Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Meaghan Morris - said it best . . . Spectres of Keating

The media figure of Paul Keating, Treasurer in the Hawke Labor government of 1983-91, and Australian Prime minister 1991-96, became central to my effort to understand popular debate about history. Widely represented as embodying economic rationalism and globalization during the 1980s, Keating “morphed” in the 1990s into a bearer of history and nationalism. The critical, revisionary accounts of colonial history admitted to the mainstream during the Bicentenary became, for four brief but heady years, institutionally dominant accounts. They even crept into the tourist industry: most obviously through museums, and the promotion of Aboriginal culture, but also through state support for an export image of Australian as an urbane, socially liberal, multiculturalist heaven.

Given that the contradictions between this culturalist program and the economic realities of life for most rural and working-class people had been obvious for a decade before the “Keating era” had began, it is not surprising that the era ended with a devastating defeat for Labor at the federal election of March 1996. For historians, it will be a long time before this period can be seriously evaluated. As a cultural critic, however, I am concerned with the role played by images and stories of the past in the conflicts of the present. For me, analyzing both phases of the Keating mythos, “economics” (the 1980s) and “history” (the 1990s), is that it shows how profoundly so-called “local” and “everyday” issues of identity, community, and cultural power – so acutely raised by the social pressures of a tourist economy – are shaped by and responsive to the “global” struggle over the future of the nation-state.

Meaghan Morris "Introduction: history in cultural studies" from Too soon, too late: history in popular culture. (1998) : 13.

Two of my favourite quotes from Australian cultural critic Meaghan Morris, and ones which have an odd resonance now, after the return of the Labor Party to government, and on the day after the first budget this new government presented.

What feels strange is that during the Hawke and Keating period, even into the Howard era (1996-2007), politics was bursting with narrativity. Keating's struggle to overcome Hawke was a biographical narrative that had Shakespearean echoes, while the struggle to reform and modernise the economy (so that story goes) was a narrative full of danger, thrills and conflict. The end of the Howard era saw his deputy oddly annointed as the successor in such a controlled and bloodless manner that the aggressive campaign to sieze power that Keating and his coteries waged cast Costello's feeble plotting as weak and lacking drama.

And yet here we are around 6 months into a new Labor government and to use a term like mythos about Kevin Rudd, let alone about the Treasurer Wayne Swann, seems more than inappropriate. Mark Bahnisch gets it right when he argues that Swann and Rudd's lack of charismatic magnitude, their repetition of phrases like "working families" (a meme that Obama has picked up), are not due to lack of imagination or ineptitude, but rather arise out of a mode of forming and speaking to a constituency not mediated by the punditocracy or the commentariat.

Keating, on the other hand, did speak as though the commentariat was important, albeit with increasing selectivity after his 1993 election win. Notorious for his blue shouting down the phone at journalists who got the story wrong or made an enemy of him, Keating once Prime Minister, as Morris analyses it, morphed from vector of economics to history: his big picture now had cultural-historical reform painted alongside the modernisation of the economy.

And so the narrative often told of this period of transition from Labor to Liberal, a period marked by the intensification of teh culture wars, is that Keating alienated the battlers and ordinary Australians, once by economic rationalist reform (high interest rates, bankruptcy, manufacturing restructures) and twice by interpellating them as guilty, unsophisticated, conservatives. Howard, so it goes, listened, fought back against the cultural elites, declared that minority interest groups, the "X" industries (insert minor identity group), the cosmopolitan elites, the republicans.

The heat and stakes in that contest and conflict now seem to have been grossly inflated. Rudd and Swann, Deputy Prime Mnister Julia Gillard too, calm, technocratic, eschewing narratives aimed at the commentariat for catchphrases, like lines from haiku, repeated . . . repeated . . . repeated . . . relaxed & comfortable.

Does Keating hover over this weird calmness, as a spectre? Indeed has governmentality started to shift away from that phase informed by the myth of neoliberalism as deregulation toward a form of governing which clamly states and recognizes that even deregulation is a form of regulation?

On the other hand what was missing from the budget was any narrative forming responses to climate change. I wonder how Keating would have narrated a story about Australia's Green future?


John Forbes

I want to believe the beautiful lies
the past spreads out like a feast.

Television is full of them & inside
their beauty you can act: Paul Keating's

bottom lip trembles then recovers,
like the exchange rate under pressure

buoyed up words come out -
elegant apostle of necessity, meaning

what rich Americans want, his world is
like a poem, completing that utopia

no philosopher could argue with, where
what seems, is & what your words describe

you know exists, under a few millimetres
of invisible cosmetic, bathed

in a milky white flourescent glow.

From The Stunned Mullet & Other Poems

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