In a series of 2015 television interviews, veteran ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien probed former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating – who had always insisted he would never write an autobiography – on what made him and how he governed. Born in Darlinghurst in 1944 and growing up in Bankstown, he left school at 14 and joined the Australian Labor Party as soon as he was eligible. Here he recalls one of his earliest mentors, the tempestuous Jack Lang, who had been Premier of New South Wales before his 1932 dismissal by Governor Sir Phillip Game, and was later expelled from the mainstream Labor Party:
PJK: I used to see him twice a week for about seven years. Strangely he used to call me Mr Keating and I was only eighteen in those days. He was very formal. I used to address him as Mr Lang. Among other things, I asked him whether I should go and do a university degree, and he thought for a while before saying, ‘Mr Keating, you have too much to learn for a university degree, about the getting of power and the using of it. There are no courses in this’…
He and I disagreed on a lot of policy fronts like protection and tariffs, and I’d say on much of the world debate I would probably have been on the other side to him. I didn’t want that from him. I wanted the dynamics, and how the game was played.
What I particularly picked up from Lang was his use of language, the force of his language. He had hugely long arms, as if they were concertinaed. They’d come out at you as he talked. He had the celluloid collar and the gold chain, and that big jaw, and he’d say, ‘Mr Keating, I’m telling you this’, and he’d lean across the table with a look that would bore a hole in you. He was then 87 or 88. There was no one like him then.
He used to say to me, ‘Always put your money on self-interest, son. He’s the best horse in the race; always a trier.’
KOB: I did an interview with you in 1986 where you described how you learned from Lang to be hard in your judgements. What did you mean by that?
PJK: Lang once said to me, ‘One of your problems, Mr Keating, is you take people at their word. This is a business where duplicity is the order of the day. Look for the best in people by all means, but keep a sceptical eye peeled for what they are saying to you and what they really mean. What you should look for is the support of the earnest people. There will be a lot whose support you will never have. But you will never be anyone until you have a reasonable stock of enemies.’ It’s the issues that sort people out. It’s just so true, because having enemies worries some people. For me, it’s a badge of honour. It’s never worried me that a group of people would not have a bar of me. And that’s the way Lang conducted his life.
Even so, I never really took that kind of almost morbid cynicism on board as an operating principle. I always found better in people in public life, and if you go through a caucus like I did for nearly 30 years, you’ve got to build coalitions and friendships with people. So there are people you trust. I never subscribed to the solitary school, that you’re on your own and only on your own, but I did subscribe to the fact that you’ve got to look at what is said to you and look behind it. You have to end up being a good judge of character and a good judge of what is really being said to you, as well as a good listener.
People may be members of a political party, but they get to Parliament in their own right. It’s like a team with a captain but the members of a team earn their place independently, so to stitch together majorities in Parliament continually, you’ve got to look at people to see what their interests are, what things they have in common, what natural point of agreement you have with them, or points of disagreement.
-Paul Keating, Australian, 1944-
-Kerry O’Brien, Australian, 1945-