Tuesday, 29 May 2007

An Australian Experience-Paul Keating's last waltz

Keating appeared new to the post of Prime Minister and unwittingly displayed his timid side during the state visit of US President George Bush senior. Hawke could be a better host of formal state functions. This temporary drawback made people wonder where was the passionate and aggressive Keating they knew. As expected, Keating soon returned to his peak form and offered splendid defence of Labour and his government in and out of the Parliament. Furthermore, he had a priority in proving his own mandate through winning an election in his own right. An inherited Prime Ministership exposes to the public of a lame duck character, which is definitely not Keating.
Right before the 1993 election, the Liberal Party campaigned extremely hard and had high hopes on their slick and younger looking candidate Dr. John Hewsen to create a rapid downfall of their hated Keating. I went to a massive shopping mall in Melbourne one sunny day and faced a large crowd of noisy Liberal supporters. Even the local Liberal candidate was there, Dr. Woodridge who served as shadow health minister and is a real medical doctor. Party supporters were quite aroused by his presence and happily handed out party pamphlets and other promotional materials to passers-by. The atmosphere was like a carnival for the coming victory.
I declined a few handouts on my way to the shops, and then spot a lone Labour supporter, a tall, sizable girl standing nervously outside a toy shop, with handful of Labour pamphlets. Obviously not many people were interested in taking them, and she felt quite discouraged even to try handing out anymore. I walked up to her and took a page to have a look. When I asked what she thought about the noisy Liberal supporters and campaigning around the mall, she emitted a sign and said: "They all say the Libs will win this time, ye know?". All I could respond then was "hanging on there".
This is the time for Keating to prove his worth or lack of it. Amidst all the exuberance and heightened expectations, the short tempered and quick firing Keating did not give up and pounded his rivals hard to the end. He produced some entertaining and also awkward moments during the campaign, calling his debate opponent Dr. Hewsen a "big boy" on live TV, which made that gentle politician look to the moderator for intervention and laying down some penalties on this kind of improper, aggressive behaviour. Keating was once treated as a star celebrity when jumping onto a wired fence to wave to some nearby high school girls and received hilarious screams of surprise and admiration in return. At least he restored some of the charisma Hawke used to project on others.
On the election night, the sense of an unwinable election for Labour this round and people's eagerness to see change were overwhelming. The Liberals smelt a win in the air. A Hewsen ascendancy seemed almost assured, in the bag, unlosable, and it was time for the Liberals to celebrate. With all these atmosphere of certainty, the eventual Keating win is an extraordinarily exciting and spectacular event in contemporary Australian politics, even from his opponents' point of view. It is over dramatic, stunning, and against all odds.
Current affairs commentators on the election night, regardless of their party preferences, initially sounded the same prediction of an easy Liberal win. The Liberal guests present on TV programmes looked most upbeat, while the Labour guests humbly offered their opinions, trying to hide their emotions as deeply as possible. Their comments accurately reflected the mood of the parties right at that moment. At around nine o'clock, the mood quietly but decisively shifted, as seats filled by Labour candidates increased in number and swings to the Liberals in many marginal seats did not materialise as predicted. The faces of Liberal guests turned pale, and they choked on words or were simply speechless. This subtle shift lightened Labour guests up considerably. You could tell at a glance that they were trying very hard not to openly display their joy and elation, avoiding embarrassing their honourable Coalition counterparts on site and losing a gentleman's touch.
Away from TV broadcast rooms, there were wild scenes at the Labour headquarters in Sydney. Paul Keating walked up the stage with that briskness and wide smile, delighting his audience, loyal party supporters, immensely. They enjoyed the Keating victory speech in his typical style" "This is the sweetest victory of all. This is a victory for the true believers, for those who kept the faith through difficult times". With this heart-throbbing speech amidst thunderous applause, history was made and hopes restored.
When it was clear that Keating beat Hewsen, the mood of Liberals changed swiftly, and planned celebrations turned sour in many occasions. Local newspapers reported that a taxi driver in Sydney received a few dollars as tips from an over dressed lady who just left a huge ball which was set up to celebrate a sure win for Hewsen. The half drunken lady parted with bitter mutterings that if Hewsen did win, that taxi driver would be many times luckier to get a lot of money as tips. It is easy to picture in my mind how exhilarated could it be for the girl of Labour faithful I met in Melbourne right before this election night.
In many aspects, this huge election upset with a Keating win is similar to that won by President Truman. Both took the office from a previous charismatic national leader and had not contested in an election of their own. Both continued the work of the previous leader, faced a top problem of their credibility, and had a strong urge to prove their worth in an election to leave the doubters behind for good. Both were not popular figures at the time of their campaigns and were expected to meet a near certain defeat in the hands of their brilliant and more popular opposition leaders. Both crushed their opponents in spectacular ways, beating the odds and shredding the oppositions with a resounding victory. The only difference is that the agony of waiting for the results was shorter for Keating, having the night to himself and enjoying cheers from party supporters not long after the votes were cast.
In many aspects as well, this huge turnaround for Labour in Australia is comparable to the election of Clinton as the President of the US in 1992. These events did give people some hope that in politics you can take a chance, make changes, and work your way out. Politics can be exciting, fulfilling, and indeed with a meaning.

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