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Groundhog Days - Working with Paul Keating PM March 1993 - March 1996

By Terry Flew - posted Tuesday, 29 October 2002

Review of Don Watson, Reflections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, Knopf/Random House Australia, Sydney, 2002, 756pp. Part 2.

When Labor was elected to its fifth term of government in 1993, there were two possibilities. The one that Don Watson and the Prime Minister’s staff hoped for was that the surprise election victory had given Paul Keating and the Federal Labor government a clean slate, and the capacity to pursue new initiatives confident that he had the authority of popular election and a renewed mandate from the electorate.

For much of 1993 and some of 1994 this appeared possible, partly because of continuing leadership instability among the Liberals, but also because of the impact of the major issues that Keating had chosen to run on after the election: a legislative response to the High Court’s Mabo judgement, that found that indigenous Native Title claims to traditional lands were not annulled by European settlement; establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum, that would include Australia, New Zealand and the United States; and options for Australia to become a republic. In all of these cases, Keating could lay claim to personal moral authority, the symbolism could galvanise the Labor rank-and-file, it created the concept of a ‘big picture’ for 21st century Australia that both complemented and moved beyond the economic reform agenda of the 1980s, and often provoked reactions on the conservative side that were so extreme that moderate liberals baulked at an association with such reactionary perspectives.


But the problems were apparent on Sunday 14 March, the day after the election victory, when Mike Keating and others from the Prime Minister’s Department arrived to disrupt the partying and let the Prime Minister know that the government could not afford the tax cuts it had promised during the election campaign. Watson observes that ‘Every winter of the Keating Government seemed to be worse than the one before’ (p. 395), and with the first winter being that which put forward the politically disastrous August Budget, where the government reneged on the promised tax cuts that Keating had said would be ‘L-A-W—law’ two weeks earlier, it sets the scene for a bad three years. Watson notes that ‘At the heart of the protest against the Budget of 1993 was the feeling that Paul Keating had made bunnies of the people’ (p. 403). Such sentiment would get harder, and uglier, over the term of the Keating Government.

For Keating’s defenders, the passage of the Native Title Act exemplified both the qualities of Keating’s leadership, and the political impossibility of the tasks that he had set himself. Watson describes developing a legislative response to the Mabo judgement as both a moral imperative and a political death trap:

There were three options: hedge, backslide, prevaricate - and live with the ignominy; go the long way round - and perhaps get lost and never reach the other side; or wade straight in - and risk disaster. Keating waded in. From that moment we could never be sure that he would not sink irredeemably in quicksand or reach the other side in triumph, but alone and stranded (p. 405).

For Keating, the moral imperative to pursue Mabo arose not only from concerns about historic injustice. They were also shaped by his view that Bob Hawke had failed as a national leader when he backed away from national land rights legislation in 1985, unable to get consensus on the issue, and not wanting to endanger Brian Burke’s Labor government in Western Australia.

Keating surmised, rightly, that it was impossible for a Federal Labor government to get consensus on indigenous issues, particularly those involving land and Native Title. There would always be opposition in the conservative ranks, and from the mining and pastoral industries; there would always be State premiers, both Liberal and Labor, who would oppose you (most likely to come from WA or Queensland); there would always be polling that said that most Australian voters were not very interested in Aboriginal issues; there would always be those who argued, perhaps correctly, that the practical problems facing many indigenous communities can’t be solved through largely symbolic statements about reconciliation or land rights; there would always be some straight out racist sentiment expressed very forcefully; and there would always be those Aboriginal leaders and non-indigenous supporters who said that such policies did not go far enough.

For Keating’s supporters, the fact that he was willing to wear nine months of this to get a legislative package together that could satisfy enough interests, and get enough votes in the Senate to pass in the face of blanket Coalition opposition, would be perhaps the high point of Paul Keating’s Prime Ministership.


The second half of Reflections of a Bleeding Heart is considerably more tetchy than the first, as Watson and others are increasingly worn out by their inability to correct Paul Keating’s reckless behaviour and excessive response to perceived slights. As Watson puts it, in one of several statements on their inability to deal with Keating’s moods, or his political contrariness and unwillingness to listen to criticism:

I felt half unhinged. I had his ear, his confidence and trust, but I could not make a difference to the political chaos that surrounded him (p. 610).

At times, working in the Prime Minister’s Office seems akin to being Bill Murray’s weatherman in the film Groundhog Day. Times start hopefully, with a fall in interest rates, a new policy, or the signing of a treaty, then turn bad as it either becomes apparent that the good news has had no impact on the opinion polls, or Keating is too despondent to respond to the possibilities presented, or Keating blows it through an excessive response to his political opponents, or to the media. This clearly takes a toll on Watson’s health, and indeed on his mood: the list of groups who are obstructing the ‘big picture’ grows from expected conservative opponents and the economic hard heads in PMO and Treasury, to include the arts community (pp. 518-519), ACOSS (p. 636), the ACTU (pp. 661-662), environmentalists (p. 539), and, of course, the Labor Party Head Office, who were suspected of secretly maneuvering to replace Keating with Kim Beazley.

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This is part 2 of Terry Flew's review, part 1 is here.

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About the Author

Terry Flew is Professor of Media and Communications at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Understanding Global Media (Palgrave 2007) and New Media: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008). From 2006 to 2009, he has headed a project into citizen journalism in Australia through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage-Projects program, and The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion) have been participants in that project.

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