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Ghostwriting from a bunker: Watson's tribute to Keating

By Stephen Holt - posted Saturday, 15 June 2002

Inner Canberra – the dead heart of Australia – was the hub of Don Watson’s universe when he worked for Paul Keating as a prime ministerial ghostwriter and informal policy adviser. During four hectic years after 1992 Watson lived in the idyllic Telopea Park area from where he would walk up to Parliament House or over to the Lodge to work on his latest draft speech or media release.

Watson jotted down his daily impressions of this pressure cooker existence in a private political diary. This Boswellian document is the principal source for his newly published account of fear and loathing in the engine room of Australian government.

Watson clambered on board a listing ship when he joined the Prime Minister’s Office (the PMO to Canberra insiders). In 1992 John Hewson’s "big bang" approach to microeconomic reform appeared unstoppable. Keating, dragged down by almost a decade of stressful policy-induced change and then a recession, did not seem to have the heart needed to resist Hewson. He had just got rid of Bob Hawke and was understandably sick of shallow domestic politics. This had ceased to be exciting and was associated with parochialism and reform fatigue on the part of the electorate.


A world-weary Keating preferred to seek solace in architectural musings and late nineteenth century Teutonic music. A siege mentality, with voters deeply mistrustful of their moody and seemingly out of touch new leader, was evident.

Keating’s Canberra retinue, if we are to believe Watson, resided in a mini-Camelot, albeit a truculently antipodean one. Deeply impressed as a teenager by John Kennedy’s feat in becoming the first Catholic US president, Keating felt that he too, as a Bankstown "tyke" (a description from Watson’s book), had a duty to outstare Protestant bigotry and become Prime Minister of Australia. A wary feeling of uniqueness resulted, with off putting effects in terms of an adversarial and aggressive personal style.

This electorally unwise tribal spirit, it should be noted, was completely unnecessary and self-inflicted. It was a fatal flaw which emanated from as skewed vision of history rather than from the legacy of actual events. Watson should have told Keating told that his religious background did not make him a unique or special Australian politician. Australia, far from being a benighted backwater, had had church-going Catholic Prime Ministers long before he arrived on the scene as evidenced by the names of three neighbouring Canberra suburbs (Scullin, Lyons and Chifley).

Watson and the economic adviser Don Russell were the PMO’s centre of cerebral ("head") and emotional ("heart") policy activity respectively. A child of the Treasury, Russell still saw austere microeconomic reform as the main game while the knockabout Watson wanted to leaven a free market agenda with interventionist industry and regional policies and more social wage initiatives.

Watson’s use of an Americanised political taxonomy dating back to the Nixon era – "bleeding hearts", "pointy heads" – highlights another facet of the PMO’s strategic weakness. Keating inexplicably saw the joint presence of such forces in the PMO as a source of great strength. Once again a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.

In the late 1960s in the United States these colourful terms were used when urban working-class and white Southern political resentment erupted at a time of traumatic social change. The liberal wing of the Democratic party lost much of its mass constituency as a result and has never recovered. The glaring regional and cultural differences that were briefly the glory of the Democratic party under the New Deal proved unmanageable. These regional and cultural schisms provided a foretaste for Keating’s isolation in Canberra.


There was never any doubt about the Prime Minister’s courage. The Keating cult was down but not out in 1992. Panic and chaos in the PMO provided the fissionable material which made the idea of a comeback possible though unlikely. The Prime Minister always shook off his dolour when faced with the fury that his demotic one-liners so easily provoked.

The bright ideas of the ghostwriter were of no account until his brooding master provided the spark of political cunning. The best bit in Watson’s book is his account of how Keating, unaided by erudite policy advisers, turned the tables on Hewson. In a procedural stunt worthy of his days as a Young Labor factionalist he announced that Labor, if the Liberals were elected, would not oppose a GST in the Senate. This converted the unwinnable 1993 election into a referendum that Keating, defending the status quo, could and did win.

Victory, as Watson portrays it, was a blip in a story of terminal decline. The tax cut flip flop and federal budget of 1993 restored Keating’s disconnection from the small business people and home buyers of middle Australia. Voters still regarded him as uncaring and in turn were dismissed as provincial and thick because they needed to be approached through a fog of political artifice.

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Don Watson's book, "Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM" is available from Knopf, RRP $45.

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About the Author

Stephen Holt is a Canberra-based historian.

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