catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Remembrance of Politicians Past

with 31 comments

Henry Ergas wrote a piece for The Australian this week in which he talked about Thatcher’s achievements in the UK and the need for politicians to change ideas about how the world works if they are to achieve reform.

The headline, not Ergas’s work I am sure, was “Thatcher showed Keating the Way” which was not what Ergas wrote in the article at all.

It was though, enough to spur Keating to write to defend his achievements and to say that he was not at all influenced by Thatcher (or anyone else it seems) but worked it all out himself. Keating may be right about Thatcher but I am sure there are a number of former Treasury officials who would say they helped educate him.

Many (including me) would say that Keating achieved more good things as Treasurer than anyone else in that office since the War. It is a pity in a way that he fears his reputation is so insecure that he needs to react to a misleading headline. In any event in twenty or perhaps ten years he will be little more than a footnote.

But why are politicians, as a class, so determined to maintain and indeed often promote their reputations? Most former prime ministers write memoirs that are usually unread and unreadable. I once thought that Menzies’s Afternoon Light might have interesting insights into an important period of Australia’s history but gave up after a hundred or so pages. (If you are interested there are plenty of copies in the  second hand bookshops for around $5.)

Howard is apparently working on his, for an advance of $1 million. I will not be a buyer.

As the cabinet papers covering 1972-75 were released under the thirty year rule, Whitlam made sure that his gloss on the events was given prominence, in case something in the papers might be misinterpreted. Fraser is now doing the same for his period of government.

Who cares? Historians will interpret and reinterpret recent Australian history out of all recognition many times, in the light of prevailing theories and fashions. Most politicians will be forgotten except by old men explaining boring history to their grandchildren.

I cannot think of another profession where people try so hard to create and promote their own legacy. Not businesspeople. Who knows the managing director of BHP who decided it needed to move into resources and away from steel making? This was one of the most important steps in recent business and economic history and no one remembers who did it.

Few academics are remembered. Perhaps some for scandals – Orr and Anderson – but almost no others. Generals, Archbishops, Surgeons: who?

So what is it about politicians that they want so much to be remembered and that they want so badly to control what they are remembered for?

Written by Ken Nielsen

January 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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31 Responses

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  1. The executive who sold BHP’s steel assets so that it could focus on natural resources was Paul Anderson. The Chairman at the time was Don Argus.

    Geoffrey Blainey’s biography of legendary BHP managing director Essington Lewis is a great read.

    Dandy Warhol

    January 14, 2010 at 7:08 pm

  2. I read the article and thought at the time, ‘where does the headline come from’? Even to the point of doing a Ctrl-f search for mentions of Keating to make sense of it. So yes, strange headline. Predictably, though, Captain Whacky took the bait. I had occasion to note and critique this sad tendency last year.


    January 14, 2010 at 7:18 pm

  3. Thanks for that link C.L. I hadn’t seen that

    Ken Nielsen

    January 14, 2010 at 7:23 pm

  4. One thing that is so wrong about about this whole discussion is this assumption by political leaders that it is they who is solely the REAL invisible hand of economic prosperity, rather than millions of workers, managers, and entrepreneurs.

    Peter Patton

    January 14, 2010 at 7:36 pm

  5. PP – my suspicion is that they really know they aren’t that important and that is why they desperately try to create and preserve a legacy.

    Ken Nielsen

    January 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm

  6. Even worse are these academic economists who think THEY are the invisible hand.

    Peter Patton

    January 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm

  7. You forgot to mention Hawke’s memoirs. Possibly the most self-aggrandizing bit of horseshit you’ll find anywhere outside of a Hollywood cocktail party.


    January 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

  8. This is their legacy.

    John H.

    January 14, 2010 at 7:54 pm

  9. Yes Hawkie’s relative low post-politics public profile compared to Keating is odd. Anyone who actually remembers the Hawkeating reign, or even anybody who studies it today knows that the real power behind that great reform era was Hawke, not Keating. Does anybody seriously think Keating would have been to deal the trade-union movement’s coup de grace or sell the whole privavtization and neoliberal reform package to the punters? Of course not. Yet, Hawke does not carry on the way Keating does. Maybe Hawke is too self-assured.

    Peter Patton

    January 14, 2010 at 7:58 pm

  10. What did Liam Neelson say to Ben Kinglsey in Schindler’s List. I’m not good at the work, I’m good at the presentation? I think that’s what Hawke was good at – PR and lager.


    January 14, 2010 at 8:00 pm

  11. Well he did stay on the wagon for his Prime Ministership, and what you call “PR” I call “leadership”.

    Peter Patton

    January 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm

  12. what you call “PR” I call “leadership”.
    Ain’t democracy grand? 🙂


    January 14, 2010 at 8:12 pm

  13. Adrien I think so, but there is a growing din of people who do not dismissing democracy as the “tyranny of the majority”.

    Peter Patton

    January 14, 2010 at 8:29 pm

  14. “tyranny of the majority”.
    yeah there’s a bit of sentiment shifting to that idea, you pick it up talking to people. And – I’m not saying this out of ideological bias – it seems to be coming from the left.
    The ‘tipping point’, if you like, seems to be the difficulty of getting carbon reductions implemented in democratic societies.

    daddy dave

    January 14, 2010 at 8:36 pm

  15. “What did Liam Neelson say to Ben Kinglsey in Schindler’s List. I’m not good at the work, I’m good at the presentation? I think that’s what Hawke was good at – PR and lager.”

    Not true. Anyone who was involved in briefings of Hawke knows that, unlike Keating, he read, understood and REMEMBERED everything. It’s not for nothing that he was a Rhodes scholar.

    Abu Chowdah

    January 14, 2010 at 10:35 pm

  16. but there is a growing din of people who do not dismissing democracy as the “tyranny of the majority”.

    How much of that don’t you believe in, Peter? Should the majority decide every issue, and if not, which ones?

    Michael Sutcliffe

    January 14, 2010 at 10:40 pm

  17. seeing how we live in a representative democracy, it’s a moot point.


    January 14, 2010 at 11:07 pm

  18. MS

    Sorry but your question makes no sense.

    Peter Patton

    January 14, 2010 at 11:15 pm

  19. Well, there’s a lot of talk about bills of rights. That whole argument centres around what the democratic majority should and shouldn’t be allowed to do.

    Michael Sutcliffe

    January 14, 2010 at 11:15 pm

  20. I thought the stated argument forf a bill of rights was prescribing the limits of representative democracy or the trnany of the majority of you must.
    Cynics suggest it is really about the minority attempting to impose their views on the majority.

    The truth is probably both.

    Although this is nothing to do with the fact that Keating is an insecure prat with a potty mouth. And his insecurity is based on the knowledge that he did a Brutus on Caesar only to find he was the lesser man.


    January 14, 2010 at 11:20 pm

  21. I’m just curious about Peter and where he sits in the spectrum. Hence the questions. I’m thinking some form of conservative.

    Michael Sutcliffe

    January 14, 2010 at 11:22 pm

  22. Backing up some points from Peter Patton.

    On the achievements of Hawke and Keating, remember the pioneering work of the Liberal “Backbench Dries” and remember that the opposition did not wage war on the reforms, unlike the Labor oppositions that John Howard faced.

    On the misuse of the term “conservatism” when applied to non-left liberals. Don’t get me started.


    January 15, 2010 at 8:13 am

  23. Hawke/Keating gave us CGT and FBT, along with the clunky imputation system. They also drove real wages down through the Accords and left us with huge borrowings and a large deficit. Then there was the recession we had to have and interest rates of 17%.

    All the decnet right-wing reforms of those years were being done everywhere, and sprang from the Tories anyway.

    Labor instituting commonsense economic policies is like a woman preaching, or a dog walking on its hind legs: one doesn’t expect them to it well, bit is amazed that they could do it at all.

    Howard/Costello achieved far more, leaving all economic indicators in far better shape, and leaving a legacy that helped Oz to avoid most of the calamity of the GFC

    Rococo Liberal

    January 15, 2010 at 12:10 pm

  24. “I’m thinking some form of conservative.”

    Nnnnnoooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Heaven forbid.


    January 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm

  25. I am afraid that modern labor is all about PR, spin and staying in government and modern liberals are all about schoolboy stunts and pranks that backfire (and staying out of government).


    January 15, 2010 at 6:30 pm

  26. RC

    I think those two governments with the possible exception of the last years of the Keating one basically rolled into each other.

    They both had a certain substance about them and although he is hard to like at times I do have some grudging admiration for Mr. Foul Mouth (Keating).

    However his last years were appalling.


    January 15, 2010 at 6:59 pm

  27. the only things that the Keating Government should be remembered for are the national competition policy (on the good side of the ledger) and the L.A.W tax cuts (which of course didn’t happen). The rest of the time he didn’t know what to do with himself, because he had used up all his favours to win the leadership and the election, living him with nothing to do but suck up to the luvvies in the yarts and buy off interest groups.

    An example of the interest group kind: Went to Charleville in 1994 to inspect the drought there. Result: he declared all of Queensland to be in exceptional drought. People who weren’t really impacted had access to government assistance, and from then on whined every time it hadn’t rained for a couple of months.


    January 15, 2010 at 8:31 pm

  28. Yeah, Keating was a much better treasurer than prime minister.
    Which is probably another wayt of saying Hawke was a better PM than many recognise.
    I understand he acted as chairman, not as a micro manager as many others have done.

    Ken Nielsen

    January 15, 2010 at 10:37 pm

  29. KN

    Correct. Keating was in fact an appalling PM.

    Peter Patton

    January 15, 2010 at 11:01 pm

  30. You guys seem unable to praise the opponent in spite of the scale of that to praise. Catallaxy is as bad as a group of Green-Left having a debate: bias.

    It is possible to argue that Keating (and Hawke) was distinct from the wider Labor tradition if that will make you feel better. To a very large extent this is true especially if you attend ALP branch member functions or deal with industry unions.

    In my view the social wage at a cost of about 35% of GDP is good value compared to Britain where even under the last years of Thatcher spending was 40% of GDP.

    Australian reforms were more consistent and far deeper than in Britain in my view. They were less often botched: see rail privatisations in particular.

    Blair’s extension of PPPs and PFIs has been a long term disaster as well given how much debt is Britain will service.

    Australia has in general been better governed by Hawke/Keating than Britain under Thatche; in addition it was better governed by Howard than Blair. This legacy adds up.

    The bigger question is whether Rudd is more like Hawke or Blair. This will be decided by the Henry review response. I’d tip Blair but who knows …

    Corin McCarthy

    January 15, 2010 at 11:13 pm

  31. Part of Keating’s problem as PM was that he just didn’t have the work ethic for the job.


    January 16, 2010 at 1:26 am

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