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Paul Keating: The man we have to have

By James McConvill - posted Wednesday, 22 June 2005

I grew up in country Victoria, and was the first person in my family to finish high school. In my final years at school, Paul Keating was prime minister. He put forward a vision for Australia that was inclusive and convincing and made me believe that if I worked hard enough, had an open mind and was passionate about the future, one day I too might become prime minister. I was inspired to go to university and to study law - and I did.

I genuinely worry for today's young people. The sense of opportunity and hope that Keating helped craft has gone. I cannot remember the last time inspiring words rolled off the tongue of Prime Minister John Howard.

This is not to say that Howard is a bad person, just not the great leader that we need. I might be relaxed and comfortable, as Howard wants - but this is not the stuff that gets hearts racing, minds thinking and dreams satisfied.


Howard has been a smart politician who has generally stuck to his core principles and tried to best serve his constituency. But something is missing. Over the past nine years in which Howard has been Prime Minister, the equilibrium of opportunity that made Australia the lucky country in the 1980s and into the 1990s has slowly unravelled, leading to a lack of balance and lost hope for many.

The elite who are Howard's true believers have been well served, with business regulation more efficient and tax rates for companies and high-income earners falling. But enhancing the wealth and opportunity of the upper classes does not automatically equate to a richer and stronger community.

What has been forgotten by Howard, the Labor Party and the political pundits is Paul Keating's greatest legacy: his ability as a person and a political leader to remove the ceiling of opportunity for the lower and middle classes, and in doing so build a nation rather than just an economy.

Keating was so much more than Italian suits, French clocks and "the recession we had to have". He was (and remains) a true inspiration. He made me believe I could do anything and be anybody. Unconnected, truly talented, passionate, kind, genuine, he left school at 15 to fight for what he believed in - the Labor way. A man who, without a prominent surname, networks on which to rely or a degree from a sandstone institution, became the most significant treasurer in Australian history, a compassionate prime minister and a respected leader on the international stage. He lit the candle of opportunity and hope for me and others in the tail end of generation X, even if many of us failed to appreciate his role.

When one looks at some of the recent comments made by Keating, it is clear that his vision for Australia has not changed, even though he has swapped nation-building for home renovations. Just last month he told The Age that while the economic growth of the past decade has made Australia richer and stronger, we have been left yearning for something more. According to Keating: "There is now no glowing light." Further, in an opinion piece written in Britain's Guardian newspaper on May 4, Keating opined that "people cannot have the wealth and the jobs while at the same time laying waste to the human spirit".

Comments such as this make me remember the good times of Australian politics with Keating at the helm. But now the "vision thing" has gone, replaced by smart politicians and self-interest. We are worse off because of it.


Can Paul Keating make a comeback? He is now 61-years-old. Winston Churchill, a leader whom Keating admires, was in his mid-60s when he returned from political oblivion to become British prime minister in 1940 to lead the battle against Hitler in World War II (and then later returned to become prime minister a second time in his mid-70s).

So Keating still has plenty of time. While Australia might not be under imminent military attack, there certainly is a festering battle to save the richness of the Australian spirit and the vision of the Australian community from eternal myopia. Keating's finest hour could still lie ahead.

Rather than entering through the side door of ALP functions, Keating should return to centre stage. Rather than our nation succumbing to Howard's mantra and settling for "relaxed and comfortable", it is time for the vision thing.

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Article edited by Leah Wedmore.
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First published in The Age on June 8, 2005.

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About the Author

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

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