SHOULD OLD PEOPLE be allowed to express opinions in public? This is not an ageist question, nor a legislative proposal, although, if we drew the line at, say, 77, we’d be able to stem the dialectic diarrhoea of Donald Trump while also halting Joe Biden from spilling word salads on his non-adoring public.
On a local basis, it would also be an enormous help with Australia’s PPMT (Post Prime Ministerial Torment), which sees former leaders—with the notable exception of Julia Gillard—seemingly unable to deal with relevancy deprivation syndrome and drowning themselves in a sea of legacy-destroying loquacity.
I was driven to this desperate suggestion while pondering ways in which to protect Paul Keating, quite possibly any sensible person’s second-favourite Australian Prime Minister, from himself.
I used to love Keating, even when he was screaming down the phone at me. And let’s face it, doling out abuse has always been uppermost among his peculiar talents.
In the early 1990s, I was a pimply mullet of a man, working as a copy kid at The Canberra Times. Keating would often call the office, particularly on a weekend morning, to let off some steam—the kind generally found a few feet above an erupting volcano. He wanted to express himself, volubly, about how wrong a particular story, or several of them, were, and if the offending journalist was not there, Keating would not wait to deliver the message, spraying it into the ear, and skull, of anyone unfortunate enough to answer. I was in awe of him, I still am on his good days, and would just let him burn the bristles right off my face each time, promising to pass on his melted pearls of wisdom.
I only heard him pause in full fight once, when an older colleague who used to cause good-humoured mayhem with his cane in the office, happened to answer the then Prime Minister. “What do you (expletive, expletive) mean you haven’t read the paper yet? Are you BLIND?” To which the quiet riposte was heard: “Yes, I am, actually.” Click.
In an idyll world, the Keating of today would still be a voice to be reckoned with, or broadsided by. Can you imagine him on a pro-Voice campaign stage reigniting the rage of the famous Redfern Speech of two decades ago?
“It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion,” he so famously said. “It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine that these things could be done to us.”
Instead, I scroll on the news to find that he’s got an axe to grind with Jens Stoltenberg, the current secretary-general of Nato, who he publicly lashed as a “supreme fool”, adding that “Stoltenberg by instinct and by policy, is simply an accident on its way to happen”. (Ah yes, he’s still got acid in his tongue).
Keating does not approve of Stoltenberg’s lack of love for China, and he’s not having it. Such is the lingering sound boom of his voice on the world stage that statements like this continue to make headlines, and send waves that would make overseas observers feel that such a public figure represents the wider views of Australia, and its current Government—rather than the opinion of a grumpy old man.
Not long before that, Keating let fly at the National Press Club, attacking Aukus as “the worst deal in history”, (again, he’s showing his age, we all know the $US44 billion Elon Musk paid for Twitter takes that title), labelling the columnist Peter Hartcher “a psychopath”, again, for supposedly anti-China fear mongering, before going after Foreign Minister Penny Wong for visiting too many of our neighbours—which is a bit like berating the most studious kid in class for turning up too early.
Now look, obviously Keating is not alone in setting fire to his reign in his latter years. Our British-born, Prince Phillip-loving Tony Abbott is still only 65 (which may suggest my age rule needs adjusting), and it’s been five years since he gave a speech in London suggesting that climate change was “probably doing good” and compared policies designed to fight global warming as akin to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods” .
Of course, Abbott was equally mad when he was PM, so his fall from grace is far less shocking than, say, Malcolm Turnbull becoming suddenly acidic and mean to Scott Morrison (who, in turn, seems to be struggling with the idea of not being PM, mainly because no-one else wants to give him a job, which is tough for a man who used to give himself so many portfolios).
Okay, that’s probably a poor example, too, but it does remind me that another Malcolm, the seemingly stone-hearted Fraser, who not only managed to become friends with Gough Whitlam (who was also a relative paragon of virtue with his post prime-ministerial career as a UNESCO Ambassador) but became a bit of a surprise lefty. Here he is on his own party: “It has become a party of fear and reaction. It is conservative and not liberal. It has not led positive directions, it has allowed and, some would say, promoted race and religion to be part of today’s agenda. I find it unrecognisable as Liberal.” Ouch.
Perhaps it’s a more modern malaise, then, this lack of retired restraint. I once managed to offend former Labor hero Kevin Rudd by mentioning him unkindly in a car review and received a stinging email from him, which gave me the sense that he spent much of his waking day Googling himself to see if anyone still cared.
The ultimate former PM, of course, was our greatest ever, Bob Hawke, who has been so suitably remembered with a brewery/pub in inner Sydney—the Bob Hawke Leisure Centre, where you can have a beer next to a statue of the Great Man, or peruse photos of him smashing a schooner at the SCG in front of an adoring crowd. (Honestly, it’s like a church for the non-religious Australian; you must make a pilgrimage).
Hawkey never went away as he aged, but nor did he sour. He even buried the hatchet with Keating, apparently, after finally working out how to remove it from between his shoulder blades where the latter had plunged it in the 1990s.
Which brings us back to the great orator. It’s not just what Keating says these days, or the anger that goes with it—that’s nothing new after all—it’s the fact that he’s making me afraid of getting old myself. Is it compulsory for old men to go full Fox Grandpa and start ranting? Does reason abandon us along with bladder control?
These questions worry me almost as much as how I’m starting to see similarities between Paul Keating and Peter Dutton.
What I’ve always most admired about Keating, aside from his economic genius and setting up a superannuation scheme that means I’ll be able to afford to eat solid food when I’m old, was his belief that you have to spend all the political capital that’s been given to you.
When you get elected, he believed, your job is not to sit around worrying about the next election, it’s to act on the policies that won you votes this time. To do the big things and the hard things, now, and not worry about how their popularity or lack thereof will play out for you, personally and politically.
That approach is just one reason, of course, that he was a single-term PM.
Today, though, Keating is spending the equivalent of the political capital, and popularity, he put in his own theoretical superannuation as if he’s Elon Musk. He seems to want to burn it all down and fly straight into the afterlife with his Zegna suit on fire.
And yet when he was just 67, he was still capable of speeches like this:
“One is left with the thought that, given the way we now abuse the ocean and abuse the climate, that we are heading towards our own iceberg. It’s not visible yet but it certainly exists there and it won’t be my generation that has to deal with the fact that the world is not bountiful forever, that the ocean and the atmosphere are not free goods to be abused, that will have to feed these vast populations. That will be your generation.”
Paul Keating turned 79 this year. Just saying.
Stephen Corby is columnist and the former editor of TopGear and Wheels.