EJANZH: Michael Gordon, a Question of Leadership, reviewed by Richard Davis

A Question of Leadership. By Michael Gordon. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993, xiii + 240. $14.95.

Reviewed by Richard Davis, History Department, University of Tasmania.

This book, published in February 1993, immediately before the Federal election, has apparently been overtaken by events. While recognising Keating’s achievement during his first year as prime minister in converting certain electoral defeat into a hope of success, Gordon still expected Hewson to prevail. Keating’s victory would be `one of the most remarkable political recoveries in modern political history.’

Now that Keating has been returned with an increased majority, what can we learn from this book?

It is not a formal biography of Keating and provides little general information not available during the recent election campaign. Basing his work on interviews, Gordon moves confusingly backwards and forwards in time.

Keating remains an enigma in Gordon’s account. The prime minister never completely clarifies the relations between market economics, which he pursued as treasurer, and the traditional Labor values he claimed to defend. Keating’s push for nationalism and belief in the open market are not explored in any depth by Gordon, though the latter quotes Bill Kelty on Keating’s ‘weird but effective concoction of traditional Labor values and market freedom’. We learn that Keating first showed his independence of the public service as treasurer in late 1983 by overruling John Stone and jettisoning exchange controls and floating the Australian dollar. Gordon, like many contemporary journalists, appears to accept new right ideology as economic gospel. There is no analysis, comparable to that of Dean Jaensch, on the Keating and Hawke hijack of traditional Labor policy.

Gordon, however, shows Keating, on the back benches after his first challenge to Hawke in May 1991, capitalising on the latter’s unimaginative adherence to the anti-interventionist practice of his ex-treasurer. As Prime Minister, Keating himself introduced pump priming in his One Nation policy. Nevertheless, while effectively defeating Hewson’s Fightback, the Keating of Gordon’s account seems unlikely to move economic debate back to the middle ground.

Although there is little penetrating analysis of Keating’s character or early influences, some interesting information emerges. Keating’s ambition, his lack of interest in formal education, his friendship with the ageing Jack Lang and his admiration for Franklin Roosevelt are mentioned. While prepared to confront politically antagonistic Catholic clergy in church, Keating originally held very conservative attitudes on women, whose basic place was in the home. Gordon quotes a colleague’s view that Keating’s great fault was hubris, or insolent pride which may sometimes force its way through problems with an exhilarating ‘touch of excitement’, but also liable to bring disaster.

The book traces effectively Keating’s relations with Bob Hawke. Gordon suggests that Keating from the start expected to succeed Hawke who lost considerable credibility after nearly losing the 1984 election. Keating became the government’s engine-room while Hawke was its public face. Rivalry developed strongly before the Kirribilli agreement of November 1988, when Hawke promised to resign the leadership after the next election. Hawke’s refusal to go, Keating’s ‘Placido’ speech of December 1990, the failed May 1991 challenge and Keating’s final caucus defeat of Hawke in December 1991 are effectively described. Gordon demonstrates that Keating was about to retire from politics when Hewson’s Fightback package threw Hawke’s depleted ministry into disarray and gave the ex-treasurer a last chance. Even then Hawke might have prevailed had he not agreed to extend the pre-Christmas session an extra day and set up the final caucus vote. Gordon does not possess the dramatic flair of an Alan Reid, but the book is worth reading. The index helps to remedy the absence of chronological sequence. The interview material is sometimes illuminating if lacking in depth. It will be interesting to see how the alignments, political positions and economic perceptions develop during Keating’s second ministry. Already there have been surprises. Time will tell whether the imaginative pragmatism of an FDR or the New South Wales hard right Labor ideology will prevail in Keating’s second term.