the left-hand column and dates of meetings across the top; so he could tell at a glance who would have to be dragged along to a meeting to maintain their eligibility to vote.
Slowly, Keating accumulated the numbers over 1967 and 1968 while putting in appearances at the MEU office, and running Youth Council - slowly accumulating numbers for the seat of Banks until the 1968 redistribution was announced and Keating discovered he was no longer living in Banks, but the new seat of Blaxland, which not only excluded several of the branches he had so painstakingly stacked, but also brought with it a sitting member, Eli Harrison.
In his younger days Harrison had been a force within the ALP, Federal president of the AFULE, a protege of Chifley and the man who had defeated Lang for his seat in Federal Parliament. Never a smart or energetic man, Harrison had declined over the years and now spent a good deal of his time living with a woman friend in a Melbourne hotel. Harrison was probably vulnerable, but the redistribution also brought in branches with a stronger Left vote, and Keating was suddenly looking - at age 24, with a minimal formal education and no work experience likely to earn him a big salary or put him in a career of advancement - at the possibility that his entire bet might be lost and that he, like countless other smart young fellows who wanted to get into Parliament but couldn't, might spend his life on the periphery of power. "Redistributions| They are f...ing awful things," he complained to Carr.
The campaign was suddenly serious again as the Left produced the kind of candidate who could give Keating the most trouble. Bill Junor was already a tutor in economics at the University of NSW, the kind of young and well-educated economist the party obviously needed, the kind of person who might make a good Treasurer in 10 or 15 years, a Catholic with a good Labor background who could talk - and did - about the aims of the party and what it should stand for. He was pleasant, a very moderate leftist, energetic, controlled. An adroit choice. He was backed by the left-wing steering committee, which out there meant he had the backing of Tom Uren.
Complicating Keating's chances were three other candidates who could draw votes from the Right. One was Harrison, another was the man who would later become Lord Mayor of Sydney before being dismissed by his own party, Doug Sutherland, and the third, whose presence on the ballot very nearly ended Paul Keating's career as it was beginning, Jack Stewart, and an alderman on Bankstown Council, Arthur Kempton (3 votes). On the evening of October 26, 1968, the ballots were cast for the six candidates for the safe Labor seat of Blaxland, effectively giving to one of them a lifetime career as a politician, followed by a well-paid retirement.
The returning officer was a left-winger, Mert O'Brien, who so scrupulously excluded disputed ballots that 20 per cent of the votes at the end of the night remained challenged and uncounted. The Left had done a thorough job in investigating the credentials of Keating's supporters. The result was announced: Junor had polled 88 votes, Keating 81 and 63 votes went to other candidates. Preferences were then allocated, leaving Junor with 124, Keating 108 and 49 votes challenged and uncounted.
It was a startling result for Keating, one which depended on the strong showing of Stewart, which cut into Keating's ballots, and the number of his preferences that went to Junor. The Keating people - Matt, Min, Ron Dyer and the chief scrutineer for Keating, Laurie Brereton - were aghast, not only by the result but by the possibility that Mert O'Brien - who was, after all, the returning officer - would have overnight responsibility for the ballot boxes. After a hurried counsel, Brereton left the building, hopped on his motor bike and roared off to see Gough Whitlam at his nearby home. Whitlam called Lindsay North, the branch returning officer, who turned up after midnight in Bankstown, his pyjamas showing over the tops of his clothes, and took possession of the ballot boxes. Six days later he declared the result: Keating 145, Junor 125. Keating was the Labor candidate for Blaxland.
In any other year, the result would have been final and unquestioned. Armitage says of Keating: "I made sure when the ballot was being disputed that some of the silly things he was doing at the time didn't count against him or against the party, and particularly the State Labor Party". But times were changing. To win government in Canberra, Whitlam needed to destroy the left-wing branch in Victoria. To destroy Victoria with the support of Queensland and South Australia, he would have to accept that the equally monolithic, equally narrow but right-wing branch of NSW would also need to be opened up. One result of this was the 1970 conference in Broken Hill, at which John Ducker prevented intervention by agreeing to increase the voice for the Left. Another result was the secret Burns report, which, among other things, looked at preselections in NSW. In subsequent years, the nature of the Burns report became clouded. But in it, Queenslander Tom Burns, Federal president of the party, was quite firm about what he thought, and he thought that Keating's preselection was a rort. After detailing the final result of the Blaxland ballot, Burns wrote: "The action of the New South Wales Executive secured the result by allowing supporters who had joined the Party outside of the expressed party rules to participate. 27 supporters of Mr Keating who were allowed a vote were admitted into Central Bankstown Branch, yet they not only lived in the Condell Park area but in joining Central Bankstown branch were outside their State Electorate and their Federal Electorate subdivision.
"Rule 43 (b) provides that an applicant for membership shall subject to Clause (c) of this rule, attend an ordinary meeting of the Branch in the area in which he resides. These persons did not live more than 3 miles from the Condell Park Branch.
"In the case of the Bass Hill Branch, 12 long-standing members were denied a vote because it was alleged the Branch had lost its charter. I understand that it was because the Branch Secretary failed to carry out his duties, yet whilst the Branch did not have a charter, 3 members who were supporters of Mr Keating, and who incorrectly joined the Central Bankstown Branch, were transferred to the Bass Hill Branch and ruled by the Executive on 18.10.1968 -Officers Report B68/266, to be the only ones eligible to vote.
"So we have three members of Branch without a charter or in other words, a nonexistent Branch, voting, whilst the members of that Branch are unable to vote. I believe the decisions made by the Executive were slanted to support Mr Keating, and were inconsistent with decisions made in respect of the Chifley preselection contained in the Credentials Committee Report 68/265 dated 18.10.1968."
Burns then looked at a set of allegations about the Banks preselection and concluded:
"These allegations along with many others, indicate a feeling that is rife throughout the Party that if you stand in a preselection ballot agains the officers 'pea' the chances of winning are nil, and the chances of having any appeals upheld are also nil.
"The obvious stacking of Branches and sacking of Branches, appears to have been carried out deliberately, intending to ensure certain people gain preselection.
"As some of these people are now Federal members of Parliament, these actions must assume importance in the eyes of the Federal Executive.
"I strongly disapprove of the actions of the New South Wales Officers in these preselection ballots. Again throughout my discussions and throughout the submissions you will note that there is evidence of a growing feeling in the Party of New South Wales of an indifferent and arrogant group of Officers who are prepared to manipulate the Rules and grant preferential treatment to their friends.
"Arbitrary decisions have destroyed the Executive's creditability amongst its own members. Complete restructuring in New South Wales is the only way to overcome this disturbing situation."
(Armitage was also duly elected in the 1969 election and after more than a decade on the back benches, decided to retire after the 1980 election. Somehow he had arrived in politics at the wrong moment, a party officer and associate of Colbourne and Oliver just as the Right was about to be taken over by John Ducker and his allies; a peripheral backbencher when Wran was being brought to the leadership of State Parliament and the NSW party was struggling over Whitlam and Hayden, and Hayden and Hawke. He had been a young fella to Charlie Oliver, a bold young fella who daringly proposed to Labor conference the dropping of the term "White Australia" from the party platform. But, to the generation of Laurie Brereton and Paul Keating, he was no longer a bold young fella, he was instead, in their argot, "the bomb" who would quietly tick, tick, tick, tick most of the time and then, suddenly, BOOM. Armitage slipped between the interstices of the party's successive generations but he never quite lost the sense that the rightful authority within the party had been usurped by the new people, something of which State secretary Graham Richardson may have been unaware when he called him at home in Seven Hills early in 1981. The party secretary told Armitage he had a candidate for Chifley and he would like to come out to discuss it. At 10.30 that night Richardson and assistant secretary Stephen Loosley turned up at Armitage's house. They asked him to nominate once again for Chifley, and to withdraw his nomination when preselections closed before the next election. The new candidate would then be appointed by head office, avoiding the awkwardness of nominating a year before the ballot, a tactic designed to make it feasible for the intended new member for Chifley, Neville Wran. Armitage refused.)
INTO THE MACHINE
AROUND the same time, Paul Keating was sewing up preselection for Blaxland, John Ducker was about to take over the party in NSW and begin a decade of rule which would transform it. Keating had not begun as a member of the NSW machine. Had Colbourne not left the country after the June conference in 1968, Keating may never had won preselection. Had Oliver and Armitage not been preoccupied with their own problems, they might have been enlisted to stop the brash young man from Bankstown. When Keating fought and won preselection, he hardly knew Ducker. He was not then part of the machine and, in practice in 1968 and 1969, the officers' machine was ceasing to exist and was about to be replaced. Within 12 months, Keating the outsider would become one of the new insiders.
For the next 13 years, until Graham Richardson entered the Senate, Keating would be the numbers man of the NSW Right in Federal Parliament. When Ducker eventually and unexpectedly left, Keating was one of the seven who took over one of the many jobs Ducker filled: president of the party in NSW.
Today, still only 44 after nearly two decades of Federal politics, he is caught in the kind of squeeze he could never have imagined when he began to stack the Labor Party branches of Bankstown. He has been more successful in changing Australia than his closest supporters then could have predicted, and in ways no-one could have predicted. But, after six years, the clock begins ticking away on even the most successful government.
If Hawke does retire in his favour after the next election, Keating will be lucky to win the following election, the fifth consecutive ballot which Labor has fought as the Government. But even this chance requires that Labor win the next election, that Hawke (who will still be under 60, fit, in a job he enjoys and the most successful and popular leader in the history of the Labor Party)gracefully resigns and that nothing occurs in the next few years to upset Keating's claim on the succession. His old friend Bob Carr speculates that"the Theodore option might commend itself to him" (Ted Theodore served as Treasurer in the Scullin Government and eventually went into business). "He may have five more mini-Budgets and five more Budgets, 10 in all, to go through before he has a chance to be Prime Minister. He feels he has to stay there into the next term, when the Government will be going out of action. It will be facing the kind of decline we were in here. There are cycles in politics, it's a volatile electorate, and any government is on the nose after a while, even one as competent as they are."
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