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Paul Keating Turns 70

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating turns 70 today.

Keating was 25 when he entered the House of Representatives as the Labor member for Blaxland in October 1969. He was 47 when he became Australia’s 24th prime minister in December 1991. He remained PM until March 1996 when he was defeated by John Howard’s coalition.

Keating

Keating’s first ministerial appointment came in the dying days of the Whitlam government. Following the sacking of Minerals and Energy minister Rex Connor, Keating became Minister for Northern Australia on October 21, 1975, serving for three weeks until the government was dismissed by the Governor-General on November 11. He is the youngest of the eleven surviving ministers of the Whitlam governments.

Following the defeat of Malcolm Fraser’s government, Keating became Treasurer in Bob Hawke’s Labor government on March 11, 1983, a post he held until June 3, 1991 when he resigned and launched a leadership challenge against Hawke. He lost the challenge by 66 votes to 44 and went to the backbench. A second challenge on December 19 that year was successful when the ALP caucus voted 56-51 to remove Hawke. Keating was sworn in as prime minister the next day.

Keating led the government to an unexpected victory in March 1993. By the time he was defeated in 1996, he had served as prime minister for 4 years, 2 months and 20 days, and was the country’s 10th longest-serving prime minister. He is now the 11th longest-serving of the 28 PMs.

Whilst the participants of the time differ in their assessments of Keating’s 13 years as Treasurer and Prime Minister, there is little doubt that he is one of the most significant political figures of the past 40 years. The micro- and macro-economic reforms he championed during his time in office have largely stood the test of time and are widely seen as crucial to the success of the Australian economy over recent decades.

Keating oversaw a remarkable period of economic reform. Underpinned by The Accord with the trade union movement, his time as Treasurer saw the internationalisation of the Australian economy. Initiatives included the floating of the dollar, the entry of foreign banks, a winding back of tariffs and other forms of protection, and industrial reforms including the introduction of enterprise bargaining. Keating would nominate compulsory superannuation as a major development.

As Prime Minister, he was the architect of the Native Title Act, the government’s response to the High Court’s Mabo decision, a crucial advance in indigenous affairs. Despite its failure in the 1999 referendum, Keating’s promotion of an Australian republic is a defining mark of his time at the nation’s helm.

For many Australians today, especially Labor Party members and supporters, Keating represents a time when Labor had policy heft, conviction and authentic leadership. Whilst Keating’s style grated with some, his evocative use of language, both in the heat of political battle and on occasions such as the Redfern Speech and the Funeral Service of the Unknown Australian Soldier, cemented his place in our history as a powerful wordsmith.

Keating is one of seven living former prime ministers who served consecutively since 1972. Gough Whitlam (1972-75) is 97; Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) is 83; Bob Hawke (1983-1991) is 84; John Howard (1996-2007) is 74; Kevin Rudd (2007-10 and 2013) is 56; and Julia Gillard (2010-13) is 52. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is 56.

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