Pacific overtures

August 16, 1996

Paul Keating launched Australia towards a republic when he was prime minister. Now a visiting lecturer, he tells Chris Johnston about his hopes for the nation.

In the scheme of things, Paul Keating was not prime minister of Australia for a great number of years. His reign was shorter than the eight years the Liberals' Malcolm Fraser enjoyed and much shorter than Robert Menzies's two terms totalling 19 years.

Despite being in the political limelight as federal treasurer from 1983 until 1991, as well as being deputy prime minister from 1990, the one-time pop group manager only became the nation's leader in 1991. The Australian Labor party's election defeat in March ended his term as prime minister after less than five years.

Although Keating concedes that "winning sure beats the hell out of losing", in his view the relatively short period in office does not mean his government will not be remembered.

Speaking to The THES from Canberra, the former PM lists his most significant achievements as developing foreign policy with Asia, raising awareness of the importance of a distinctly Australian identity, and improving relations with the Aborigines.

After spending years as member for Bankstown, an electorate in the lower-middle and working-class south-western suburbs of Sydney, Keating regards the thought of re-entering politics as a somewhat masochistic concept.

"I'm looking forward to a private life," he asserts, before adding that maintaining an interest in public policy will be high on his agenda. "What's kept me going in life is public issues."

One way in which Keating plans to remain involved in this debate is through his new role, since May, as visiting professor at the University of New South Wales. The former PM will have a close association with UNSW's Australia-Asia Institute. His first engagement was a special lecture on Asia for the institute in June, attended by almost 1,000 people.

They were not surprised to hear Keating say that the Asia Pacific region is where Australia's economic and security interests are concentrated and where the nation has the greatest opportunity to influence the future. The continent should make closer cultural, social, as well as economic, links, with Asia a priority.

His first portfolio, a two-month stint as minister for Northern Australia in 1975, may well have sparked Keating's interest in Indonesia and the rest of Asia. After becoming prime minister, he ensured that Asia became the focus of Australian foreign policy and, along with foreign minister senator Gareth Evans, strived to improve relations with the nations of the region.

But it was not all plain sailing; perhaps the most notable, if not the most publicised, hiccup occurred in 1993 when Keating called the Malaysian prime minister Mohammad Mahathir a "recalcitrant". Keating says the incident was due to a difference of opinion, albeit an "honest, intellectual one", over APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group.

"Yes, we did have a disagreement, but it was of very great substance, over very great substance. Prime minister Mahathir, whom I regard highly, wanted to see a pan-Asian structure motivated by Asian nationalism," he explains.

The Australian PM, however, believed a pan-Pacific arrangement involving the United States in an economic and security relationship with East Asia would best serve the interests of both Australia and the region. Keating points out that President Suharto of Indonesia shared his view.

Despite the spat with Mahathir, Keating believes developing relations with East Asia has not and will not be a difficult task, as long as Australia is sincere in wanting to be a part of the region. "If all those things are confirmed to be genuine, then things happen a lot more easily."

Indonesia is cited as one nation in particular that has regarded Australia's desire to be part of the region as sincere. "They thought our approaches were entirely genuine, and that produced an entirely genuine response from them," Keating says.

The most tangible example of Indonesia's trust of Australia is the Agreement on Maintaining Security, which was finalised in November last year and is the first treaty of its type ever signed by Indonesia.

Keating is confident the efforts made so far are beginning to pay off: "Australia has now made a very large down payment on its future with Asia."

Despite the importance of Indonesia, Keating regards China as the key to ensuring regional harmony. This is not because he regards China as a threat to security, but because of the sheer size of the country and its population.

"The pressures of the region are not going to be politically expansionist, the pressures are going to be on the environment, resources and food, and that has to be recognised," Keating says. Regional structures will need to understand and accommodate China, and Asian leaders must encourage the active participation of China in the world.

Keating will continue to have contact with China through his involvement with the UNSW, which is providing the academic programmes for China's first private university. The arrangement will further ingrain Australian higher education in Asia. Thousands of students from the region have been educated in Australia's universities, largely in the past decade, and Keating says this is already proving to be of benefit to Australia.

"Not only do they better understand where we're coming from as a culture, which they obviously do, but we learn to value theirs."

While commodities such as coal and wool are still the nation's biggest export earners, Keating says Australia's intellectual capabilities are already one of its most valuable resources. The only other nation in the region with a comparable education system is Japan.

He regards few responsibilities of government as being more important than education. Although Keating would not comment on the new conservative government's plan to slash higher education funding, he does say that the university system is a great asset and "we should never see it deteriorate". He adds that the tradition of pure research at Australian universities must also be protected.

It is not so much research as teaching that will be part of the former PM's role as visiting professor. He will work with political science and economics students and it would be difficult to find someone who could give a better account of the transformation of Australia's fiscal policy in the 1980s, a process he describes as one of the nation's great policy reformations.

Whether one remembers Keating as the man who deposed Bob Hawke to become prime minister, or as the impolite Aussie who touched the Queen a little too brusquely, the legacy of his achievements will be felt in Australia, and Asia, for many years to come.

It is difficult to believe the 52-year-old will restrict his input to debate to his UNSW role. But if Keating is right, his most indelible mark will be a change from the current constitutional monarchy to a republic.

"A republic is inevitable in Australia and perhaps the government I led made it inevitable," he states. "The full expression of Australian sovereignty will never be complete when our head of state is an English monarch."

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