Keating haters

Throughout the days of the previous government, its media cheer squad denounced anyone who dared to criticise the government as a “Howard-hater”. This seemed to me to be either a silly piece of rhetoric or just plain wrong. To the extent that it was simply a label for anyone who disliked the government’s policies and therefore disliked the government and its leader, it was just a silly piece of hyperbole. A more natural reading is the claim that people who had no particular quarrel with the government’s policies opposed it because of a personal hatred of Howard. This seems to me to be just plain wrong. I don’t think I ever met anyone who liked the government’s policies but strongly disliked Howard himself (by contrast, other government ministers like Abbott and Costello were widely disliked on a personal basis). It’s notable that the only hostile nickname for him that ever really stuck (the Rodent) was due to one of his own backbenchers and didn’t emerge until 2004. The flipside was that very few people loved Howard in the way that many other political leaders have been loved. Liberal supporters stuck to him as long as he won elections, and forgot about him as soon as he lost one.

The only personal hatred that has any real force in Australian politics is hatred of Paul Keating. This emerged very clearly in relation to the 2020 summit but it’s true more generally that Keating has remained an energising figure for right wing culture warriors more than a decade after his departure. Whenever they go on about the chardonnay-sipping or latte-drinking elites it’s patently obvious that this stuff bears no relation to the current generation of Labor leaders. I have no idea what kind of drinks Kevin Rudd or Anna Bligh or any of the others favor, and Rudd is certainly more intellectually cultivated than Keating ever was, but the idea that they are members of some cultural class distinct from the ordinary Australians is patently silly.

Update: I posted this partly completed, there’s more over the fold now

When he was actually in power, hatred of Keating wasn’t by any means confined to the political right, and for that matter love of Keating came largely from groups other than the Left, who were, after all, his tribal opponents within the Labor party and the earliest targets of his powerful talent for invective.

For the general public, Keating’s fate was sealed when he referred to “the recession we had to have”. He and his economic advisors expected a brief downturn that would puncture inflationary pressures, but he took responsible for the longest and most brutal downturn since the Great Depression.

Amazingly, and reflecting his great talents, Keating came back from that disaster to take the Prime Ministership from Bob Hawke, to drive John Hewson to defeat in the apparently unlosable 1993 election, and to sweep aside the ‘dream team’ of Alexander Downer and Peter Costello. If his talents had included humility (or even the capacity to fake it convincingly) he might well have gone on to beat John Howard.

Instead, he convinced himself that the victory was a tribute to his Leadership. (don’t ask me about the full stop) and proceeded to demonstrate this by embracing a set of causes to which he had previously exhibited either apathy or active hostility – the Republic, Reconciliation, multiculturalism, the arts and so on.

For the majority of Australians, this made little or no difference. Keating was tied to the recession and that was that. The causes he espoused suffered a temporary loss of support by virtue of his association with them (the phrase Keatin’s Republic, deployed to some effect in the 1999 referendum, is illustrative), but the effect faded within a few years of his removal from the political scene.

Among those who took Keating’s sudden change of focus seriously, a somewhat ingenuous minority took him at face value and approved (I remember a doco in which some members of this group were incautious enough to be filmed drinking the white wine that must not be named). A larger group, the culture warriors of the right, convinced themselves that Keating’s unpopularity derived from his cultural agenda, and not the other way around. They’ve been fighting Keating’s ghost ever since, and still can’t bring themselves to abandon this struggle.

45 thoughts on “Keating haters

  1. Some random thoughts:

    Keating’s comments on Costello during the 2007 election were vintage: asleep in the hammock. Still is it seems.

    Since joining the blog world I have been staggered by the emotive invective of some bloggers and many commenters. Hate is alive and well. Personal abuse and denigration are too common. Makes you want to swear off sarcasm and even satire sometimes (not many times).

    I cannot believe some of the sick stuff written on sites like Western Heart. Literacy and ignorance are certainly not incompatible.

    Having said all that, the enduring metaphor of the last 2 elections came from Mungo MacCallum: John wHoward as the unsinkable turd who finally disappeared around the u-bend.

  2. Much of the hatred of Keating is simply from farmers and businessmen whose enterprises failed or were badly damaged by high interest rates and tariff reductions perceived to be his fault.

    I never hated Keating but voted for Howard in the belief that my business would get some relief from tariff reductions. Not only did this not occur, but the Howard Government added a few more imposts to running an orchard supplying the home market. I feel that Howard turned on us like a yellow dog.

    For that and many other reasons you could call me a Howard Hater, but the last 20 years of politics (and associated economics) has pushed me to the Green left. I think Keating genuinely tried to make Australia a better place for all whereas Howard pandered to big business and liberal market economists and thought that everything below would take care of itself. As long as it all shone a light on him.

  3. SATP – “Keating knew it, hence during several years of 50th anniversary of everything WW2 he made sure he didn’t appear at the same battlefields or other remote sites at which ex-servicemen were attending (a front page photo of an ex-digger putting a toe up the arse of a besuited PM would have been a MOST humiliating event for the PM)”

    I think it’s more that Keating didn’t have the same obsession with wrapping himself in khaki like Howard. Also could be that Keating didn’t believe that he was the centre of the universe on such occassions.

  4. From 1983 until 1991, Keating was absolutely detested by ALP branch members. He was right-wing, economically rational, a sell-out. I recall a Labor party pissup after the 1990 election and he was unanimously booed when claiming victory in Blaxland on the tv.

    Upon becoming PM, he changed and the true believers decided he was the ants pants instead.

  5. I suspect that Howard was more hated than Keating was. It is not a particularly ‘well ordered’ thing though most people who dislike Howard are on the left, while most who dislike Keating are on the right, although Keating did not make himself popular on the left with policies like his seemingly unconditional support for Suharto.

    But amongst people I know (a totally unrepresentative sample), Howard is hated far more than anyone else in Australian politics. Partially for his policies, but perhaps also more on a personal level because of the constant lying and constant vilification of people more disadvantaged than the majority, such as the unemployed, Aboriginals, refugees and so on. Howard lowered the integrity of Australian politics to a lower level than it has been for a long time and history will judge him for that.

  6. Whilst being a laborite all my life, I was not a Keating lover but he at least had a vision for the future whereas the rodent had a vision of and for the past and after 24/11/07 I felt a dark cloud lifting. I am waiting for Kev’s vision

  7. I hate John Howard because Pauline is just a dumber and less polite version of him. I particularly hated the hurt look he got when anyone verged on observing similarly, however less colourfully. His appeal for more more politeness in political discourse could not have come from anyone more in need of it. He viscerally and calculatedly appealed to the worst in us and Australia is the worse for it.

    Give me a Keating spray over a Howard dog whistle any day.

  8. @ Michael #28.

    You are funny! The Placido Domingo of Australian Politics, the World’s Greatest Treasurer, suddenly turning humble & suddenly developing a humble side? Ha ha ha hahaha..

  9. Nonsense, John. I’ve met heaps of Howard haters who have absolutely no stance on policy and many more who have no coherent stance. I’ve also met more Keating haters from the left than the right. I’m on the libertarian right and in general agreement with most people you call “cultural warriors” yet I never liked Howard and absolutely love Keating. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

  10. “The arsehole made us all rich & comfortable, everything he did actually worked.”

    I’m often confused as to whether you are making parody or not SATP. Assuming the arsehole to which you refer here is Howard, he did not make us rich & comfortable, people do that themselves. And as for the Howard legacy, I’m happy to await Costello’s memoir prior to judging Howard further.

    Everything he did worked? Even he wouldn’t agree with that. Though Howard dressing up in track-suits and leaping up in the air for photo-shoots surrounded by security guards while watching sporting events always worked for me. Gag reflex.

  11. Keating’s great hamartia was to think of himself as anything other than a bovver boy from Bankstown. His acerbic tongue was used to disguise the fact that he lacked culture. His odd behaviour made him a lightning rod for criticism by the great unwashed, members of his own party and a few brave journos.

    Keating’s desk was covered in travel allowance claim forms and it seems the poor fellow was unable to move from A to B without claiming some type of allowance. He even got his family in on the act by moving them to Canberra while at the same time claiming he lived at Bankstown. The AFP investigated that situation but any zealousness on the part of an AFP officer was sure to be rewarded by a posting to the blowfly early warning post at Camooweal. As Prime Minister, he defended Ros Kelly when she rejected normal office procedure and instead used a whiteboard to account for AUD$30 million. I wonder how many taxpayers are allowed to do their tax return on a whiteboard.

    Keating was no financial savant. Four economists, Dr L Csapo, Mr G Raby, Dr WR Steel and Mr KD Thomas, of La Trobe University, sounded a tocsin in August of 1983 when they accused “…the Hawke Government of slavishly following conservative, monetarist policies of the Fraser era…� and that “…the Government has given up almost all the ALP’s principles and aims and has transformed itself into one of pragmatic wheeling and dealing to satisfy the wishes of the corporate sector and of powerful segments of the Public Service�. They called on a Caucus inquiry into the ministry’s economic policies “before it is too late and the opportunity for reform is lost for a decade or more�. A check of the Hawke/Keating locust years that followed bear that out.

    David Eastman (economic consultant and former Treasury officer) painted a less than flattering picture of Keating in an article in The Eye of 88/89. The article was free of the usual ALP mythology. He pointed out that Keating had talked up the large investment in domestic restructuring while at the same time telling us that since he removed exchange controls in 1983 a lazy AUD$28 billion was being invested overseas. Impossible to comprehend but according to Keating it was true.

    Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in February 1995, Alan Ramsey said: “Another tender spot for Keating followed his attack on John Howard after Howard had been elected to Leader of the Opposition. Keating claimed that ‘the Australian economy today is 40 per cent more competitive than when he [John Howard] was in office’. Although the question of how we maintain our competitiveness surely goes to the heart of the competency of economic management, there has been no attempt in the media to analyse this important claim. In fact, of the 37 per cent improvement in competitiveness under the Hawke-Keating Labor Governments, more than the whole (45 per cent) is accounted for by the depreciation of the A$. Such an exchange rate induced change in competitiveness is, of course, really an indication that Australians have had to accept a relative decline in living standards: our underlying competitiveness, as reflected in relative productivity growth, had deteriorated under Labor�.

    It was Keating to the rescue when one of his mates was charged with possession of a loaded illegal firearm when a private flight from PNG landed at Townsville. It was claimed by the owner that he feared the PNG highlanders and carried the gun for protection. Not too many highlanders have taken up residence in Townsville nor were there any reports of Townsville residents storming the local airport and attacking planes and passengers. Keating wrote a glowing reference for his mate. We all thought that pollies wanted to get illegal firearms off the street.

    The aura surrounding Keating needs to be demythologised. Perhaps that can be achieved by noting that Keating spent in excess of 4000 days as part of the government yet at no time did he issue an apology nor urge that an apology be offered to aborigines. From 1996 to about 2007 he called on Howard to apologise to aborigines. I think Keating has earned the title ‘whited sepulcher’.

  12. Joseph, you might want to reread the post, particularly the observation that “hatred of Keating wasn’t by any means confined to the political right”.

  13. The central point (as I see it) of the post is that those hostile to Howard hated his policies, while those against Keating hated him personally. I think this is true, but its a little hard to prove as the two things tend to spill into each other.

    One way to tell the difference is to see whether people can pay credit when they do agree with the politician in question’s actions. At the time most leftwingers managed to say positive things about Howard’s actions post Port Arthur. They tend to get forgotten in all that came afterwards, but if they’re mentioned almost everyone I know will say something along the lines of “good point, he got that right”. (Greens, particularly from Tasmania may also take the opportunity to point out the largely ignored role of the Tassie Greens in getting the laws up, but they’ll still acknowledge that Howard’s participation was crucial).

    The anti-Keating forces on the left can also acknowledge plenty of good, at least these days. I’m not sure how easily the Quadrant crew can admit how many things he did that they would have loved from anyone else.

  14. I’ve deleted this comment, as a personal attack on another commenter, based on speculation

  15. From the start Keating saw himself as implementing Labor’s traditional economic goals but through different means (see his 1987 address to the Whitlam conference), the social liberalism from the early 1990s was a new element but I see no reason to doubt its sincerity. The anti-Keating campaign was/is bizarre rather like the Clinton wars (which the right has now put on hold).

  16. At the time, I loved Keating’s colloquial quips. His Redfern address inspired. Lately I’ve heard him and thought that while he’s entitled to have a say, he should limit it in these new times(I am going to see K the musical soon incidentally). Howard, I came close to hating (try not to actually hate any human being), and I find it hard to separate the man from the deeds as he came to embody so much that I found abhorrent – dancing with Hansonism, Iraq, the treatment of refugees & the disparaging of people who cared about refugees. The refusal to name the ugliness at Cronulla. No need to go on. Only his gun laws redeemed him from complete disapproval. Kevin Rudd? A kinder leader. Hoping he will live up to his great potential. Ok, I confess. I’m a Rudd Hugger.

  17. JQ, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Crikey’s Christian Kerr (aka Hillary Bray) brought the “Rodent/Ratty” reference to Howard into popular use very early after Crikey’s inception in 2000. It might, therefore, be that the term had been in use within the Liberal Party for some time, given Christian’s Liberal links, before Brandis inadvertently brought it to public attention.

  18. “Rodent” was apparently a Liberal Party term from the 1980s, when he was gnawing at Andrew Peacock’s leadership. So it was used in “liberal” quarters.

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