Paul Keating never wrote a memoir. The purpose of an ex-prime minister’s book is to tell us, without being interrupted, for 800 pages, how they were always right. But Keating has been too busy continuing to be right, always right, to have time to write. A memoir would be redundant.
Don Watson wrote a multi-award-winning book about Keating, the wonderfully generous and meticulous Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. It showed that in Keating’s significant legacy as treasurer and prime minister, he was a flawed genius. If only Watson had left out that f-word, Keating might still speak to him.
Anthony Albanese probably has some years before he has to think about what kind of ex-PM he wants to be. He ought to get onto it soon. There’s a shortage of role models.
Keating’s intervention in the debate over Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines is, as always, a welcome entertainment. He was, is, and always will be right on China. After all, he created modern China, when he was creating Australia’s foreign policy. He also created Barangaroo. He created modern economics, he created superannuation, and in his spare time he created Australia’s treaty with its Indigenous people. Oh, and he created the Australian republic. He created more legacies for Australia than actually exist. They are his gifts to us, given on condition that we never forget that he never made a mistake.
Since his retirement, Keating has also created the role of ex-prime minister as a figure akin to the nation’s ex-husband – always there at Christmas, always right. But it’s not just him. Like Elizabeth Taylor, we are blessed with many ex-husbands, all of them blameless.
If Albanese wants to do something really progressive, he might think about this. Our ex-prime ministers continue to get hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in expenses and, other than Turnbull and Morrison, lifetime pensions. Maybe their handouts should come with a compulsory vow of silence. (Keating receives about $300,000 in pension and perks – a steal, really, if it also bought a degree of reticence.)
Most ex-PMs’ job is the protection of their legacy. This curatorial work is a full-time job necessitating free domestic air travel, staff, security, drivers and office space. There is a constant fear, which they must combat without relent, that history will judge them badly. Hence, the memoirs. But another way of defending the legacy is to let it speak for itself. Had Keating done that, his achievements would drown out his defence of them.
When Albanese eventually looks for good examples, his thoughts might travel backwards in time (appropriately) and consider his predecessors in reverse order.
For Scott Morrison as an ex-PM, it is probably too soon to tell, although his early exhalations on Sky News and the speakers’ circuit suggest that he is fast-tracking himself to ex-husband status. If it is too soon to tell what kind of former prime minister he will be in retirement, it is also too soon for him to be hectoring us about how he was always right. There are 25 million survivors of the Morrison prime ministership still alive and still capable of remembering.
Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd might be seen as a job lot, two highly articulate former PMs who have used their verbal skills to massage their legacies. Their gravestones will read: “Still Right”. Then they will ascend into heaven, where they will stop off to correct Saint Peter on something he read in the Murdoch press.
Rudd sometimes hovers towards the embarrassing ex-husband category, which makes it a good thing that his ambassadorship to Washington is a behind-the-scenes role, although there’s always the risk that he will create a scene that he then has to get behind.
Tony Abbott – the less said the better, and a pity that that’s not his motto. As a former seminarian, he might have remembered the virtues of silence. The embarrassing speeches are mostly delivered to fellow fossils in wood-panelled, Chippendale-furnished salons in London, where they can be safely ignored. But in his eulogy to his hero, George Pell, Abbott showed that he has retained his youthful vigour, preferring to pick a fight with protesters outside the church. Tory is as Tory does: you just keep doing you, Tony.
Julia Gillard would seem, as usual, to be the exception. Her engagement in public life has been to contribute to current and future issues and stay out of politics. Perhaps she has done this to a fault, and should have avoided being so sensible. Uniquely as a prime minister, Gillard was ahead of her time. Sadly, much of her legacy was so compromised by the ambient politics of her years in power that this is why she is not running around like the others reminding us that she was always right.
John Howard’s role is to remind Australia that there was a time when father always knew best. He has continued to know best about everything, though he has done so in his plainspoken, dignified way. Like Keating, his continuance in never having made a mistake might, over time, cover over the fact that his final act as PM was to lead his party into the political wilderness.
Which brings us back to Keating, who slips, year by year, from dignified in the direction of daffy. This is a great disappointment to those who voted for him and who made a cult of personality around his many achievements. But there was a weight to them. Listen to the Redfern speech – written by Watson, though Keating claims authorship – and you hear statesmanship that has not since been replicated. Today, if he likes the Chinese government so much, Keating might also approve of their way of disposing of their ex-leaders. Picking them up by their armpits and dragging them out of the great hall is, if nothing else, a metaphor for what today’s leaders think of yesterday’s.
Whatever Keating thinks of Penny Wong, Richard Marles and Anthony Albanese, Australia is to go ahead with its plan to build nuclear-powered submarines over his objections. These subs can stay underwater, unseen and unheard, for months. Perhaps, by 2050 or whenever they are ready, Keating and his fellow former prime ministers can all be given jobs as captain.
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