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The politics of envy

By James McConvill - posted Thursday, 3 November 2005

Almost ten years after Paul Keating ceased being prime minister of Australia, the conservatives are still desperately trying to rewrite history. Why is it that there is such a concerted effort to paint our greatest ever treasurer, and most compassionate prime minister, with a negative brush?

The Bulletin has had a go recently, same with individuals associated with conservative think-tanks and blog sites.

The answer is envy.


Paul Keating became the leader of this country from a humble background, and that makes the less talented insecure and sick with hate. The politics of envy is alive and well in Australia, and it is making an embarrassment of the conservatives. They still cannot understand how a working-class man without a bachelors degree can know so much about economics, aesthetics, world affairs … and opera.

They sit in their art-deco homes, professional offices and on the university lawns and think up stories about Keating that will accord with their understanding of the world and how they fit into it. Yes, a humble working-class man became treasurer and then prime minister, but, yes that’s right, he swore uncontrollably, he couldn’t manage the economy, he was removed from the community and the people didn’t like him: he’s now a bitter and twisted old man with nothing else to say but words of revenge.

What rubbish.

And rather than try and transcend from this ugly hatred, the conservatives are trying to build themselves up by again rewriting history to claim that it is the conservatives that have the real vision for Australia. But what is this vision? Why is it that they believe it is them, rather than Labor, that reject the concept of a “Little Australia”?: because history shows it is the conservative government that is quick to send off troops to foreign countries to get blown to bloody pieces in war-ravaged regions that are out of control. It is only the conservative government that is capable of having a relationship with the most fundamentally inept US president that modern history has experienced.

Envy can be a horrible thing. The conservative revisionists need some help in dealing with it. Yes, it is curious that they have done - and will continue to do - far less with their lives than Keating was able to (and still does) with ease, but this is not an excuse to start making up stories. Fairytales are for primary school, grown-ups focus on other things.

The fact is it is OK for a humble working-class man to go on to do great things. It sits very comfortably with liberal ideals, and therefore should be embraced by all of us rather than being diminished. We would live in a richer and much more enlightened country if the conservatives spent their time actually learning from these truly talented individuals.


The reason that Howard has groomed himself as such an overly cautious and safe prime minister is that, like others have said, he is still haunted by Paul Keating, and is therefore attempting to distinguish himself. He knows, as we all do deep down, that Paul Keating’s legacy is deeply engrained in the Australian economy and society more generally.

Howard has yet to win, and will quite possibly never win, an election based on his own genuine achievements.

The 1996 election was won due to the natural order of the electoral cycle; the 1998 election was won due to the government riding on the momentum of Keating’s strong economic initiatives; the 2001 election was won due to a grubby manipulation of Tampa and September 11 by Howard; and the 2004 election was won due to the government riding on the momentum of Keating’s strong economic initiatives. So rather than being crucified, Keating lives on- perhaps stronger than ever. The only way for Howard to try and change this is to take on a different persona to Keating, which he struggles with great effort to try and do day after day, but still cannot naturally beat Keating- even after so many years in the job.

It is this force that explained Keating’s success, and why he won the 1993 election against all odds. His success was on his own terms, and due to his own efforts. There were no ghosts or artificial personas. He won the unwinnable election because the public held him in awe, he lost the next one not because of any individual, but due to an even greater- but natural- force: the electoral cycle.

As a community, we understand a lot about diseases and illnesses and we go to great lengths to try and cure them, so that our future will be a healthier one. It is time we recognise that the conservatives are gripped by the disease of envy, that it is affecting how they perceive the country and their recollection of history. Without help, their illness will be transferred to others. We need to make an effort to help cure them, otherwise the real history of Australian politics will unfortunately be passed off as a fairytale.

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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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