Keating! The Musical which played Perth earlier in the year has been back touring the Eastern States and earlier this month won the Helpmann Award for the best Australian musical of the last year. he musical offers an enjoyable night of nostalgia for audiences which, as more than one pundit has surmised from the applause, tend to be almost entirely composed of Labor supporters. As the stage Keating offers in his opening number ‘you’ve had a meal to eat, now you’ve got a good seat. See there’s nothing wrong with being inner city elite.’ So legitimized, the audience can sit back and enjoy a politically happy period; though always tinged with sadness in knowledge of how the story is inevitably going to end. There is, for instance, only so much one can chuckle at recalling the buffoonery of what Sean Micallef memorably invoked as ‘the Downer months’ (a short period rendered in Keating! through a Frankn’Furter-esque number, marrying the former Liberal leader’s famous turn in fishnets to his general political incompetence) without the suspicion that the laughter is a bit hollow and indulgent, given that the same twit has since gone on to more than a decade as Australia’s foreign Minister. The creator of Keating! though saves the true disbelievers in eleven years of Howard’s rule, with a counterfactual ending:
The 1996 Election is still hanging by a thread…
If only, the audience is invited to think… if only. Behind the ahistorical fantasy, of course, are live historical and historiographical questions. In some senses ‘1996’ remains with us and indeed the interpretation of the pivotal Commonwealth election of that year will continue to change in dialogue with the political present. Did ‘1996’ mark a moment of continuity or of rupture? Should Howard’s premiership be understood as ‘reaction’ to Keating? If Rudd defeats Howard will ‘1996’ be undone, or will a Rudd premiership look like Keating’s as little as Hawke resembled Whitlam? The clear suggestion of Keating! is that it all might have been so different: ‘a better future: smarter, wiser, less afraid’ and implicitly that if the Gollum-like Howard can be summarily dispatched to the fires of the political underworld, then again we might advance a fairer Australia.
Amidst the satire, Keating! the musical is an exercise in myth-making, if consciously, to the point of self-parody: Keating PM, Superstar. The former Prime Minister who is riotously celebrated and gently lampooned in the stage show is the caricature loathed on the populist right and lionized on the cultural left: the Zegna-wearing, Mahler-listening, clock-collecting, Rayban-wearing champion of republicanism, native title and engagement with Asia. There is nothing wrong with a partial and mythologizing rendering of a complex character in what is, after all, a stage musical. Furthermore, outside of the genre of socialist realism, it is probably unfair to expect a musical to engage with the detail of political economy. However, when the eponymous subject was once dubbed ‘The World’s Greatest Treasurer’ and spent a decade in the job, in which role he gained the epithet ‘the Placido Domingo of politics’, perhaps we might have heard just a little about Keating’s economic reform agenda. Instead, amidst lyrics about Mabo, the Queen, opposing the GST and making it ‘very clear that Australia’s part of Asia’ (an inspired riff on The Small Faces), the stage Keating actually says ‘I hate the economic jiggery-pokery.’ Keating! is a political satire largely uninterested in the functioning of the economy or the wealth of the people and posits the hero of the piece in the same light.
Serious political history, of course, tells us otherwise. Keating was arguably the most dominant and iconic figure in the development of Australian political economy since Deakin, leading a Labor administration which engaged in aggressive deregulation and privatization and the opening up of national markets to globalization. More than any other figure, Keating is responsible for demolishing the tariff barriers that were one of the pillars of the Australian compromise. If the credit (or blame) lies at any particular door, it is Keating who ended the certainty. Even in cultural terms, it is Keating as treasurer who ‘economized’ the cultural and political discourse of the nation by popularizing and glamorizing beautiful sets of figures. When economic restructuring is not remembered, then we have an image of the former Treasurer and Prime Minister that is severely partial: it is to turn Keating in to the kind of brave failure that seems to be preferred in Australian culture, rather than the (in economic historical terms) radical and successful reformer who dominated for more than a decade.
Mythologising Keating without economics is problematic, but it is hardly accidental. Since 1996 (and ‘1996’), the ALP has been struggling with an alternative vision of Australian political economy. Lacking clear philosophical demarcation from Howard on economic fundamentals, the Federal ALP after 1996 could hardly rely on Keating’s cultural agenda which (it is widely believed) contributed to the magnitude of his downfall. Peter Hartcher, in Quarterly Essay 25, has recently observed that it ‘took Labor a full decade to realize that, in abandoning Keating because of his unpopularity, it had also surrendered its claim to Keating’s historic importance and to the prosperity he had bequeathed Australia.’1 Keating the neo-liberal economic reformer is not remembered for the economic reforms which succeeded and generally remain in place, but for a cultural agenda that was either unachieved or is now swept away. On the left, we need a more nuanced memory of Keating, which invites us to return to the commanding cliffs of economic debate and to advocate clear policy differences which are founded upon lucid and unambiguous ideological principles.
The democratic left in Australia has never renounced the market, but we must explain where we regard the proper limits of marketisation to be and clarify why that is our view. In order for there to be a market, there must be rules. We should be clear and principled as to how the left’s rules differ – starkly – from those of the right. It can still be ‘the name that keeps repeating’, but a more ‘useable’ and relevant ‘Keating, Keating, Keating’ is the man who mastered economic discourse in Australia for a decade and whose memory must inspire us to retake that higher ground, albeit with a plain and principled appreciation of why the inhuman brutality of an untrammeled market must be restrained. We must say, thus far, but no further. And happily, we have in Kevin 07 a potential prime minister capable of outlining the compelling case for the progressive side of politics; an argument that says that certain public, natural and familial spheres should be beyond the market because they are of deeper intrinsic value, rooted not least in what it is to be human.
I can feel my heart start beating.
This is my final editorial as an editor for The New Critic in this, our sixth issue. Being one of the four parents of the re-born magazine has been a great pleasure and it has been an honor to have worked with writers and thinkers of the caliber that we have feature in our electronic pages. My great thanks to the other three editors, all of whom I am fortunate to call good friends as well as colleagues and in particular to Terri-Ann White, whose work at the Institute of Advanced Studies (and now UWA Publishing) is so important to the cultural and intellectual life of Perth.
1. P. Hartcher, ‘Bipolar Nation: How to Win the 2007 Federal Election’, Quarterly Essay 25, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2007, p.40