Last tango in Canberra

Jack Dempsey

Don Watson Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: Paul Keating PM, Sydney Australia, Vintage, 2003. ISBN 0-0918 3-517-8 (paperback) RRP $35.95.

It is acceptable to savage politicians and to resent the apparently extravagant privileges that elected office brings. This view typically casts politicians as lying cowards driven by pathological self-interest. It is fed by journalism that vacillates from race calling between the major parties to partisan mudslinging about complex issues.

Today both the major parties are in the throes of leadership troubles. John Howard has pushed off his ambitious deputy for the moment, primarily because he can. Mysteriously, many voters find him reassuring at a time of great uncertainty and despite turning 64, Howard still enjoys the perverse pleasures of the top job.

On the other side of the chamber, Simon Crean has had his turn at picking up the pieces of Paul Keating’s 1996 election defeat. But if Kim Beazley has his way, Crean will not get the chance to become an unpopular Prime Minister. Beazley wants to campaign under the banner of respect, which is a curiously optimistic view of the electorate’s perception of politics.

All this might be funny if democracy were not almost brand new. It is worth remembering that in Australia, universal suffrage did not begin until the 1967 referendum gave full voting rights to Aboriginal people. Internationally, billions of people are still ruled by systems where voting is, at best, the process of endorsing the leader of a one party state. Democratic institutions are so new, it is difficult to know how robust they are.

Australian politicians are expected to conform to rigid patterns of behaviour established, in large part, by relentless media coverage. They must be glib and decisive, humble yet firm. There is little place for genuine emotion and passion, and none for risk. It is better to be cynically inert than optimistically progressive. They should be of the people but somehow strangely above them, selflessly committed to others. They should fiercely protect the rights of the individual and families but recklessly disregard their own.

Don Watson’s book about Paul Keating, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, conveys a sense that Keating’s failure to conform was more a product of his nature than his will. He simply couldn’t fake it. Watson does not psychoanalyse Keating, but he does explore his moods and what he describes as Keating’s ‘bewildered solitude’. Watson is just as candid about his own low points, but as with his treatment of Keating, his self-analysis is more in the manner of a novelist fleshing out a character. Ultimately, Watson suggests that like many characters in novels, Keating is impossible to really know.

This absence of certitude is a strength not a weakness. Watson reveals decision-making processes at odds with their public presentation as the convergence of common sense and reason. His description of the broader landscape of advisers, Cabinet, bureaucracy, Party, and the electorate reveals an environment far more precarious than spin-doctors and politicians would have us believe.

Keating’s failure to conform was more a product of his nature than his will.

Watson contrasts Keating’s fierce pursuit of his policy agenda with a description of Keating as a person easily distracted and frequently disengaged. While this frustrated Watson, his admiration for Keating was undiminished. It also seems that Watson realised that in the fight that is politics, Keating’s best days were behind him by the time he became Prime Minister. The price Keating paid to get there had diminished his powers. In Watson’s portrait, Keating often resembles an aging athlete—still number one, but barely holding it together.

In this way the book brings to life the brutality of politics. The reviled and respected figure that was and is Paul Keating is reduced—or perhaps elevated—to a more vulnerable position, genuinely committed to his family and country. Watson mentions Keating’s admiration for Muhammad Ali and like Ali, Keating’s last years at the top took a heavy toll on himself and his family. Watson also underlines that—unlike Gough Whitlam or Bob Hawke—Keating’s need for public approval was never strong. Keating has not retired to become a political icon or celebrity; he is now for most of the time a private citizen.

Wondering what a person was really all about after 700 odd pages of a biography could easily be dissatisfying. Why spend so much time on a book when at its end the reader is not a great deal closer to understanding the subject? The answer probably rests with Watson himself because Watson, more than Keating, is the book’s central character. As Watson leads us through his four years with Keating, his feelings and views are most clearly explained. Keating’s struggles are intrinsic to the story, but Watson tells of his own parallel battles just as vividly.

One of these battles gives the book its name. Watson describes the ‘bleeding hearts’ as the disunified group (including Watson himself) in Keating’s office loosely opposed to the office’s free market economics trained advisers. Don Russell was the leader of the latter group and Keating’s Chief of Staff for many years. Watson describes Russell as ‘… insouciant, insensitive, calculating … soft and open to persuasion … an optimist’, and concludes by saying that, ‘even at the worst of times I liked him’. This is typical Watson, whose sense of balance and acceptance of complexity makes him seem entirely unsuited to the partisan world of politics.

Although Watson had worked as a speechwriter for former Labor premier of Victoria, John Cain, he gives the impression that he was a perpetual outsider in Keating’s office. Early in the book Watson describes an encounter with Keating and Russell where he floats the idea of resigning if things did not change. After Keating describes Watson as ‘an organisational prima donna’, Watson backs off, but goes on to say in the book that ‘nothing that I had seen ran so incompetently or perversely as the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] … so it pretty well always remained’. Despite his artistic leanings, Watson appears discomfited at the intuitive way Keating ran his office.

Watson's affection for Keating is obvious, but so is his disappointment at Keating’s failings.

The figure of Don Russell looms large in the book, but like Watson’s treatment of Keating, the reader is left with more questions than answers. Given Watson’s view that Russell ‘was probably the only person alive with the capacity to think along the singular and formidably effective lines that Keating did’, it makes the book more of an exploration than an exposition of the political process. Maybe Watson’s point is that although rational considerations are important, emotional and ethical considerations are just as significant—if not more so. Russell’s intellect was accompanied by ‘utter loyalty’ to Keating, which in politics is worth more than anything else.

Watson’s ability to combine the personal aspects of politics with its rational structured policy side is the book’s principal achievement. His affection for Keating is obvious, but so too is his disappointment at Keating’s failings. Having read this book it would be fascinating to get an insider’s account of John Howard’s office. It is easy to assume that it would be more organised, but like Keating, Howard also seems to operate intuitively, albeit with different influences and personal motivations.

Watson conveys an overwhelming sense of Keating’s disillusionment and fatigue as the 1996 election drew closer. No previous leader could lay claim to transforming the Australian economy while driving a progressive social agenda. Australia’s indifference to this achievement weighed heavily on Keating, even before his defeat. After 27 years in politics and a list of achievements as long as his arm, nobody seemed to care and those that did often disliked him intensely for it.

Most political careers end in tears. People that once loved you end up hating you. Achievements never overcome the disappointments and failures, the betrayals and omissions. The truth is too harsh and the half-truths unconvincing. It is amazing that so many people still want to be politicians when contempt is the ultimate reward.

At least Keating got in there and did it. For most politicians such a career is only a dream. Peter Costello must be wondering whether he too will pick up the fag end of his party’s dream run, which in large part has been achieved by his own economic management. Costello’s recent comments about ‘vision’ and speaking out intensify the sense of déjà vu. He looks more like Keating as each day goes by. Hopefully, if Costello does get to be Prime Minister he will employ his own Boswell, who will do him as much justice as Watson has for Keating. If nothing else, at least a good book will come out of all that egotism and misery.

Jack Dempsey is a former political staffer and union official who now works as a public servant.