On various trips in the past ten years I have travelled as the “sidekick” and bag-carrier-in-chief to the Hon. Paul J. Keating.
For those not familiar with Australian political history, in 1969 at age 25, Paul was elected the youngest ever member of Australia’s parliament. He held several ministerial positions over the course of a distinguished political career, and ultimately served as Australia’s Prime Minister from 1991 – 1996.
In public life Paul took bold and often controversial positions. He was a strong advocate of reconciliation with Australia’s indigenous population; he believed Australia should reorient its foreign policy towards Asia; he was a passionate supporter of the arts; and he openly championed the notion that Australia should become a Republic. Paul almost single-handedly deregulated the Australian economy, introduced a national superannuation (retirement savings) scheme, and sought to reform labour and tax laws, often in the face of enormous opposition even within his own party. He was and remains one of Australia’s most loved, hated and polarizing leaders.
Since leaving office, Paul has become a self-appointed bête noire of Australia’s political establishment. He has also had a second career as a businessman, including for a while serving as Chairman of an investment firm I worked at. It was here that we first met, and since then Paul has been both a friend and mentor to me, sharing with me his opinions, advice, and foresight.
A good example of his foresight was about six years ago, when Paul suggested to me at lunch one day that I should consider standing for political office later in life. I laughed, and said that with a name like “Eytan Uliel” I could never get elected in Australia. Paul’s reply: “maybe that was right twenty years ago, but things have changed – these days, voters in the West care far less than most people think about name and ethnic background”. Two years later the American public proved how right Paul was when they elected Barack Hussein Obama as their first African-American President, but at the time Obama was a complete unknown and I dismissed Paul’s views as wishful thinking.
Today, Paul continues to travel extensively as a de facto elder Australian statesman, and has been kind enough to schlepp me along with him on a number of occasions, in the process giving me a whole lifetime’s worth of extraordinary travel experiences.
Such as arriving in Beijing and having a fleet of motorcycle out-riders clear the road of traffic ahead of our motorcade. Then, on reaching the hotel, stepping from the car onto a red carpet, and looking up to see the entire staff of the hotel lined-up to greet us, and a wall of paparazzi types behind them, snapping photos.
Or such as meeting in person with a wide array of world leaders and policy makers – people instantly recognizable from the evening news, and who I could never have dreamed of meeting but for the fact that they were meeting with Paul. In these meetings, many of which are private, I have been a fly on the wall to some truly fascinating conversations.
Once, at a closed meeting in the home of a South East-Asian leader, Paul bluntly told him that his country’s policies on capital punishment were “barbaric, and not befitting of you”. And at a dinner table with one of the most senior finance official in China, also an old friend of his, Paul said: “you look tired, but that’s what comes from this silliness of constantly trying to keep the RMB down. When are you going to implement some sensible monetary policies?” I almost choked on my soup – here was the ex-PM of a far-away and insignificant country, scolding the man responsible for Chinese monetary policy (and the financial health of much of the world). His friend just laughed and said: “Paul, only you are allowed to say that”.
In one book, Paul recounts how at a meeting with the Queen he told her that he thought the monarchy was “an anachronism, having drifted into obsolescence”. I sadly was not at that meeting,although I have no doubt it happened just as Paul described.
This willingness to say what’s on his mind was a hallmark of Paul’s political career, and he remains equally frank and opinionated today. Even now, out of office, Paul regularly sends off lengthy and impeccably reasoned missives to various world leaders – he has allowed me to read a few – where without any hesitation he offers up his views on everything from managing the global financial crisis to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
No-one in Australia is indifferent to Paul Keating – he is either loved, or loathed. Perhaps it is because he is an enigma: someone with working class roots, but who also has a love for fine suits, Regency furniture, Georgian architecture and Mahler. A Labour politician who was willing to battle the trade union movement that he felt was crippling Australia. He used to breed budgerigars; for a while he managed a rock band; he still sends hand-written notes and hardly uses email. Despite a deep affinity for tradition, Paul has no issue with junking protocol he doesn’t like. In 1992, for example, he famously placed his arm around the Queen while she was on a state visit to Australia, and got dubbed “the Lizard of Oz” by the outraged UK media (he later was quoted as saying “I like the Queen … and I think she liked me”).
Paul has always had a larger than life public personality – he himself once said that to be a leader “every now and then, you have to flick the switch to vaudeville”. His fierce intellect and unwavering commitment to doing what he believes needs doing is admired by some, regarded as arrogance by other. What can’t be disputed is Paul’s impact in Australia, which was profound and enduring. Almost twenty years after he left office, I am still amazed by how many people will stop him in the street to talk, share an opinion, or tell him how they wish that he would make a political comeback.
Then there is his biting, brilliant, and extremely sharp tongue. Whole web-sites are devoted to chronicling the fabulous insults of Paul Keating. Here is a small selection of some of my personal favourites. Keep in mind that many of these barbs were delivered by Paul in parliament, thus ensuring that for all eternity they are part of the official record of Australian government proceedings. We are a strange little country.
On John Howard, Australian opposition leader and eventually Prime-Minister after Paul:
- “From this day onwards, Howard will wear his leadership like a crown of thorns, and in the parliament I’ll do everything to crucify him.”
- “The little desiccated coconut is under pressure …..”
- “…the brain-damaged Leader of the Opposition…”’
- “He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.”
On Andrew Peacock, Australian politician and opposition leader for a time:
- “I suppose that the Honourable Gentleman’s hair, like his intellect, will recede into the darkness.”
- “The Liberal Party ought to put him down like a faithful dog because he is of no use to it and of no use to the nation.”
- “We’re not interested in the views of painted, perfumed gigolos.”
- “It is the first time the Honourable Gentleman has got out from under the sunlamp.”
- “Intellectual rust bucket.”
- “Gutless spiv.”
On various other politicians:
- “[He is] like a lizard on a rock – alive, but looking dead.” (on John Hewson, Australian opposition leader for a time in the 1990s)
- “His performance is like being flogged with a warm lettuce.” (also on John Hewson)
- “Sit down and shut up, you pig!” (to Wilson Tuckey, Liberal member of parliament)
- “You stupid foul-mouthed grub.” (also to Wilson Tuckey)
- “An intellectual nobody … [a] resident nutter.” (On Tony Abbott, current leader of the Australian Liberal Party)
- “[He] has been in so many parties he is a complete political harlot.” (on Steele Hall, Independent parliamentarian)
- “An abacus gone feral.” (on Malcolm Fraser, Liberal politician and 22nd Australian prime minister)
On his political opponents in general:
- “The Liberal party go back to their old policies like dogs returning to their own vomit.”
- “[Most politicians have] brains like sparrows’ nests – all shit and sticks”.
- “I’m not running a seminar for dullards on the other side.”
- “Those opposite could not operate a tart shop.”
- “Intellectual hoboes.”
- “The Honourable Members opposite squeal like stuck pigs.”
- “The animals on the other side.”
On other irksome folk:
- “Get a job. Do some work like the rest of us.” (To a group of protesting university students).
- “Fucking animals.” (Sharing his views on members of the press).
And finally, on himself:
- “The Placido Domingo of Australian politics”, a self description reflecting Paul’s love of opera and his view that Domingo’s performances are “sometimes great, and sometimes not great, but always good“.
You may well be wondering at this point, what’s the connection between my recent travels and Paul Keating? Bear with me, but in a nutshell, it is all to do with Dullsville, otherwise known as Perth, a city of 1.8 million people that you will find clinging to the far-Western edge of the Australian continent, all alone and, geographically speaking at least, in the middle of fucking nowhere.
I visited Perth last week to attend a shareholder’s meeting of a company that I recently joined the Board of. It was the first time I have been in Perth in over ten years, so I set aside some time to go exploring while there. I walked the city and inner suburbs; jogged the bay and park; and strolled around some of Perth’s fashionable riverfront and beach-side suburbs.
So what did I find while exploring? Answer: absolutely nothing. I saw some newish looking high-end boutiques and restaurants, and was staggered at the over-priced but crummy hotel rooms, all evidence of the China-fuelled resources boom that is currently raining dollars onto Perth. I couldn’t help but notice how after 8pm Perth becomes a ghost town, with the streets practically deserted. And I also observed that in Perth, far too many places for my liking still refer to Italian-style coffee as “expresso”.
But apart from these rather limited observations, nada. Perth is on the whole “pleasant”, and possibly even “quite nice”. Mainly, however, Perth is plain old dullsville.
Now, I am a generally conservative kind of guy who lives in Singapore, a place recently rated as the fourth most boring capital city in the world. My idea of fun is a crossword puzzle; I regard scrabble as a competitive sport; at times I have been known to enjoy watching rain drops race down a window pane. So take it from me – if I find Perth to be dull, it means it must be an utterly, mind-numbingly, wrist-slashingly dull place. As one web-commentator succinctly put it, Perth is perhaps the “most boring, backward place in the western world”.
I was so astonished by how boring Perth was that I searched online to see if I could find something – anything – interesting about the place. I succeeded only in uncovering even more unmitigated dullness.
According to the city’s official web-site, Perth is the most isolated major city in the world, and also one of the sunniest cities in the world, and not to mention having the world’s most consistent wind (apparently a breeze called the ‘Fremantle Doctor’ blows between 12pm and 3pm virtually every day of the year). Would be tourists, take note: the best that Perth can do by way of selling itself is to say it is remote, sunny and routinely windy.
Equally riveting is the fact that Perth supposedly has the largest inner city park in the world, or the fact that Perth is the only city in the world where an aircraft can land in the central business district, or that the Mint in Perth is the world’s oldest mint still operating from its original premises. Oh. Wow.
I came across a reference to The Festival of Perth, held each February, the “oldest international multi-arts festival in the Southern hemisphere”. That sounded interesting, for a nanosecond, until I remembered that the Southern hemisphere consists of Australia, New Zealand, random Pacific islands, half of Africa, some of South America, and Antarctica. Just how many other international multi-arts festivals could there possibly be in the Southern hemisphere competing with Perth for this scintillating title? And then I realised with dismay that Perth was not claiming to have the largest or most popular of the Southern hemisphere’s international multi-arts festivals, only the oldest……
I rest my case. Perth is dull, duller, and dullest.
One thing did break through the gloomy dullness to catch my attention as I walked the streets of Perth, and that is I couldn’t help but notice how Asian the city is. In central Perth in particular, at least half of the faces I saw were of Chinese, Indian and South-East Asian origin, and I heard Mandarin, Hindi and Malay spoken interchangeably with English.
The growth of the Asian population is a dominant demographic trend across Australia. China is apparently now the biggest source of permanent migration to the country, and I read that currently around 40% of the places in many Australian university courses are now taken up by students of Asian heritage. Official statistics are that around 12% of Australia’s population is of Asian origin, and some forecasters say that this will double to almost 25% within a decade, and double again to 50% by mid-century.
In Perth, however, it seemed to me as if this demographic shift to Asia has already well and truly happened. Maybe this is because Perth is the most accessible place in Australia to those coming from Asia – it is in the same time zone, and it is marginally quicker to fly from Perth to Singapore or Jakarta than it is to fly to Canberra, Australia’s capital. I know many wealthy people in Indonesia who maintain suburban mansions in Perth for use as “weekenders”. And I cannot count the number of times I have been in a Singaporean taxi where the driver, on hearing my Australian accent, has told me how if only he could afford it he would leave the mad excitement that is Singapore, and retire to Perth.
Asia was not just evident in the faces on Perth’s streets, but in how the city appears to have culturally absorbed the region into its lifeblood. Food is an obvious example: I counted more noodle-bars and Vietnamese soup dens and Thai takeaways than I did the once ubiquitous English fish’n’chips or Middle-Eastern doner kebab stores.
As if to perfectly sum it all up, on one morning I went for a run around Perth’s bay, during the course of which I passed by several pods of metal exercise equipment, available for use by the public, all strategically scattered along Perth’s foreshore.
The equipment is very distinctive – brightly coloured and made of metal, on which you can perform a series of exercises and stretches. You can’t miss them, and I have never before seen these exercise stations anywhere else in Australia, or anywhere in Europe or the United States either, for that matter. But here’s the thing: I know exactly what these public exercise stations look like and do, because they are everywhere in Asia, a trademark feature to be found in just about every city-park and public space. I use them most mornings when I go running, and I have my own name for them: “Chinese exercise machines”.
So at first blush it seemed kind of weird to see “Chinese exercise machines” in Perth, of all places, but then it dawned on me: why not? I am in Asia, after all. Why wouldn’t I find Chinese exercise machines here? Perth is as much their home turf as Chaoyang Park in Beijing, Victoria Park in Hong Kong, or the West Coast Park in Singapore.
I paused for a few minutes and sat on a nearby bench. I watched ordinary Perth-folk going about their morning exercises. There were old men and women of Asian extract, often wearing tracksuits and leather shoes, gently stretching and working their muscles – a scene identical to what you will see every morning in downtown Shanghai or Singapore’s botanical gardens. They were joined, however, by a cross-sample of the multicultural mix that is wonderfully, uniquely Australian: tall blonde English roses in trendy Lorna Jane exercise gear; mothers pushing prams and with toddlers in tow; grizzly old men who looked like they had just stepped off their fishing boat somewhere in the Mediterranean; podgy and balding executive types; annoyingly fit and healthy looking Aussie blokes showing off their muscle-ripped abs.
Sitting there on a public park bench in Perth, Western Australia, on a sunny April morning, watching a cross-section of Perth society work out on Chinese exercise machines, I thought specifically about my friend Paul Keating.
In 1995, in a speech to the Australian Chinese Forum, he said: “Asia is emphatically where this country’s security and prosperity lie. It is where an increasing number of our people come from and – unambiguously and wholeheartedly – it is where we want to be….”
In 2000, Paul elaborated on these views in a book he wrote called Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia-Pacific, in which he discussed Australia’s place in the world and suggested redefining Australia’s national identity in terms of multiculturalism, and in particular Australia’s place in the Asian region. My takeaway from reading Engagement was that Australia should no longer regard itself as a colonial outpost of England or a vassal state of the USA, but rather as an integral part of Asia.
Like it or not, over time the Australian landscape will be transformed by the geopolitical forces that are shaping today’s world: the re-emergence of China; the growth of India; the rise of Asia’s consumer class. Paul’s view is that engagement with Asia is not to be feared; it is a natural, positive and inevitable change, to be embraced. We should wholeheartedly accept Australia’s unique position as a multicultural democratic society, in and of Asia. With typical foresight, Paul had long ago seen this coming, and had way back then acted on his conviction, taking steps to prepare Australia for the future as he believed it would be. On a park bench in Perth last week, for the first time, I very literally could see that what Paul had spoken about, decades ago, was now becoming a reality.
So, I did manage to have at least one interesting moment while in Perth, after all. It still doesn’t make it any less boring of a place to visit. I will give the final word to the Hon. Paul J Keating, who was once quoted as saying “Sydney is the only place to live in Australia – the rest is camping out”. I will check next time I speak to him, but I am convinced Paul was thinking specifically of Perth when he said this.