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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 8935


Photo of Keating, Paul

Keating, Paul

Period of Service: 20/12/1991 to 11/03/1996

More information about Keating, Paul on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 13/08/1993

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 8935

When I first arrived in Canberra as a young opposition
backbencher John Gorton was Prime Minister and this great
library was well on the way to completion.
So it is very pleasing tonight to come here and see that
we are all still standing.
Not that it was a surprise the National Library and Sir
John both have about them the same timeless,
indestructible quality.
The building of the National Library spanned something of
a sea change in our history. Sir Robert Menzies laid the
foundation stone. Sir John Gorton opened it.
That was a considerable political shift.
For without intending the slightest disrespect to his
illustrious predecessor, Sir John was a bit of a
revelation to those of us who had really only known one
Australian Prime Minister.
I know there are some who look back and see it as perfect
peace I saw it through different eyes, and so did many
of my generation. We saw it by the mid-1960s in the
With Sir John there was a difference in both style and
substance. It was Sir John, for example, who declared Commonwealth
control over the coast to the high water mark and over
coastal waterways and so preserved national
responsibility for the environmental and resource issues
which these areas presented.
In this and in other ways -like his support for an
Australian film industry -Sir John demonstrated that the
conservative parties were capable of change and vigour
and, dare I say, a rather more unqualified Australian
demeanour. ~ j97

But despite sporadic outbreaks of resistance from some of
his successors, the change continued: the powers that he
insisted should be the Commonwealth's have been invoked
in the interests of the environment and the nation; the
film industry has flourished magnificently; and the not
unrelated question of Australia's independent identity
has become a central element in a national debate which
may yet yield an Australian republic by the end of the
century. So I hope Sir John sometimes allows himself the thought
that he was a visionary.
With the luxury of hindsight, we begin to get a
perspective on the nature of the battle in those years
and in the twenty-five since.
In some respects it was a generational shift in values;
yet I think the battles John Golton fought were of a kind
to be found throughout ouir history between different
concepts of Australia's nationhood and identity which
emerged in the nineteenth century and have been alive
ever since.
In time I expect someone will write the history of these
last twenty-five years.
I know " From Gorton to Keating" has a funny sort of a
ring about it, but under a different title it would be a
rewarding project there is that consistent theme of
change attempted and change denied.
Change, let me say, has won a resounding victory and, for
all the certainties which characterised the sixties, this
is a much better Australia because change has won.
We have seen the remarkable growth of tolerant, creative
cultural pluralism and all the riches this has brought
Australia. We have seen our attitude to the region in which we live
change dramatically and today we are seeing the pace of
change accelerate.
The xenophobia has largely gone.
We have seen the culture of the workplace change
fundamentally from an assumption of opposing interests
to one of shared interests.
The shape of the Australian economy has changed: for
instance, we are seeing Australia become an exporter of
manufactures high tech goods as well as raw materials
and agricultural products.
And we have seen Australians come to the understanding
that these are things we must do if we are to secure our
future. 998

That has probably been the most profound change of all
and our greatest achievement, our willingness to change,
to recognise that the world is changing, and the way we
do things and conceive of ourselves must change to
accommodate it.
Yet far more than other comparable countries which have
attempted the same kind of economic change, we have kept
faith with our traditions of democracy and social
justice. Like other countries we have a severe unemployment
problem. But other countries do not have our health system. They
do not have an Accord between unions and the government.
They do not have the best record in the world on
legislation to expand the status and rights of women.
Few countries have such a secure social safety net.
We have considerable difficulties. There are all sorts
of imperfections.
But at the end of a decade of the most profound economic
change in our history, and at the end of a generation of
equally profound cultural change, Australia remains among
the very freest and fairest societies in the world.
That is not to be complacent it is to recognise
achievement and re-affirm our commitment to these
principles. So this last twenty-five years makes a great story.
And if someone does decide to write it there is one thing
we can be sure of: we can be sure that the greater part
of the research will be done here in the National
Library. For this is where the national story is contained. Like
the Library of Congress and the British Library and the
Bibliotheque Nationale, the National Library of Australia
conserves the materials from which the story can be told
the story which will tell future generations who they
are and how their country came to be.
Ultimately it will tell them whether this generation
cared enough about Australia: whether they had enough wit
to imagine Australia's future and enough courage to do
what was necessary.
The National Library holds the materials by which we will
be judged.
This audience scarcely needs me to tell them why we
should celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the
National Library why it is one of Australia's greatest
and most cherished institutions. 199

But as one who every day has his history written with an
air of definitive authority in a dozen newspapers across
the country, and served up on three commercial and two
public television networks, and on countless radio
stations where the public are also invited to join in the
feeding frenzy perhaps I can offer a politician's
perspective on national stories.
I don't mean to offer the gratuitous advice that you
shouldn't believe what you read in the newspapers: but it
goes without saying that every one of those dozen
newspapers may have, to a greater or lesser extent, a
different account either of what was said or what was
meant, and the television grabs can be equally as various
as can the radio commentary.
Knowing that these are as much basic sources for
historians as the writings of politicians and bureaucrats
with necessarily defective and selective memories;
knowing that the historian will have to read or speak to
people who are absolute artists at covering their tracks:
knowing this, and that most documents can be read in more
than one way, and are deceptive if not meaningless
without detailed knowledge of the context in which they
are created; and knowing that every writer brings his or
her own perspective and prejudice to the task that like
journalists they frequently have an axe to grind:
knowi * ng all this, I wonder how historians can presume to
write the story at all.
That is the second thing we can be sure of when the story
of the last twenty-five years is told many people will
say it is not the real story. They will say it is not a
true story.
They will be right, of course. There will never be one
true story of Australia and I think we should all be glad
of that.
There are any number of people -Isuppose some better
qualified than others who will tell you that the
greatest work to be substantially researched in this
Library is terribly flawed or even quite wrong.
But I don't think there are many people who would say
that Manning Clark's six volume History of Australia does
not contain fundamental truths about Australia, or that
it has not greatly enriched our understanding of
ourselves and entertained us. He made our lives more
interesting by weaving them into a tapestry.
I'm sure that Manning Clark never intended his history to
be the definitive story of Australia, any more than all
those other works on Australian society are the last word
on their subjects.

Clark's work was the product of one Australian's view,
one Australian's passion for the place. I think it can
be said that Manning Clark's great contribution was that
he encouraged us to believe that our history was worth
writing and knowing. In doing that he encouraged
academics, teachers and students to think about the
issues and the drama of the Australian experience and
encouraged all of us to think about what we could become.
When you look at the works which have been researched and
written in this library, it is probably true to say that
many of them were directly or indirectly inspired by
Clark's labour.
Perhaps more than any other Australian writer, he
elevated Australian history to the point where all of us
could say that the story of Australia was part of the
universal story uniquely Australian, but at every stage
connected to the world beyond.
I would not want to suggest a parallel between Manning
Clark's history and its great themes and the Labor
government and my role in it.
Politics is too much concerned with the day to day to
discern a pattern. A politician's energy is so often
expended on combating necessities which in the longer run
seem petty and even inconsequential.
We are also required to fight on fronts which historians
of the Manning Clark variety are inclined to think of as
pedestrian and even philistine. Reform of the taxation
system and changes to the regulations affecting banking
these things were not exactly grist to Manning's mill.
Nor do historians have to live out the daily grind of
beating back one's political opponents.
For all these reasons it is often very difficult for
politicians to hang on to the long view the wvision
thing" as someone called it. But let me say that the
Manning Clarks of the world, the historians who work on a
big canvas, can help them do it.
Because, buried beneath the weight of daily necessity and
all the words necessary to meet it, there is something of
an affinity between we politicians and the historians.
For, in truth, politicians who believe in their cause are
always conscious that they have a story to tell. Indeed
the telling of it is an essential ingredient of success.
When a government cannot convey a story a consistent
story the people lose faith in the government.
It is one of the meanings of that expression for disaster
" losing the plot". 1001

The other meaning of the story in politics is that same
vision thing, one's ambition for the country and a
notion of how it might be realised.
We in the Labor Party take the view that we have the
vehicle the only suitable and reliable vehicle which
can change Australia as necessity and ambition demand.
In the 1970s some of us in the Labor Party formed the
view that if Australia was to realise its great potential
and meet the challenges it faced, the Party needed to be
rid of its traditional phobias.
Labor had to rid itself of prejudice which narrowed the
possibility of change, and which in fact stood in the way
of its great ideals.
It had to embrace the pluralist reality of Australia. It
had to make a virtue of it, extend it, celebrate it.
It had to recognise and accept that, for all their
collectivist traditions, Australians believed in free
enterprise and that they were right to believe in it
because, without question, it delivers more freedom and
more wealth and, in the end, more social justice than any
~ Labor had to open itself up to reality, to the world.
It had to recognise that, perhaps as never before, the
story of Australia was bound to be part of the world
And through Labor, Australia itself could become
phobia-free, conscious and proud of its best traditions
and its capacity to adapt, a modern social democracy and
a substantial and creative player in the world.
For ten years now, despite the political machinations and
the stumbles, despite all the interventions of forces
within and beyond our control, this is essentially the
story the Labor Government has been telling.
The point of the last decade is change and improvement:
to change the culture and the structure, to build on our
material and human strengths and give ourselves a chance
in the world.
This is not the time or place to tell you why I think we
now have that chance. But in the emergence of
unprecedented opportunities in the Asia-Pacific, and in
the fundamental changes in the Australian economy and our
business and industrial culture, the chance is there. It
is a better chance, I believe, than Australia has ever
had before.
And when the history is written, I think it will be seen
that it was in these two decades that we grasped the

chance and set Australia up for the twenty-first
century. The danger is always, I think, that a country's story
or the story of a political party should ossify.
In our national life there are things we should hold
sacred, things which no generation should be allowed to
Among these I would number our commitment to democracy,
freedom, justice, fairness, our love of the land and our
best institutions and traditions.
We should keep these values forever in the foreground and
of course we should honour all those in peace and war who
have defended them.
But, because it is anathema to those very traditions, we
should resist the temptation to say that one individual
or group has a monopoly on these things.
I can vouch for the temptation to do this in the Labor
Party. I venture to say Sir John Gorton can vouch for it
in the Liberal Party.
Legends give a nation strength. They give us coherence,
confidence and belief. But they also have the capacity
to freeze us in our tracks. They have the capacity to
exclude new generations. They can underpin democracy and
they can undermine it.
Last year was the 50th anniversary of a number of major
battles fought by Australians in defence of their
country. They were as significant as any fought by
Australians in a sense, more significant, because they
were fought in defence of this country and the life that
Australians had made here.
They were fought by men and women of my parents'
generation. It seemed to me that they had not been spoken for as the
soldiers of the First World War had been, because they
were not there at the birth of the legend of Anzac.
It seemed to me appropriate last year to speak for them.
And it also seemed to me that there had to be lessons to
learn from these events in our region, and that we should
not be afraid to confront the controversy which has long
surrounded some of them.
There were some who took offence at what I had to say;
there were others, including veterans of the battles, who
supported me. 1003

My point was that in paying the respect that was due, it
was necessary to recognise that the Australian military
tradition like every other tradition does not belong
to anyone except the Australian people.
It is not the basis of a political party, interest group,
religion or sect.
It is not the preserve of one generation if it is
allowed to become so it will die.
What is more, it can most certainly withstand re-thinking
and re-interpretation, just as it can withstand the
addition to it of neglected episodes in our history
like the Sandakan death marches, or Vietnam. In the past
twelve months I have been present at the inauguration of
memorials to both.
My point is that if we don't question we can't imagine.
It is bit like the gift an historian must have to see
beyond the received wisdom and what has been set in
An historian has to have an imagination.
So does a nation so does a government.
If we can't imagine we can't determine our future, we
can't act, we can't change. And we'll fall behind.
That is the point about honouring our legends and
traditions. We fail ourselves, we fail future
generations and we fail those whose memory we are
honouring if we do not re-think the meaning of received
wisdom in the light of contemporary need.
It seems to me the same with political parties.
In the Labor Party we honour our heroes. We make much of
our history and traditions.
But it would be fundamentally silly to live by the letter
of their thought.
I have no doubt that, confronted with the necessities of
this era, Ben Chifley and John Curtin would have
responded with measures quite different to those they
thought appropriate to the forties.
And while I-know my opponents are outraged when I venture
on their territory, I have to say the same is obviously
true of Menzies.
I mean, in recent years three historians have written
books based on the Menzies papers held in the National
Library's manuscripts-collection. Yet Allan Martin,
Judith Brett and David Day have reached very different

conclusions about Menzies, about what he stood for and
what he means to us now.
This seems to me to say not only that it is impossible to
arrive at the one true story, that it depends on one's
perspective; but that it is foolish to conceive of one's
heroes as bearers of the Holy Grail. Or to let the ' ir
life and times determine ours, or what the future will
be. It is one thing to honour heroes and heroic acts, and to
memorialise and see the lessons they teach. But it is
another thing entirely to let them hold up the progress
of succeeding generations.
Let me conclude by drawing a parallel with Mabo. Just
under two weeks ago, I spoke at the opening of a memorial
in Sydney to the men who died in what was surely among
the worst episodes in our history the death by torture,
execution and disease of nearly 2000 Australians at
Sandakan in Borneo.
No Australian would for a moment question the propriety
and historic justice in the erection of the Sandakan
memorial or in the very moving ceremony that was
conducted there.
Yet there are people who will say that the memory of
death by massacre, torture and disease, when it was
inflicted on Aboriginal Australians, should be expunged.
That to pay tribute to their memory is an exercise in
guilt. That one memory is legitimate, the other the
product of a guilt industry.
I say we can't be so selective. I say that we must pay
tribute to the good and the bad in our history and that
when we honestly do that we are not held up but given the
strength to make progress.
I spoke earlier about the daily machinations,
misinterpretations and accusations which are the daily
stuff of politics, and which sometimes make it very
difficult to keep a grip on the story.
With Mabo, it is essential that we do.
With Mabo, I am prepared to wear short term politics for
the long term result. Mabo is part of the big story and
it can't be left to short term expediency and cynical
compromise. Mabo demands a mature national response. We need to see
Ribo -not as a problem but as an opportunity to solve the
problem. A mature national response demands honesty and
imagination. Honesty because we can't build this country
on a lie.

We need imagination because we need to imagine an
Australia without the blight of Aboriginal dispossession
and disadvantage.
We need also the capacity to imagine what our failure
would mean. What it would mean to the self-esteem of this
and future generations. What it would mean to our
reputation in the world. What it would mean to a future
generation who, on coming to the National Library, saw in
the documents here that we once had an opportunity to
solve our oldest and deepest problem and we did not care
enough to grasp it.

Transcript 8935