Paul Keating: Australia Has Never Had A Truly Great Prime Minister

Paul Keating: Australia Has Never Had A Truly Great Prime Minister

Although we have produced some very good, if not potentially great, Australian Prime Ministers, as Keating indicates, there are two major factors that prohibits Australia from achieving historic greatness. It is the combination of the different national experiences and the self-perception that influences the quality of political leadership. The fact that the United States is a former British Colony that became an independent Superpower and Australia remains a British Colony and is somewhat comfortable with this geo-political role, is reflected by the fact that US Presidents are World Leaders and Australian PMs are, at best, ‘Deputy Sheriffs’. Therefore Australia, as Keating indicated, has never had a truly ‘Great’ Prime Minister.


I will further explore this concept by breaking this essay into three parts; firstly what would be the leadership-prerequisite to become a ‘Great Prime Minister’, secondly the national ethos of both nations and their effects of the psyche of their inhabitants and finally why Curtin and Chiefly, among others, were only potential greats.

The Question of Leadership


In order to be able to attain the reasons why Australia has meager political leadership and to also recognize those possessing great leadership qualities, it is important to establish what actually constitutes as great leadership qualities.


The traits of strong leadership have been long understood, as it can be traced back to the Ancient World. It was Cicero that managed to apply Aristotelian ideas of leadership into political means. Being a moderate conservative, he believed in transcending politics by becoming a Statesman. This meant working with others, regardless of political persuasion, in order to achieve the objective best interests for Rome.[1] Some of his teachings state the existence of universal laws that govern human affairs, indicating that leaders should be of exceptional character and integrity, intelligence is valued and that corruption destroys the nation.[2] It is unsurprising that the American Founding Fathers were scholars of both of these men.


In contemporary times, Paul Keating emulated Cicero’s ideas in his ‘Placido Domingo’ speech. According to Keating, politics is about the type of leadership that can change the country and world. In comparison to other great countries, such as the United States, leaders such as Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, pushed their Nation to become the great country that they are. Australia has never had had a politician like that.[3] He explained the similarities of the two nations, being that America had less of a population than Australia when Jefferson wrote the very ethos of his nation known as ‘Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Human Happiness’.[4] Keating went on to state that Australia’s wartime PM John Curtin was a trier, but ultimately was not of the leadership caliber of his American counterpart.[5] He professed his conviction that Australia had the ability to attain this type of prestige, but needed the national will to do so. “Leadership will always be about having a conversation with the public. Leadership was not about popularity; it was about being right and being strong. It’s about doing what you think the nation requires, making profound judgments on profound issues…”[6]


I find myself in agreement with Keating, as I feel that although Australia has the potential to be ‘Great’, She never capitalizes on her patriotic momentum. I am also of the belief that constant compromise breeds corruption, and Keating is correct in saying leadership in not about popularity but having the strength of conviction to resist the pressures of conformity, and through the art of open dialogue, persuade the people to support your ideas. A historical event that best exemplifies Keating’s concept of leadership can be found with Winston Churchill. Despite being supportive of a position that was in the minority at the time, he consistently warned about the dangers of Hitler. He was routinely ignored or dismissed as a warmonger, but he preserved despite the unpopularity of his ideas. It was only when he was proven correct was he vindicated, and as a consequence became popular.[7]


As I will further discuss, the reason for this type of leadership is lacking within Australian politics, is embedded into its very foundations for national-identity.

The American Experience and Australia’s Cultural Cringe 


The reasons for a lack of leadership in Australia can be traced back to the national mythology of its origins. What this means is the difference between the national experiences of Australian and United States is reflected in the attitudes of today.


The American Revolution is arguably the greatest revolution in world history. It must be remembered that the American philosophy, in the grand story of human history, is relatively new. This window of opportunely came from the short-timeframe known as Age of Enlightenment. Thinkers such as John Locke, who believed that human nature was made up of reason and tolerance by natural law, influenced the philosophical ideology behind this movement. That the person is equal to all others and is independent, and that ‘Life, Health Liberty, or Possessions’ are of a universal right.[8] Also that the rights of the sovereign individual were self-evident and that the divine-right-of kings were a myth. These concepts were made official by the creation of the US Constitution, and later the Bill of Rights was later founded to prevent misconstruction or any abuses of the Constitution.[9]


The national narrative of Australia is fundamentally different as it was built upon a paradox. In contrast to the American spirit of revolution, sovereignty and individualism, Australia was of a culture of reluctance and indecisiveness. It is my position that Australia, being an artificial state imported from the UK, has subservience embedded into its national psyche. And subservience automatically disqualifies greatness.


The ‘Founding Fathers of Australian Federation’ saw themselves creating a brave new commonwealth in which equality ruled, and which they would be at the forefront of democratic, social, industrial advance.[10] Unsurprisingly they found the people uninterested. Nevertheless, men such as Alfred Deakin, to their credit accomplished Federation. However it was a form of mutilated victory, as the nation was undermined from the very beginning. For instance, British PM Chamberlain had written amendments that Britain had wanted Australia to pass, and knowing such interference would anger those in favor of Australian national sovereignty, he gave them to George Reid who would try to pass them off as his own.[11] Furthermore, once Federation looked to be accomplished, Chamberlain interfered yet again, stating doubt over Australia’s ability to govern itself. A compromise was reached in that Australia’s High Court retained the ability to interrupt its own laws and constitution.[12]


Keating echoed this in his ‘Placido Domingo’ speech where he said, “We never laid it down in a Constitution. We never said ‘This place is ours and we are going to run it ourselves.’ These are things we never had.”[13] The fact that we had never done so, Australians was never liberated from the ‘Kingdom of Nothingness’, therefore our culture is one of non-confidence, constantly reliant on Alliances and forever compliant to our perceived ‘betters’. Although there are and always will be a connection between us and the Anglo-Americans due to shared linguistics, culture, and history, the fact is we unfortunately don’t know how to distinguish our own national interest with that of the Anglo-Americans.


This is attitude has been frequently displayed as many Australian PMs, with the exception of Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating, as they have often been subservient to the Western-Superpowers. Few dared to challenge them and assert true national autonomy and independence. And for those who did, they were punished.

Advance Australia Affair? 


There are no better examples of PMs willingness keep Australia from maturing than in the forms of Robert Menzies and his ideological-heir John Howard. It was their sycophancy towards the Anglo-American Establishment that promoted a form of Orwellian doublethink, in that being a dependent auxiliary was the equivalent of being respected independent ally. The few leaders that possessed some form of leadership in radical nationalism have been John Curtin, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.


Robert Menzies was an icon of the past – an Empire Man. He spoke of being ‘British to his bootstraps’ and saw Australia as being ‘a citadel for the British speaking race’.[14] However, upon returning to Australia he was said to have written“A sick feeling of repugnance and apprihention grows in me as I near Australia”[15]He later defended the Monachy when criticism were lanched towards it by being too autocratic. Menzies had said “There are clever people who say things should be done to democratize the Monachy. To do something to what we are all pround to say is the most deomcratic monchay in the whole wide world.”[16] Later he accepted the Honorary British Title of ‘Sir Warden of the Sinkports’.[17]  It seems that ‘a good Australian Statesman is one who serves forign interests.’[18] This can be seen in the display of admiration he displayed when reciting Ethliziathen poet Thomas Ford to the visting Monach, delaring “that although she only passed by, I would love her until the day I die.”[19]


Being of the Menzian mindset, Howard’s ideology was one steeped into British culture. Due to this prism, just like his mentor, his leadership was one of submission to the Anglo-American Establishment. In his youth he supported Vietnam, the US alliance and the ALP ‘soft on communism’ credo.[20] This mentally explains his leadership as PM later in life, as he can be seen as an ‘Anglo-American Empire Man’. This became apparent with his actions during the ‘War on Terror’. The 9/11 attack, ignited his beliefs about the US alliance – national interest, upholding the values of Western civilization and it meant either side must support the war.[21] It was due to his sycophancy to the Western Establishment, Australia unquestionably followed US doctrine of pre-emption attacks, entered the abyss of strategic quagmire and perpetual warfare.[22]


It was during Australia’s darkest hour that the possibility of its worst fear coming true was about to occur – Japanese invasion. Realizing that the nation was ill prepared for repelling the onslaught, Curtin declared he was going to defy Churchill and brought back three IMF divisions from the Middle East to defend the nation.[23]  Unsurprisingly this provoked the wrath of conservatives, as they interrupted this as a form of weakness and disloyalty. Curtin quickly placated them by denying this statement didn’t indicate any break with Britain, but simply an act for self-defense.[24] As Bob Hawke stated in his defense, Curtin had the courage to not only defended the country at its darkest hour, but also set up the apparatus of postwar reconstruction that blueprinted the road to a better and better nation. It was this decision-making and achievements ranked Curtin on par with Roosevelt.[25] It is my belif is that although Australia will forever by in debt to Curtin’s leadership, the fact that he qucikly backed down and softened his position on Australian indpendence and was never carried on by his successor, made Keating had refered to him as a ‘trier’.


During the Prime-Ministership of Gough Whitlam, Australia shown some form of autonomy. When the secret US Strategic Basis  which are known to be located in North West Cape, and Nurrungar, was questioned by Whitlam, our ‘friends’ quickly turned. Whitlam went so far to openly state in parliament that he wanted to eventually phase out forigen military installations.[26] The bases were officially a ‘joint information sharing site’, however it was planned, built and run by the CIA. Not only that, during 1973 President Nixon put his Nuclear weapons on alert via Australia. When Whitlam discovered this and was said to have stated that the Third World War could break out without us even knowing[27]. In reaction to this turn of events, Whitlam not only informed the US that their lease of Australian land might not be extended, but demanded to know the identities of US Agents work undercover. Washington interrupted this as a direct attack on their power and then proceeded to view Gough Whitlam as a security risk in his own country and threatened to sever all intelligence ties to Australia[28]. What happened from this point onwards was know as ‘Regime Change’. This was accomplished by the use of one of their operatives, Sir John Kerr[29]. What this accumulated to be was the ‘1975 Constitutional Crisis’ with Whitlam being deposed as democratic-elected Prime Minister by a foreign third party via the Governor-General and replaced with the acting leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser. All this over Australia, an offfical ally, wanting to exert some form of independence.


To understand the worldview of Paul Keating is to understand the mentality of his mentor, rouge NSW Premier Jack Lang. He viewed conservaties as ‘snivellers, crawlers and lickspittlers to forces abroad’.[30] He showed true leadership, by deifying his opposition, the British establishment and even his own party itself, by repuidiating the demands of Britian for loan repayments duing the time of the Depression. Lang announced he would not be paying due interest repayments and resisted by force any federal attempt to sieze funds from the State Savings Bank.[31] By doing so, he technactly broke the law and was dissmissed by the State Governor. It is no suprising where Keating developed his idea of principalled-leadership.


It would seem that despite the fact that Curtin, and many others, might have possessed many Ciceronian qualities; they ultimately left much to be desired, as many buckled under the pressure of conformity. For those who refused to fall into line, they were met with aggression and often, ether directly or indirectly, forced from office.



In conclusion, the question of leadership in Australia is one of a puppet-government. Although there are those PMs that may have been ‘Great’ and even loved by the domestic population, the fact that Australia is an unequal partner in geo-politics. It has never possessed true leadership. The solution to the crisis of leadership is to promote a culture of independence and patriotism. If this were achieved, a grassroots demand for international respect would create pressure onto our democratically elected representatives to resist Anglo-American demands and become true Statesmen.


Bibliography –  


Castrique, S (2012) Journey to Nationhood: Federation, Film Australia Nation Interest Program


Day, D (1999) John Curtin, HarperCollins Publishers Pty Ltd, Australia


Freedman, P (2013) How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders, Princeton University Press, United States


Hickley, J (2011) Immigration Nation, Film Victoria Australia


Hocking, J (2012) Gough Whitlam: His Time, Melbourne University Publishing Ltd, Australia


Kelly, P (2009) The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, Melbourne University Press, Australia


The Liberals 1994 Doc.


Pilger, J (1988) Other People’s Wars, DVD


Roberts, A (2003) Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership, Orion Books Ltd, United Kingdom


Watson, D (2002) Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Random House Australia Pty Ltd, Australia


Zinn, H (1999) A People’s History of the United States, HarperCollins Publishers Pty Ltd, Australia


[1] Philip Freedman, How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders (Princeton University Press, 2013), xiii.

[2] Ibid., xiv-xviii.

[3] Michael Gordon, A Question of Leadership: Paul Keating-Political Fighter (University of Queensland Press, 1993), 5.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Andrew Roberts, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership, (Orion Books Ltd, 2003), 25.

[8] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (HarperCollins Publishers Pty Ltd, 1999), 73.

[9] Ibid., 99

[10] Jacob Hickley (2011) Immigration Nation, Film Victoria Australia

[11] Sue Castrique, (2012) Journey to Nationhood: Federation, Film Australia Nation Interest Program

[12] Ibid.

[13] Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, (Melbourne University Press, 2009), 152.

[14] Ibid., 69.

[15] John Pilger (1988) Other People’s Wars, DVD

[16] The Liberals 1994 Doc.

[17] Ibid.

[18] John Pilger (1988) Other People’s Wars, DVD

[19] Ibid.

[20] Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, (Melbourne University Press, 2009), 18.

[21] Ibid., 580.

[22] Ibid., 590.

[23] David Day, John Curtin, (HarperCollins Publishers Pty Ltd, Australia, 1999), 476.

[24] Ibid., 485

[25] Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, (Melbourne University Press, 2009), 14.

[26] Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam: His Time, (Melbourne University Publishing Ltd, 2012), 162.

[27] John Pilger, Other People’s Wars, DVD

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, (Melbourne University Press, 2009), 74.

[31] David Day, John Curtin, (HarperCollins Publishers Pty Ltd, Australia, 1999), 351.