Among the 29 people to hold the office of Prime Minister in Australia, Paul Keating is probably the one with the sharpest intellect. So, his abandonment of market liberalism is worth noting.
Unlike those with a more or less fixed view of the world, Keating is committed, as a matter of principle, to going with the intellectual flow. He started out, a little behind the times as a protege of Jack Lang in the 1960s, but soon adopted the then-dominant developmentalist nationalism represented by Rex Connor, and before that by the nation-building probjes Curtin and Chifley.
He was probably the first significant figure in the Labor party to jump on the market liberal bandwagon and abandon what he memorably called the “welfare bag of policies.” He justified this shift by the argument that, just as the traditional Labor heroes were right for their times, market liberalism was right for the 1980s and beyond. The fact that he stayed with Labor rather than changing sides reflected long-standing tribal loyalties and, even more, tribal hatreds, for the bankers who had brought down Lang and Chifley and for the born-to-rule “Tories” in general. But as Craig McGregor observed in 1990,
Anger without ideology breeds reaction.
Keating wasn’t quite as quick to recognise the failure, or exhaustion, of market liberalism, whch he now dates back to the GFC 2008. I’d argued (and did) that this failure was evident in 2001. Still, having recognised that market liberalism is dead, he pulls no punches in pointing out the fact, as in this recent interview with Troy Bramston, who has apparently just released a new biography.
Of course, that doesn’t make him any more charitable towards those who opposed him in the 1980s and 1990s, among whom I must be numbered.
“Of course some on the left might see my remarks as falling into line with their prejudices in the 1980s and 90s,” Keating says. “But the problem with these people is that they were dumb then and they remain dumb — they are resolutely determined to learn nothing.”
Responding, I’ll try to be a bit more charitable. Keating rightly recognised that the postwar social democratic agenda had run into a dead end by the 1970s and that market liberalism was the only game in town (At the time, I got the first part right, but thought that the time had come for a sharp shift to the left). And he’s right, if belatedly so about the fact that the 1980s market liberal agenda is exhausted.
But anyone who changes his views as radically and suddenly as Keating has done, ought to be a bit more humble about the way they push their newly adopted ideas. However deft you are in such transitions, they imply a substantial period in which you held to the old ideas when they were clearly wrong. And while some of the ideas you abandon may be merely outdated, others invariably turn out to have been just plain wrong. I don’t think I lack self-confidence. But having seen so many certainties overturned in my lifetime, I try to avoid them most of the time.
fn1. Gough Whitlam could give him a run for his money. The much-overrated current incumbent certainly couldn’t.