The Mundanity of Charisma: Paul Keating’s Pathos and Path

The first time I met former Australian Labour Party Prime Minister Paul Keating he gave me a limp, dead-fish handshake. To call it a shake is to give it more life than there was. It was a limb held forward in a perfunctory, obligatory gesture. There was no feeling or warmth to it. At the time I did not reflect on this greeting. Afterall I was still well below voting age and we were at an intimate Sunday family breakfast in future West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop’s home. It was hardly the hustings. At the time Keating was treasurer but that didn’t impress me. He was just another grown-up. As I think about it now though, the handshake seemed so unlike the man at his peak. How can such a charismatic man have so bureaucratic, funereal a greeting? How did this real interaction fit with the mediated character?

I subsequently became a fan of Keating, especially his displays during parliamentary question time. I knew him in the way the rest of the public knew him – as a man of withering critique, as somehow who too evident pleasure at excoriating the Right. The image of the bruising, articulate politician is the one that lingers in historical memory. But to comprehend Keating thus, in a single instance, is to regard him monothetically. It does a disservice to his dynamism, his change, his multiplicity. It also neglects his early, parliamentary style and his decline after official life. Afterall Keating is like us all in that he changes over time and there are different ways to read him. That he has done so publically and so completely is what makes him compelling for thinking about leadership.

Since Carlo Ginzburg, if not E. P. Thompson, the micro-history of everyday people has mattered, but there is enduring fascination in the ‘micro-interaction ritual chains’ of ‘great men’ pilloried though they have been. To that end there is a minor cottage industry on Keating with several lengthy books having being published. This includes former speechwriter Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), which is both the most intimate and exhaustive account of his prime ministership yet. This is not to discount the appearances Keating makes in other people’s biographies either – Hawke’s, Howard’s, Latham’s and sitting Labour MP Chris Bowen’s recent The Money Men (2015). Keating was feted and fawned over by the arts sector and has been repaid by these more recent appearances in book form, even as they are not wholly complimentary. There is even a musical about him, which it was reported that he went to on numerous occasions in an act of vainglory. David Day’s Paul Keating: A Biography (2015) is the latest attempt at a biography, and while it is descriptive rather than analytical, it is nevertheless informative and entertaining. For his part, Keating insists he will never write an autobiography and Kerry O’Brien’s Keating may be as close as we get. It was based on thirty-two hours of recorded interviews with Keating, of which sixteen were edited and screened as a four hour television special in 2013. As such Keaing can lay claim to being authoritative. It is enthralling and pleasurable, if myopic, precisely because it is told in Keating’s own voice punctuated by questions from O’Brien. There are though lessons in it for a left interested in parliamentary politics, in governance.

Keating was born in 1944 and grew up in Bankstown, a working class suburb on the western fringe of Sydney. At the time there was still a nightsoil man, dirt roads and fibro shacks, where television and cars were luxuries and some places lacked hot water. His parents were devout Irish Catholics and devoted Australian Labour Party supporters. His father, Matt, was a boilermaker and union representative, who subsequently ran a cement maker business. His mother, Min, looked after four children and the home. From the age of ten Keating participated in politics – handing out and letterboxing flyers, speaking with people before and after church. At 14 Keating left formal education and became a clerk at Sydney’s electrical authority. One year later he joined the ALP. At 21 he became president of the NSW Youth Council for the ALP. At 25 he won a seat in federal parliament, adapting John F. Kennedy’s presidential slogan – ‘Put Paul Keating to work for Blaxland’ – for his own electoral campaign. He became a minister at 31, treasurer at 39 and prime minister at 47. Told like this it sounds like a triumphant procession, but for Keating it was a hard fought grind to get to the top.

There was conservatism in young Keating – women should remain in the home, strident anti-communism and heavy rightist factionalism inside a left-wing party, and, early ambivalence about Vietnam. This suggests as much about the perceived limits of pragmatic politics in Australia prior to the 1970s as it does about Keating’s ability for subsequent reinvention and change. His conversion to organised politics was through the family though. It was not like recent Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who learnt her politics on a university campus as an arts/law undergraduate. Gillard’s path has come to be the prototypical education amongst too many of the faceless functionaries and ambitious younger politicians on both sides of contemporary politics (see Matt Keogh or Josh Frydenburg for example). There is no duende in this sausage machine and one cannot imagine a politician as passionate and ribald as Keating being produced by the latter system. This might be the first lesson, namely one in realness. That one must choose a different path in order to embody one’s positions. However, Keating shares training as a union official with most parliamentary members of the ALP, even as he only briefly worked with the Federated Municipal and Shire Council Employees Union. Unions are the structure through which the ALP organizes itself, and Keating, for all his distinction, was at one stage a union man.

Keating was a consummate numbers man too. During the Whitlam era, in his early days in parliament, Keating was always sure to organize the ballots; he worked assiduously for the Right faction on obtaining votes; and, he lobbied internally for a great many things. During this time he was young and in a hurry. Yet Keating’s maiden parliamentary speech was notable for its hesitancy. He had not yet developed the firebrand quality that made him so memorable and there was nothing to suggest he was on a road to question time greatness for which he became known. But he applied himself and by the end of his first term was developing a reputation as competent and ambitious. This is to say nothing of his virtues as a campaigner – in his first three terms his vote went up in his local electorate regardless of swings for and against the ALP.

By the time he became treasurer under Bob Hawke in 1983, he had been in parliament for 14 years, a full decade longer than Hawke, who had transitioned from the union movement. Hawke was Keating’s political other – an Oxford educated, alcoholic populist. Despite that fact, Hawke and he shared a particular passion for governance and became the best post-war leadership team in Australia. After an initial distance, Keating recalls that they were ‘as thick as thieves’. Together they grew used to defending themselves and their government from charges they had betrayed Labour traditions. The Industrial Relations Accord of 1984, which asked unions to delay pay increases, suggests as much. It was the first building block in opening the economy up in a way that enabled the ‘working Australian’ to prosper long into the future. Keating’s time as treasurer also meant the deregulation of the banking system, the tearing down of tariffs, and, the privatisation of non-essential government services. The was the beginning, in Australia at least, of the cowardly creep to the right by the ALP. It was an approach replicated in New Zealand, Finland, Italy, Spain, France and Sweden and for that reason alone we must view Keating as a harbinger of Tony Blair and maybe even Justin Trudeau (Bowen, The Money Men, p. 294). In 1984, at the tender age of 40, Keating was awarded Euromoney’s ‘Finance Minister of the Year’ (an award nicknamed ‘World’s Greatest Treasurer’). Keating’s constant admonishment to his party was that the country needed to grow, not simply to redistribute. It needed to be ‘open’ and ‘market driven’, qualities one need be watchful of since globalisation if not before.

If Keating concentrated on growing the economic pie during this time it was always coupled with a desire to be leading the nation. Hawke had other ideas, of course, and their tensions are well documented by O’Brien. Although he doesn’t add much to the historical record that is absent in Day’s biography, he does so with a freshness of style and with greater wit because of the heavy presence of Keating himself, seen through long quotation. Keating though still hasn’t overcome his belief that Hawke held on for too long, which delayed his ascension and interrupted his vision for the nation. It still seems like a grand betrayal to him personally and, as a result, to the nation.

In December 1991 Keating had given up the idea of becoming PM and had packed up his offices. Fortuitously Hawke called the caucus to Canberra and a leadership spill took place. Keating emerged victorious and for the next four years he set about imposing his idea of Australia onto the public. This meant Native Title, Reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, APEC and a pivot to Asia and ongoing changes to the economy. This is what is contested now – but to my mind this reform did not go far enough in a great many directions. There is still an alarming amount of work to do in, with, for Indigenous communities for example. What are we to make of his leadership now though?

To some extent that means thinking about political leadership in general. For this we could turn to the ‘mundanity of charisma’. This is not to suggest that charisma is not routinized in Weberian terms, whereby a standardising bureaucracy follows the charming leader (which Weber sees exemplified in The Prophet Muhammed and Islam). Rather, charisma and bureaucracy are to some extent always present and interacting in the modern political economy, and that we can only recognise charisma by its small, material expressions. This is handshakes and smiles, this is kissing the baby, this is smoothed hair and shined shoes all while being minded by an administrative official. Of course, the degree to which the voter finds the politician charming is debatable and only becomes known when the numbers come in.

Perhaps though the general distaste we feel for politicians is the sheer inauthenticity, the calculated artifice of the performance, especially when it doesn’t work with a cohesive narrative and our own desire for them to be ‘real’. Witness 2008 American presidential hopeful John Edwards $400 haircut or the overly aggressive handshake of Australian Opposition Leader Mark Latham in the 2004 election, both of which robbed them of considerable momentum and contributed to claims they were ‘fake’ or ‘unhinged’. Witness too the mavericks Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn who appeal because of their authenticity, their resistance to the paradigmatic style. Charisma might simply be an excellent performance of the real. But was Keating charismatic?

Charisma for Weber is a ‘gift of grace’ and ‘men [sic] do not obey him by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him.’ In the historical literature, people consider Hawke to be the post-war charismatic leader of Australia par excellence. But this idea of Hawke’s charisma was created by examining how he interacted with ‘the people’ when campaigning. It is a myth enabled by the sources in other words. And it subconsciously draws on Weber’s idea that ‘the party is alive only during election periods.’ But Keating’s election win in 1993 was one for the ‘true believers’. People believed in Keating again as a person. Moreover, rather than simply comparing Keating to Hawke, we need to differentiate between types of charisma in the modern leader. Afterall, in Australian politics, like other Western democracies, leadership is as much about the shopping centre crowds, the endless cups of tea in community halls, the white bread BBQs and the biscuits afterwards as it is about the closed room meetings, the policy briefings and the committee hearings.

If it has been said that one campaigns in poetry and one governs in prose, Keating was remarkable for being a poet who disliked campaigning. With Don Watson’s guidance he made a great many poetic speeches, Redfern among them. Moreover, I mean dislike only in relative terms and some senses this is coloured by the historical framing of him after his loss in an election, a historical framing that is somewhat overturned by reading O’Brien attentively. Hawke never had to suffer the ignominy of being turfed out by his beloved Australian people and Keating always regarded the great unwashed with scepticism. But, Keating was first and foremost a charismatic parliamentarian.

Keating’s performance in question time, the Keating I grew to admire, is the stuff of Australian lore. Writer Mungo MacCallum compiled an inventory of Keating’s invective, which does nothing to dissuade ideas about Australian uncouthness. It reads:

Harlots, sleazebags, frauds, immoral cheats, blackguards, pigs, mugs, clowns, boxheads, criminal intellects, criminals, stupid crooks, friends of tax cheats, brain damaged, loopy crims, stupid foul mouthed grub, piece of criminal garbage, dullards, stupid, mindless, crazy, alley cat, bunyip aristocracy, clot, fop, gigolo, hare brained, hillbilly, malcontent, mealy mouthed, ninny, rustbucket, scumbag, scum, sucker, thug, dimwits, dummies, a will, a pig sty, Liberal muck, vile constituency, fools and incompetents, rip-off merchants, perfumed gigolos, gutless spiv, glib rubbish, tripe and drivel, constitutional vandals, stunned mullets, half-baked crim, insane stupidities, champion liar, ghouls of the National Party, barnyard bullies, piece of parliamentary filth. (Book of Paul, p. 39)

When Keating became PM however, he decided to roster his ministers’ appearances in question time and so there was a decline in this kind of abuse. He spent much of his time away from the house, and in so doing he, unwittingly, undermined his own power base. He had built up significant capital through considerable, and overlapping, experiences but key to that was question time, which had become televised in his sitting life. This ability to perform was not only due to his 25 years as a member of parliament, as a type of training endogenous to the ritual, but also prior to that in factional stoushes, junior ALP conferences, in his numerous workplaces. That he failed to embrace his famed attack dog rabidity and go hard at Howard in question time and the final two weeks of the 1996 election campaign further sealed his dismissal.

Weber is right to observe that ‘one can say that three pre-eminent qualities are decisive for the politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.’ Keating had those, even as he could be cold, irresponsible and wildly delusional. But these qualities will not make anyone an excellent politician. Excellence is, as Daniel Chambliss writes:

… accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualised, compounded together, added up over time.

For Chambliss, attitude, and the material expression of that, as a qualitative difference, is what matters. As Prime Minister, Keating failed to meet people, started his day late and finished early. But one does not hear as much about this in O’Brien’s work as would illuminate the daily workings of power. Day’s work is better at describing how Keating would wake and listen to music, taken meetings leisurely and retire early.

All this suggests that he did not enjoy, or excel, at the prime ministerial role in quite the same way as Menzies, Hawke, Howard. I say this as someone who preferred his vision, his challenge and wit to these others. Yet politics is as much about the big picture as it is about the mundane. I think the failure to simply show up day in day out in a bureaucratic manner was the beginning of the end. It sits in remarkable contrast to Keating’s diligence and competency in his years as treasurer. One needs to draw ‘emotional energy’ from positive ritual entrainment to be able to perform in other areas. That Keating’s decline was attributed to health concerns – fallen arches, displaced hips, back spasms – is as much a cause as it is an effect.

That charisma is so located in the body means that people do pay attention to looks, dress and handshakes. And Keating was someone for whom the ‘Australian public’ was taught to regard as an aloof aesthete by his comportment and taste, by his habitus. That was certainly the impression I grew to have of the day we met. Sandwiched between two prime ministers who made a public display of loving sport, especially cricket, Keating’s proclivity for the arts becomes altogether more striking. Keating would never have worn a white blazer emblazoned with the Australian flag to celebrate a sailing victory (Hawke at the America’s Cup) or being caught dead in an oversized, green and gold Olympic national tracksuit (Howard every morning on his walk). That a sort of cultural anti-populist governed for so long is testament to his other immense abilities. As Keating stated: ‘I say to him [Hawke] something that always gets him to bit: ‘I’m on a unity ticket with Patrick White [Nobel Prize in Literature]. I think sport has the potential to addle the Australian consciousness.’ He bites every time’ (Book of Paul, p. 14). But Keating is right to live his life thus. Art and politics is the only dialectic that matters.

His aesthetic taste though is eminently contestable. The paradox is that for all his exhortations that Australians be independent, to be post-colonial, is that he was in love with the European continent – his love for Wagner, his Mercedes Benz, his Italian shoes, his French antiques. Keating might have asked Australians to turn away from Britain and be a republic, but to be haute bourgeois in Australia still meant referring to the good life as the Romantic 18th and 19th century empire conceived it. This was the time of Great Historical Men and Keating wanted to be one of them.

Keating’s attraction to this idea of Great Men started young. For his twelfth birthday, he was given Hugh Trevor Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler. He began to read about Churchill too, claiming him as his favourite leader (as did Howard). But Keating was also attracted to living history. At 18 he would take lunches with 86 year old Jack Lang, former maverick premier of New South Wales and ALP outcast. In parliament his first mentor was the decrepit Minerals and Resources minister Rex Connors, not long for this world. On this Keating recalls: ‘if you want to learn something go to the masters [for].. really distilled product’ (Day, p. 111; O’Brien, p. 59). In the later part of his career he became friendly with the historian Manning Clark, claiming on several subsequent occasions that Clark significantly influenced his vision for what Australia could become.

Everything though is contextual and the leader is only as good as the nation. Australia is a middling nation both in economic and cultural terms. There is very little possibility of grandness to the vision here unless one painfully misjudges ‘the sense of proportion’. Keating wanted to be a Washington, a Roosevelt, a Churchill, but the context was never going to make him thus. This is despite achievements like APEC and Reconciliation.

In life after politics Keating has created a historical iron cage for himself as the tragic and bitter fallen leader, mistakenly ascribing this to an Irish national archetype filled with melancholic sentimentality. As he has stated: ‘you need the inner sadness. It is what fills you out’ (Book of Paul, p. 47). And yet, this iron cage is paradoxical, for he was lauded (perhaps wrongly) as a visionary who escaped the conservatism of Australia’s past, who broke the shackles of Australia’s self identity as a colony. For a man so versed in history, he seems to have forgotten to adequately historicise himself and to realise that history is, to some extent, written as we go along.

The naïf would be tempted to see evidence of his decline in the dissolution of his marriage, to say his devotion to the job cost him his relationship with his wife. But the relationship only dissolved once he left office. Like the Clintons, politics is what kept them together. Only the anti-materialist would suggest otherwise. Keating could choose now to unfold with a measure of grace and possibility, of satisfied reflection, rather than as someone rent with resentment. Instead, he courts controversy and struggles for a place in the nation. His exploitative current collaboration with casino moguls and real estate developers on Sydney’s new Barangaroo project only serves as an indigestible cherry on top of an alienating ice cream far far away from Blaxland itself. If he has not forgotten his roots as a working class Australian, he most certainly has jettisoned what a present utopia might be. And for that, we can only be saddened by what is a tragedy on an operatic scale.

Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.