Old stags kick off roaring season

By Greg Ansley

CANBERRA: This is the roaring season in Canberra.

As the young bucks - and does - bump heads before an election that could be called as soon as today, two old stags have again locked horns over a feud more than two decades old.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, the silver-maned Labor hero whose reign was exceeded only by Liberals Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard, is at it again with Paul Keating, the Treasurer who hurled him from power.

The roars as each renews vitriol over the other's true role in history have joined the cacophony from their successors, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard prepares to go head to head with her rival, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in a federal vote.

And there are wire threads between the pairings. The spat between the old stags has revived memories of the broken Kirribilli House agreement, in which Hawke had agreed to hand power to Keating. When Hawke reneged on the deal, his fate was sealed.

At the National Press Club this week, a speech by Gillard was ambushed by distinguished Channel Nine political editor Laurie Oakes, who asked a series of detailed questions accusing the Prime Minister of double-dealing predecessor Kevin Rudd out of his job.

Oakes' allegations that Gillard had first agreed to allow Rudd to stay on until it was clear he would doom Labor to defeat - and then changed her mind once she knew she had the numbers - dominated subsequent reports.

The impact was magnified by polling that showed that while voters were happy enough with Gillard as Prime Minister, they despised the way in which she had won the job.

Reports of a double-cross could hurt Labor, especially in Rudd's home state of Queensland, where the Government already has worries enough. Commentators believe that Gillard could be sufficiently alarmed to call the election today.

Underlining Gillard's concern are attacks by an Opposition that can scent blood, and the fears that the Government's campaign could be tainted by a continued assault on the Prime Minister's character if she waits too long. Abbott has to take nine seats from Labour to win office.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said Gillard was trying to airbrush the brutality of the coup by refusing to answer questions about the alleged deal, and said the Government had become so engrossed in its internal agonies it had lost focus on important issues facing the country.

ABC radio yesterday reported that Gillard was expected to visit Governor-General Quentin Bryce this morning to set an August 28 election, delaying the issuing of writs until Wednesday to give people more time to enrol to vote, and preparing for a six-week campaign.

But at least, like the rest of Australia, she has been entertained by the thud of aged heads colliding, telling the Press Club: "I have to say that as someone with an intense interest in politics, I'm enjoying it."

For a while at least, the Hawke-Keating clash will be a spicy byplay. As well as the new Hawke biography by second wife Blanche d'Alpuget - which triggered Keating's latest fury - the former prime minister is the subject of a telemovie, Hawke, which airs tomorrow night and largely overlooks the significance of the former Treasurer in his Government's reforms.

And this is at the heart of the bile that Keating poured on Hawke in a private letter subsequently published in full in the Australian this week. Keating believes Hawke has consistently diminished his place in Australian political history.

Apart from colossal egos, remorseless ambition and the talent to back it, the background of the pair could hardly have been different.

Hawke was a hard-drinking, womanising man of the people, notorious for infidelity and excess, and claiming as an early triumph a world beer speed-drinking record.

He was of Labor aristocracy: a Labor Premier of Western Australia as uncle; family friendship with Prime Minister John Curtin; degrees in law and arts from WA University; a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate; president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Keating left school at 15, managed The Ramrods, a 1960s pub band, became a union official and president of the Labor Party's youth council and finally, in 1969, entering Parliament at 25 as MP for the Sydney seat of Blaxland.

Unlike Hawke, Keating's tastes were for fine wine, Zegna suits, French antique clocks and classical music. He famously criticised European architecture while visiting its leaders, and considered himself the Placido Domingo of politics.

Yet the two formed a powerful political coupling that overhauled the Australian economy, floated the dollar, deregulated the nation's financial system, slashed tariffs and subsidies, and sold off state assets, including the Commonwealth Bank.

But below the surface the strains were telling, felt at first in the depression Hawke suffered early in his term and growing as ambitions clashed. In 1986, when Keating warned that without further reforms Australia risked becoming a banana republic, the threads started unravelling. Hawke, believing Keating was trying to take control of the Government's agenda, rebuked him in a phone call from China. Keating was furious.

Keating also by this time saw himself as the real intellectual and political strength of the party, propping up a diminishing Hawke. When Hawke described his Treasurer after the 1988 budget as "not indispensable", the die was cast.

In 1991, after mounting tensions between the pair, Hawke's decision to renege on the Kirribilli deal to step aside, growing economic woes and falling polls, Keating deposed his former boss. The rift has never healed.

In the biography Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, author and former speechwriter Don Watson reported that Keating believed he "stiffened Hawke's spine when it seemed to turn to jelly", and that he had been the principal force in Parliament, the Cabinet and caucus.

Recollections of the floating of the dollar in 1983, particularly, have been persistently bitter. In his version, published in former adviser John Edwards' Keating, the Inside Story, Keating drew main credit to himself, claiming it was his powers of persuasion that won Hawke over. "As often the case with him, after I had sold him on something he became enthusiastic for it."

For his part, Hawke downplayed Keating's role in key policy decisions, effectively writing him out of key debates leading to the float, and painted the former Treasurer as a callow initiate who he "indulged like no other".

"I was often caught in alternate moods of not knowing whether to pat him on the head or wave a disapproving finger at him," Hawke wrote in The Hawke Memoirs.

The repetition of Hawke's view of history in d'Alpuget's new book has been too much for Keating. In a huge dummy-spit, he lashed Hawke in the letter published in the Australian for treating him shamefully, wilfully misrepresenting his role and achievements, and of rewriting history in a Narcissus-like manner.

Saying "you cannot find enough praise to heap upon yourself" he promised that if he ever wrote a book on the subject it would record "how lucky you were to have me drive the Government during your down years, leaving you with the credit for much of the success".

Unsurprisingly, d'Alpuget told the Australian: "They could never be friends again."

- NZ Herald

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