Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Paul Keating on his unfinished business

From The Monthly's slow tv a video of Paul Keating's address at the launch of Unfinished Business: Paul Keating's Interrupted Revolution by David Love.

Here we have about 50 minutes of Keating at the podium launching David Love's almost hagiography (but since Keating's ego is sizable, his own commentary on the salient points of Love's political biography, are going to make the history sound like hagiography**).

Keating's main point about the value of the book is that Love has a few years under his belt: Love was around during the Menzies period and so lived through what Keating describes as the 'Age of Hopelessness' (a.k.a 'the age of incrementalism'). This is in contrast to the 'revolutionary,' (as in the book's title) and heroic period of structural reform performed in the long Labor decade.

The revolution in structural reform is three-pronged: the 'clean' float of the $A; the move to Enterprise Bargaining; and the Superannuation Guarantee Charge (SGC). The unfinished business, of the title, is the extension of the SGC from 9 to 15%.

Love's longer perspective is valuable, for Keating, as it places the 'revolution' against the slower moving lethargies and reticences of the Menzies government and of the Howard decade.

Keating makes some telling points: that the amount in the 'Debt truck' that the Liberal-National coalition drove around in the 1996 election campaign, 'demonstrating' the failure of the ALP Government to contain foreign and private debt, grew threefold in the Howard decade (from $190 bill to approx. $600 bill) and that treasurer Costello willfully conflated private with public debt, paid down the public debt (an easy task according to Keating as tax revenues increased), but did nothing to reduce private foreign debt. For Keating, Costello and Howard (C & H) renegged on a promise to lift the SGC to 15% which would've increased domestic savings and thereby reduced foreign debt and probably reduced the current exposure of Australian interests to the credit crunch. For Keating, H & C refused to extend the SGC because that would've given Trade Union based superanuation schemes power over capital, and H & C were not only antipathetic to Union control but to ordinary working people having more control over capital.

Hearing and watching Keating speak arouses mixed feelings in me: the appearance of mastery and control over economic government (how to conduct the economy) is convincing - I want to believe. John Forbes begins his poem Watching the Treasurer with 'I want to believe the beautiful lies.' The Left populist attacks on Howard and Costello (slow, stupid, lazy, safe, establishment) resonate and yet Keating's left populism grates against the deeper (Australian) Labourist structures of feeling and generic conventions that proceed by an attack on capitalism and advocacy of government protection for the less fortunate and structurally underprivileged as a means of ameliorating the predations of capitalism's atopic* operations.

Meaghan Morris ends her essay on Forbes' poem and study of the coming of neoliberalism through economic governance to Australia by treating Keating's discourse as ambivalent:

double-edged, two faced. On the one hand, nostalgia for "the Economy" as a source of sovereignty and self-determination - a precious myth that proved hard to sustain in the aftermath of financial deregulation - was rampant in the ebulliently macho bombast of politicians identifying their own discourse with the power of market "forces," and denying the social reality of limits to (their mastery of) economic Reason; the government could seem never more securely in control of the nation's future than in the very moment of losing it. On the other hand there was, in all the speculation about the social meanings of "Keating" (his voice, his narrowness, his rehtoric), as it resonated over the decade with other images and stories of the decline of the Left and the epic collapse of socialism, a kind of sadness for that utopia, always known to have an "only ideological reality," that [Craig] McGregor calls "the great humane ideals of the Labor movement.
In knowing its object, however (perpetually demystified by historians and critics and activists from all sides of politics, and so perhaps impossible to lose), this sadness was less strictly a form of nostalgia than the economic ecstasy that shaped it, and, in its feeling for the beautiful lies that help people to act, more like a way of seizing against the helplessness a"chance for continued survival."

"Ecstasy and Economics.” Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998a. 158-194. 194.

*Atopic - from atopic diseases like eczema and asthma, where chronic symptoms caused by the antigen (allergy-causing matter) are displaced and deferred. Thus capitalism, like eczema, displaces and defers the illness and disease that it causes. A good example of the metaphorics of illness that capitalism forces into consciousness through the poetics of politics is the commonplace of the subprime crisis as a contagion or virus.

** Alongside 'hagiography' there is a case for the term 'econography': where a treasurer's (or other economically important figure's) life is written through the simultaneous emergence of 'globalisation' or economic modernisation, such that the economy and the individual life merge into a single dramatic and narrative shape.

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