Comment: Keating, neither matinee idol nor rock god

Keating's hagiographers are at it again, but the former PM deserves no more adoration than Howard or Gillard, writes Paula Mathewson.

Each Prime Minister deserves to be remembered and celebrated. But the facile apotheosis of Paul Keating and his legacy needs to stop, writes Paula Matthewson.

Deification of former Prime Ministers seems to be a favourite Australian pastime at the moment.

Tony Abbott made considerable effort while Opposition Leader to erect the burnished edifice now known as the Howard Golden Years. In turn he benefited from being seen by Coalition voters as the former PM’s natural heir and the means by which the nation would return to the levels of prosperity they fondly (although perhaps inaccurately) recalled.

More recently, the legacy of immediate past Prime Minister (but one) Julia Gillard is being carefully curated by a cohort of supporters from a broad spectrum of political views. Through a series of over-subscribed public appearances Gillard has been given the platform to shape early drafts of her political epitaph while consolidating a predominantly female fan base perhaps more empassioned by the sexist and hateful treatment doled out to our first female PM than her actual track record on reform.

Yet even Gillard’s fangirl base must surely fade in comparison to the apparent hordes of Keating admirers, particularly amongst those who follow and discuss Australian politics on social media.

Granted, Keating is the only Australian Prime Minister to have literally had a musical made in his name. (And a very good one it was too). And he does have devilish charm and a faded Hollywood aura about him.

But surely our assessment of Keating as a politician and one of our nation’s prime ministers is determined by more than our ovaries and what can only be explained as digital pheromones wafting from our screens.

Undoubtedly the man is intelligent, elegant and eloquent. No-one quite rocks a Zegna suit like he does. Keating’s also a cunning street fighter who never thought twice about kicking a man when he was down. No-one of his generation or the next delivered a withering put-down better than Keating in full flight.

And perhaps this is the nub of it: Keating is our dirty little secret. He reminds us of the days when it was still acceptable to fight dirty in politics; the days when parliamentary aggression was made palatable with cutting wit and perfect comedic timing.

But timeshifted into a contemporary political environment, the Keating of old would more likely be a villain than the hero he is painted as being today. Would we be comfortable with a Prime Minister today telling an opposition leader that he wanted to “do him/her slowly”? How about the same PM calling an intransigent Senate ‘unrepresentative swill’ or the leader of a near Asian nation recalcitrant? Would we still smile benignly at him catcalling a bunch of protestors to ‘go get a job’. And would he get away with calling any random female ‘darl’ or ‘love’ as Keating was wont to do?

As Treasurer, Keating gave us the recession we had to have and 17 per cent mortgage rates. As Prime Minister he introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers. He won an election campaigning against something that he actually believed in (the GST). He broke election promises. And he only ever had one woman in his Cabinet.

Keating also did a bunch of good things including action on Reconciliation, introducing compulsory superannuation, strengthening Australia’s economic role in the region, and supporting the Arts.

Notwithstanding, Paul Keating doesn’t deserve our adoration any more than John Howard or Julia Gillard. He wasn’t a matinee idol or rock god but a national leader with razor sharp mind, an acerbic tongue and a mixed record of achievements.

Each PM deserves to be remembered and celebrated. But surely we are insulting our own intelligence if we don’t subject PM Keating to the same level of scrutiny we automatically impose on PMs John Howard and Julia Gillard.

Paula Matthewson is a freelance corporate writer and political opinionista. After being a Liberal adviser from 1989-93, she spent 20 years as an industry lobbyist. Paula tweets at @Drag0nista and blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog.

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