Robert Manne listened to Mahler and then listened to Paul Keating – and so did we.

Robert Manne listened to Mahler … and Keating

Wheeler Centre, Sunday Nov 6, where ~1,200 people gathered in the presence of Paul Keating for a discussion mediated by Robert Manne, who  had listened on the way in to Mahler’s 2nd symphony by way of preparation.

Keating corrected Blair who spoke of the Third Way. ‘No, Tony – it’s the Only Way! There’s  the classic free-market, with the trickle down effect we never see, there’s a centralised economy and then there’s our Only Way – ‘economic reform, done with a labour heart’.  The liberals wrecked that, they took away the collectivism of labour expressed through unions and enterprise bargaining. They took away the no-disadvantage test and they took away the safety net.  Why did they do that? Why the miserableness?’

‘The only thing that the liberals ever accepted, and after 7 elections, was Medicare. When we deregulated the banks, we changed them from regulators of credit (which only a few could get) to providers of credit to free up creative activity. There’s been many great changes, from the depression to the New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society, we learned the lessons of history, we were pragmatic rather than ideological’.

‘Bob’s (Hawke) instincts were good instincts but he lost enthusiasm for the hard stuff. So he was no more use to me’. In 1990, the ALP received 39% of the vote – this is what made him withdraw from reform.

Robert Manne asked Paul if he was too truthful, too honest? ‘To have regard for people, you must tell them the truth, take them into your confidence. I said to Bob, we might get 6 years, we’d better go for broke.’

‘Since 1990, there’s been an average increase in real wages of 1.74% per annum in Australia. Over the 20 years, this represents an increase in real wages of 35%. In the US, there’s not been an increase in real wages in that time. We brought this about as a result of enterprise-based collective bargaining. ‘

‘We reformed the Australian economy in the nick of time (to withstand the 1987 crash etc). ‘

‘We had to engage in our region, the Asian-Pacific region. We couldn’t do this as a European bastion, so we had to sort out the republic issue, indigenous rights. Up to this, neither Australia nor the ALP would face up to dispossession. Native Title was a material response to this, as were the social justice programs we implemented, the stolen generation work. Had we won in 1996, I would have been Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Unlike the ‘shellback’ Howard who was 1953 reincarnate. You have to drag the conservatives to everything, to Medicare, to superannuation, indigenous rights.’

‘We have to understand that we are part of the east Asian hemisphere, with a giant nation to our north. We have to celebrate Indonesia, to have kinship with them. ‘

‘Maybe we did too much – you never know how long you’re going to be there. We had Dolly Downer for a few years, I’d have liked him to stay longer. I needed more time – I had the Carmen Lawrence thing take up 6 months, I had Howard a blubbering wreck – I did not have enough time.’

‘The Canberra Press Gallery are ‘rats and barnacles’ – initially they were in favour of and supported the reform process but then they got bored with it.’

‘In the Howard years, Australia lost its moral compass, this can act like a poison on the national soul.

When a conservative force meets a more conservative force, the more conservative force always wins. This was advice that I received from Kim Beazley Snr and I recalled it to then labour leader Kim Beazley Jnr with regard to what he should in the Tampa affair. The prime duty of a national leader is to protect us from prejudice.  The poison is still in the national body – we need an exorcism. ‘

‘The great event in the modern time is the re-emergence of China as a major economic force, as they were in the 18th century. This is the event of our time. A monarchist wrote approving of the future ascension to the throne of William and Kate. If you were a member of the Chinese Politburo, could you fathom this? And what would they make of Australia’s record on issues of race?’

‘Developed countries now account for 13% of the world’s population, China and India have 33% and add Argentina and Brazil and you have 50%. Two thirds of the world’s growth is coming out of the world’s developing economies. There’s our future.’

‘When the Olympics in Sydney concluded, I thought so too had the reform period in Australia. We could say that Australia was nestling in the armpit of Uncle Sam. I am a patriot and not a nationalist. Patriotism is inclusive and kind, nationalism is exclusive and divisive, we say of others that they are not of our people. I’ll never go to Gallipoli, Gallipoli is an exercise in nationalism, Kokoda in patriotism.’

‘Labour hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story, the reform story. Menzies, the old dandy, didn’t do this. Labour does transforming well – the ALP has saved Australia a couple of times. This is the transition we are in now, the rise of China and the transition from west to east. For us a consequence is the minerals boom and we need the C tax, the mining tax. The transition has to be seen as a story, Australia must find its security IN Asia, not  FROM Asia. We need to be psychologically prepared to be part of the region, that is Australia’s challenge. ‘

‘We are not big enough for unilateralism, we must be in collaboration. Rudd was right in engaging with the Asian Pacific communities. The current show (ALP Government) isn’t doing it, we can’t just be shooting stars with no story behind it. ‘

‘The US had a successful policy of liberal internationalism until the falling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Then they retreated into US exceptionalism and there were 16 lost years, two terms of Clinton and two of George W. There was no structure for the emerging economies post world war. The G20 is a creditor’s organisation rather than a  body that is creating a new world structure. ‘

‘We need a concert of powers rather than a balance of powers. If you don’t give a nation space, they take it. We need to be flexible, engaged with them and stay true to our story. ‘

To audience questions, Paul Keating commented: ‘On leadership, you give the public what they need rather than what they want. The key ingredient of public life is imagination and the courage of leadership. Leaders need time to think and make the construct. This is hard to do in the hourly media cycle. Ministers shouldn’t go on Late Line – they share a platform with people who have no mandate, they bring it all down. ‘

On being asked what he might want to see in the Arts Policy (and particularly the visual arts) under preparation by Simon Crean; ‘The visual arts are representative, music creates something that didn’t exist, it is the highest form of the arts. Regarding the arts, the more significant they are in a nation’s life, the substantial is the nation. ‘

Would he return to politics? ‘You need to have ‘dash capability’ and dash it, I don’t have any more. ‘

We were reminded through this event of the diminished state of our public life!