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Prime Minister interviews

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Prime Minister interviews

 

The run against Hawke: Keating fires the starter's gun

31 August 1991




Published in the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Courier Mail, Advertiser, West Australian, Mercury, NT News, Canberra Times and Courier-Mail


HE HAS BEEN hanging above Bob Hawke for three months now, like a jaguar in a tree. He won't retire, or "be struck dumb". There is only one chair he'll deign to occupy in the Cabinet room. As for waiting around for Opposition - that was declared long ago to be "an act that's over". All this can only mean one thing.


"Parties have got to get on with their evolution. They can't just be stopped and say, 'Well, we'll keep one leader till he's as old as Methuselah.' The public are quite smart about these things. They're tuned into the healthy processes of selection within political parties in democracies - as the British public were obviously understanding of what happened with Thatcher, Heseltine and Major."


Paul Keating's view of Labor's present leadership instability is rather different from Bob Hawke's. His supporters' intentions for the near future are expressed even less diplomatically: and they owe little to "evolution".


The new occupant of Parliament House's room 101 is sitting in his small office in an atypically casual blazer and dark pants, looking every bit as "relaxed" and "detached" as he claims to be. He talks, with minimal encouragement, for two and a half hours. He smiles readily, laughs at suggestions that many women find him attractive ("In my emaciated late forties! No, I'm heading for dessicated coconut status."), and is "certainly not anxious or desperate about" the leadership. The claim to detachment is half-believable. He has taken holidays, gained weight and, according to a friend, now "sits around at home on the weekends doing nothing". He is also playing more tennis, and seeing a lot more of his four young children.


This newly recreational approach to life is strangely at odds with the grim scenario which has been put in place by a nucleus of Keating's supporters, in which Prime Minister Bob Hawke will, in the near future, be induced to quietly fall off the perch. Keating would have to be blind, deaf and dumb to be unaware of what is going on - and of the effect of doing interviews like this one. Yet, like Hawke after his 1982 challenge to Hayden, he plays only an indirect, "acquiescing" role in the push. The active conspirators are both MPs and former Keating staffers, now seconded to pro-Keating Ministers. This latter, fiercely loyal sub-group operates the media drip, and has even formulated a Keating "ideology" to bring their man into sharp contradistinction to Hawke and, later, John Hewson.


Morgan polls put Labor's primary vote at 33% currently, compared to the Coalition's 50. A very big turnaround is required to win the next election.


"Yes that's right. It's a tall order," Keating says. It is possible, but "the Government's got to be seen to be relevant to the issues, and competent at dealing with them - and encourage a sense of confidence".


Is this currently happening? His voice fell to a barely audible mutter. "Oh, well I don't much want to comment on that sort of stuff."


He is rather more talkative about recent polls which show him to have "respect" and "regard", if not Hawke's higher levels of popularity. Should he become Prime Minister, he states, he will seek to build on these more "serious" qualities.


Keating's backers feel he has the same kind of in-depth approval in Caucus. (But, again, not Hawke's broad numerical appeal.) The Keating vote, they say, is rock solid, whereas Hawke's consists of "true believers", "time-servers" fearful of seeing the boat rocked, and those whose votes were secured by threats to pre-selection.


Keating states that no-one was forced to vote for him on June 3. "They were all about supporting me. Changing things." I asked him if such threats were widespread from the other side?


"Oh very widespread. Very widespread. I said so in the Caucus meeting." A major factor in the outcome? "No, I would have still lost, but I would have got nine extra votes." The Queenslanders? "Yeah. And some of the Left. I would have had 53, rather than 44."


Keating's supporters indulge his idiosyncrasies, such as the occasional inability to put his finger on the right word (silences of up to a minute may ensue, complete with much forehead-massaging and under-the-breath cursing) and his refusal to sack incompetent secretaries, even when the rest of his office is unanimous on the matter. ("Poor little girl. Where would she go?") Another is a slight tendency to exaggeration. His supporters believe the Keating vote, without the pre-selection threats, would have been 50 out of Caucus's 110 members.


The Keating activists in Caucus are nominally led by Senator Graham Richardson, and include John Dawkins from WA, Laurie Brereton from NSW and Peter Duncan from SA. The zealots among Keating's former staff don't like to be identified. ("There'll be no fingerprints on this story, will there?" "Don't use that word - everyone knows that's my word.")
In what is perhaps the definitive long-shot, both groups are trying to convince waverers that Labor is "finished" on its present tack: that the newly "Thatcherist" Liberals are beatable only with an equally "ideological" Labor leader, who can win back the defectors of the 1980s.


"A bit of the old class war," as a senior Keating man put it. "Hawke," he added, "hasn't laid a glove on Hewson yet. That's why the party needs to install Paul."


Keating laughed at this. "Just leaving my installation to one side as an issue, if you're talking about re-sharpening the political divisions, I would certainly always take the opportunity to sharpen them with the Coalition." Labor has "created a different view of society in Australia. John Hewson's going to challenge that view. Well good on him. Let him try."
 


How do your credentials for challenging Hewson in an election compare with Hawke's?


"Well I'm not going to get that right unless the Labor Party wants me to have it. It's as simple as that."


Let's face it, there's a move afoot in Caucus. The Keating backers are working...


"There's not a move afoot. Let me correct you about that. There's not a move afoot anywhere. I might have supporters and admirers. But I suppose most people at my stage in public life do. And they were galvanised by the challenge which I made."


They're saying there will probably be, if not another challenge, then a change of leadership - before the next election, and presumably before the end of this year. If I ask you what your involvement in that is, you'll obviously say "nothing"...


"Nothing."


Then what is your attitude towards it? It's fairly widespread.


"I made it clear I won't be mounting any further challenges, and I accepted the decision of the Caucus, and the view you put is just a speculative view."


It's one that's been put to me by several parliamentarians.


"Well...you always get that sort of chatter in Parliament House. It's part of the stock-in-trade of the place."


So what's your attitude towards this speculative view?


"My attitude is that these matters always are matters for the Labor Party. If the Labor Party ever calls on me to lead it, at some point, I'd be delighted to try."


All this naturally brought John Clarke to mind.


Let's examine more trivial matters for a moment. What are your impressions of the Keating satirists, like John Clarke?


"Oh well, I mean, it's alright. It's okay."


You don't fall about?


"No. No, because I don't think imitating is the cleverest thing to do."


Max Gillies' Bob Hawke was pretty spectacular, I thought.


"Oh, I didn't... Basically I think sending up people in public life - who are essentially dedicating their lives to the public - is not the cleverest thing to be doing. And particularly when the commentary only pays scant regard to the positions they hold... Essentially they feed off the body politic."


Some would say they keep the body politic more healthy.


"Well they might. [Broad smile.] As scavengers keep the place more healthy. Agreed!"


Cartoonists?


"I think there's more cleverness in the cartoonists. They have to do it to a subject, every day. Getting a pithy thought into one box. I think they are a race apart, those guys. The cartoonists, I think, have a bigger impact on the public debate. They bring into sharp relief some of the shortcomings of the rest of us. And I think that's fair enough. Because I think when you're in public life it's open season."


Any favourites?


"I think Tandberg's the best. The discipline he has... He gets it right very often."


Why satirists are "scavengers" and cartoonists "a race apart" we never resolved. However with a little more prodding he did finally discuss why he appeals to some women.


"I'm sure a lot of people like the horsepower of the act, you know?" He pumped the air with his fists, grinning. "Particularly women. Women have remarked about it. But I think it's to do with the issues, not to do with me so much."


IT IS ANTICIPATED that the jaguar will not, this time, fall onto the Prime Minister like a thunderbolt. Instead, he will wait to be invited down after a period in which the Keating leadership credentials are quietly sold to the majority in Caucus.


This period could conclude as early as October, or as late as the first quarter of 1992, his supporters believe - but most feel that the Lodge will again know the thunder of little feet towards the end of this year. The numbers, they claim, are already shifting. (Hawke's supporters are adamant that they are not - though the Keating camp's detail is a little more convincing. But because of the Budget neither side has had time for a head-count.)


There is one important reason for the steady momentum now being maintained by the Keating forces: the most likely time of the next election is, many believe, around October-November 1992. As a Keating supporter put it, "Once you get under 12 months till the election, it may not be worth the party's while to make the move."


A source very close to Governor-General Bill Hayden reports "many a hearty vice-regal chuckle" over all this. It is not hard to see why. Keating's supporters, who refer to their undermining of Hawke as "the dripstone technique", expect 1991 to end as 1983 began: the leader's own friends and allies will "tap him on the shoulder", and tell him "well done, but the game is up". A second ballot is seen as unlikely.


Rather than feeling under threat from all this, the Prime Minister's camp claims the June challenge was just the shot in the arm the 61-year-old Hawke needed. "He hasn't performed this well in two years," said a close supporter. He added, realistically, that Hawke "can't afford to stumble", and is well aware of the ongoing moves from "the other side". To repel these moves it was decided - in an office meeting called shortly after the challenge - on a two-pronged strategy. Hawke was to be depicted as both engaged in his work (e.g. preparing the Budget) and in touch with the people. The latter has materialised as a weekly foray into the community.


Hawke's chief operative against Keating is Senator Robert Ray. The other main ones are Beazley, Hand, Bolkus, Howe, Kerin and Evans - though his staff is also involved in the subdued warfare which keeps phone lines buzzing and epithets flying. Hawke aficionados murmur darkly of Keating's arrogance, and his lack of caring. From the Keating side, the Budget has been extensively trashed. There is a fair bit of scandal-mongering from both sides: sex, alcohol and antiques have all been dragged in. Most of it is fictitious or very old hat.


The weekend preceding the leadership ballot was a bitter one. The divisions remain. Hawke and Keating now only see each other when the House or Caucus meets. Their former close relationship will never be the same.


While Hawke is engaged in image-broadening, Keating, too, is broaching new areas of policy. Questioned on his "green" credentials he points out that he opposed oil drilling on the Barrier Reef in Caucus in 1976 - "when Dr Brown was still looking at tonsils" - and was an early advocate of an Antarctic wilderness park. These are the same two examples he trotted out when I quizzed him on the environment over two years ago, and hardly suggest an ongoing engagement with the subject. He predicates any real attempt to save the environment on the nation's economic health: questions on ecology were all answered in economic terms.


He is unquestionably more serious about foreign affairs. Shortly before our interview, a Hawke Minister had startled me by stating, "The Americans, through the CIA, can veto any prospective Australian Prime Minister." The American alliance therefore seemed worth pursuing with this prospective Prime Minister.


A perception has arisen in the Hawke years that we have been too obsequious toward the US.


"We will end up being more important to the United States when we become more important in South-East Asia."


In the meantime, though, do you think our attitude could change a little at government level?


"It's about the friction co-efficient. It's about how easily you deal with them. It's not about the nature of [the relationship]... Now in some things I think that we may be too - what shall I say? - too willing to see the United States's view, as distinct from seeing it anyway. [We could] feel obliged to respond to it less expeditiously; perhaps a little more concerned to make sure our own interests are set right."


The Gulf War springs to mind. 150,000 people dead, 336 oil wells still burning, Saddam Hussein still in power. Yet there hasn't been any questioning from this Government as to whether it was all worth it.


"Saddam Hussein's regime had to be dealt with - so that it wasn't a juggernaut in the Middle-East, permanently unsettling to the Middle-East. Now you've got Jim Baker trying to find some kind of settlement, with the Israelis, so some good may well come of it all..."


The Middle-East paid a massive price for it. The people of Iraq particularly.


"They would have paid a bigger price had Saddam Hussein's criminal tendencies been allowed free rein."


I tried to engage the Prime Minister in 1989 on the CIA's involvement in the Whitlam dismissal. CIA officers to the rank of Regional Director, Station Chief, and one former Deputy Director, have said that the CIA made a series of moves to get rid of Whitlam. It's regarded by many as a hoary old bit of paranoia from the left; by others as having a fair amount of evidence.


"I think I share the view that it's a bit of hoary old stuff from the left. I don't doubt that the CIA was less than enamoured of the Whitlam Government, but I don't think anything happened as a result of their initiatives, or them conspiring in some sort of arrangement with the conservative parties of this country. But I didn't come down in the last shower: I don't think there are any angels in the CIA."


Keating's backers suggest that he has a more balanced attitude to the US alliance than Hawke. One Minister points out that in Cabinet Keating expressed reservations about the size of the proposed Gulf Task Force, and advocated a "safer" position for it in the Persian Gulf. (John Button, whose doubts were deeper, received a withering volley of obscenities from Hawke and Gareth Evans.) 


But Keating, finally, is not likely to precipitate any sleepless nights at the White House: "I like the United States. It is the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, and that is undeniable. By nearly all the measures of greatness: economic strength, pluralism, democracy."


As for the Prime Ministership of what he hopefully regards as the second-greatest nation on Earth: "Well it's something that might come my way. But the scales have fallen from my eyes about it a long time ago. I've probably been nearer to it than anyone who hasn't had it - over quite a long time. The notion that [it's] where the direction and control of the place is at one's fingertips - I mean, I don't believe that."


If the job doesn't come his way, Keating will spend post-Parliamentary life "using my brains: doing something commercial". 


I pointed out that when I'd first met him in 1986 he had (according to my notes) "not smiled once" in our hour together.


He laughed. "That was banana republic year. I had a lot on, you know?"


He seemed then to be in a kind of permanent battle mode. Was I right in saying that he'd calmed down quite a lot in the last five years?


"Oh I think the weight goes off you. You get a better understanding of where you are and what is required of you... But the pressure people work under in high public sector jobs is enormous. It's so unappreciated outside. It does take the smile off your face."


To make matters worse for the Placido Domingo of Australian politics, the constant speech-making has destroyed his singing voice. "When I was young I used to always be singing at parties. Whenever I was in half the mood I used to get up and knock a few songs out. I couldn't give you a song now if you put a million dollars on the table. I just can't reach the notes."


AFTER THE INTERVIEW, a couple of Keating men were winding up the week in a Ministerial office when a new Saulwick "preferred leader" poll slid off the fax machine. Keating's percentage score was 30; Hawke's 51. The previous Saulwick poll - though it used different methodology - nevertheless had them 27 points further apart than that. For a half-hour, phone calls ricocheted around the building ("Mate, listen to these numbers."). A little later there was the quiet clinking of glasses.


Whether the Keating team's joy in such numbers is justified will become clear in the coming weeks. As Bob Hawke and his supporters will undoubtedly remind them, there is still a big difference between 51 and 30.


And Methuselah was 969, not 61.



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