Though the Keating era was somewhat before my time, there’s been many an afternoon I’ve spent happily watching Keating rants on youtube (such is the excitement of life as a PhD student). In the utter linguistic banality of our current political period, it’s sometimes heartening to watch lively political debate, and in clip after clip Keating consistently delivers – weaving verbal assaults on the Opposition with improvised tirades, riffing off the frustration of his opponents, at times turning Question Time into linguistic performance art.

Since those days, Keating has become something of a dark, almost mythical figure in Australian politics – emerging intermittently on Lateline or ABC Radio to deliver one of his bon mots, only to seemingly disappear once again into the ether. No other Aus politician could invent the kind of evocative, slashing insults as his characterisation of Peter Costello: ‘all tip and no iceberg’, and his recent attack on Q&A ‘if you go on Tony Jones’s [show] you need a hip flask of mace.’ Whatever you think of Keating politically, he has a command of metaphor and imagery rivaled in Australia only perhaps by Myles Barlow.

Of course, part of Keating’s charm has always been his arrogance, but there is far more to his vision than the negative words and insults for which he has become notorious.

There’s a Vonnegut quote that reads: ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’. It’s a well-known line, and there are many resonances for the sentiment, but I was reminded of it when reading Keating’s collection of post-Prime Ministerial speeches After Words.

The self Keating has presented to the world in recent years – or perhaps more accurately, the caricatured self he has been reduced to in the public perception – has been based almost entirely upon those searing insults. Which other politician could provide enough material to inspire an entire musical? Yet this collection of speeches (probably the closest we’ll come to a memoir by the author) presents a more nuanced Keating. His opinions come indirectly – from book launches, editorials, eulogies, conversations, event openings – but taken as a whole, a clearer picture emerges of his passionate vision for the direction of Australia and of his status as a true conviction politician.

Though he never passes up an opportunity to stick the boot in – most notably, and predictably, to Howard and his government:

‘You’ve always got to be worried when you hear the word ‘practical’ from this government. It’s like an anti-matter particle which obliterates the noun it’s meant to describe.’

and hilariously, even to those whose books he has been invited to launch, such as in his speech launching George Megalogenis’s The Longest Decade:

‘Would I write a better book? Well, of course I would. I write better than George and I know more. But George is not me and he is not John Howard and his third-party view is worth something. Is it worth the word? No. But is it worth something? Indeed, it is.’

Yet, this is the kind of writing we expect from Keating. More revealing, however, are the speeches on his love of art, history and classical music. Beginning with a quote from Schiller: ‘If a man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice, he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom,’ the work contains extended discourses on his passion for Neoclassicism, the second symphony of Gustav Mahler, and the architectural beauty of the Sydney Opera House:

‘Utzon’s building, like all great art, never weakens. No matter how often you see it or from what angle you look at it or in what light it is cast, it always hits you in the heart because it is simply so good. It is, without any shadow of a doubt, the greatest building of the twentieth century and one of the greatest of all history. Because it devolves to a new and ingenious order which its creator himself divined.’

Keating is as his best, I think, when he is regaling his audience with grand visions for the direction of Australia. In his 2001 speech at the launch of Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay ‘In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right’ he proclaims:

‘Out here, on the edge of Asia, a long way from major markets and natural groupings, ideas are all that Australia has to garner a position in the scheme of things and to shield it from the harsher winds of globalisation. Not military might, or a large population, or unique resources; simply ideas.’

This is indeed a work teeming with ideas. Two of the speeches in particular, ‘The Centenary of Federation: Beyond the Celebrations’ and ‘For the New Australia’ are exceptionally inspiring, and it is incredible how relevant the visions outlined in these speeches continue to be even today.

Though only the most dedicated/tragic political junkie would read this (over 600 page) tome cover to cover, sometimes when you’re depressed by the current state of political discourse, it’s comforting to read something like this:

‘After the election result was clear in 1996, I made the remark that when the government changes, the country changes. I was making the unfashionable point that politics matter: that by their actions and words, our political leaders powerfully shape the sort of country Australia is.’

The words used by those in power do indeed have the ability to shape and influence the type of Australia we live in. We need more of these grand visions from both sides of politics.

— Paul Keating’s After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches, is out now through Allen and Unwin

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