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Riveting Insider's Account of the Hawke-Keating Years by Gareth Evans

Peter Craven, The Australian, 25 October 2014

GARETH Evans is one of the most intellectually formidable figures to have been involved in Australian politics since Herbert Vere Evatt and, like Evatt, combines a first-rate legal brain with a penchant for foreign affairs. Though “Gareth Gareth’’ did not ascend to the coveted secretary-generalship of the UN, it speaks volumes that his bid [to head UNESCO] had the support of political opponents such as John Howard and Alexander Downer. And if it’s not true that, in the manner of Evatt, Evans fell “like Lucifer never to hope again” (to use Shakespeare’s phrase), it is also true this most brilliant of foreign ministers was accident prone.

At the outset of the Hawke-Keating government, Evans, still in his 30s, was the attorney-general who flew a spy plane over Tasmania, offering nothing later but the streaker’s defence that it seemed like a good idea at the time. But then foreign ministers — particularly brilliant foreign ministers — are a bit like that: Kevin Rudd was one of nature’s foreign ministers and Henry Kissinger brought us Pol Pot.

In any case Evans, who might have been a great judge on the High Court or a great head of the UN, became the distinguished head of the International Crisis Group, which he ran for a decade. He negotiated the UN’s Cambodian peace settlement.

Now he has elected to publish the diary he kept as resources and energy minister for the government that changed the tenor of Australian life. The diary covers just two years, October 1984 to December 1986, but it is a remarkable and engrossing worm’s eye view of Australian government in practice: brilliant, impassioned and full of rich, indecorous detail.
Evans’s original intention was to write an antipodean version of Richard Crossman’s insider’s view of Harold Wilson’s government in Britain, and it is a great loss that he did not give us a panoramic account of his 13 years in government and 21 in parliament.

Yet as it stands, at about 400 pages, this is a dazzling and diverting account, by a born raconteur and politics incorrigible, of what it is like to be a team player in an extremely talented government when you have a hankering for personal integrity and a strong tendency towards megalomania, but with plenty of irony and style to help wash it down.

Early on, Evans tells the joke about Kerry Packer, dubbed the Goanna during Frank Costigan’s royal commission. “Have you ever to your knowledge met the Goanna?” “No, but I knew his father, Sir Frank Goanna.” Evans has a horror of the Costigan commission because he thinks it’s a star chamber that offers surmise and innuendo rather than evidence.

It’s characteristic of this diary that he meets the royal commissioner in the vicinity of the Sistine Chapel at St Peter’s and the soft-voiced Catholic crime scourge says, “It lifts the spirit doesn’t it?” Yes, Gareth is forced to reply, while thinking to himself: unlike your witch-hunt. It’s a typical note in a book that constantly details Evans’s fear that his beloved Labor Party is “losing its soul” and is fierce with the author’s sense of civil liberties and human rights. When Liberal senator Alan Missen dies, Evans writes that he was “one of the few genuinely ‘small-l liberals’ in the parliament, and an old ally of mine in an endless series of battles on civil liberty … we fought together without any regard at all to party lines, facing exactly the same kind of opposition within each of our own ranks”.

The diary covers the extraordinary days in which Bob Hawke and Paul Keating transformed Labor into a third-way party long before Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, a party that “was bone dry economically but socially moist”.

At every point, Evans is there to provide the moistening, even though you can tell from his constant fluctuations of mood and his restless intensity that he’s a natural-born street fighter. He’s appalled, for instance, when Hawke declares that opposition leader Andrew Peacock will back him if he repeals, as he’s tempted to, the Freedom of Information legislation. “Hawke’s reactionary instincts on all these issues are deadly serious,” Evans writes.

He paints a portrait of Hawke, the man Patrick White described as the “silver bodgie”, as arrogant, forceful, characterised by “a staccato narcissism”. He talks of the “by now familiar withering sneer” with which Hawke greets any suggestion that may offend the Americans. Of course he likes it when Hawke praises him, which he does as often as not, and notes that he loses the equanimity that goes with his famous chairmanship skills whenever he’s uncertain of his own mind. Whereas when he’s comfortable, “he purrs”.

This diary is indispensable for this kind of epiphany: Barry Jones, “the minister for Scientology” as his opponents called him, has just proposed the appointment of Peter Garrett to what Evans describes as “the increasingly sur­real Commission for the Future”. Hawke ­thunders: “This must be the stupidest recommendation to come before this government: it is a grotesque abuse of the intelligence of this cabinet.” To which former leader Bill Hayden, the man who more or less dubbed Hawke a drover’s dog, says, “Don’t be obscure, Bob; tell us your real views.”

And it’s around this point, early in these jottings, that we hear Keating musing with what must be feigned ambivalence about the leadership. “Of course, I’ll give it a go if it comes along … but I don’t really give a stuff any more and I’d just as soon be ... making a squillion and talking about antiques.” And Evans adds, as if shaking himself, “the extraordinary thing is … I still half-believe him”.

There is a lot of this kind of stuff and it’s ravishing. Here is Keating on Hawke: “A lucky mug who doesn’t know what he wants to do with the country, what he wants to do with his life, or where he wants to lead the government.” Of course Hawke is capable of describing Keating as “a pain in the f..king arse” even though they are on the same side of the political spectrum within the cabinet.

Keating is the one who is always warning about some potential stuff-up, as with this on phone taps: “You are wrong about that and you’ll live to regret it: the police are corrupt and should never be given an inch when it comes to telephone tapping.” Evans, not surprisingly, says it is inconceivable Keating could move against Hawke unless he self-destructs or loses the next election — but it remains ambiguous what self-destructs means in this context.

Evans talks tellingly of how the Max Gillies version of Hawke mutters self-referentially but also poignantly about the fact he’s represented as “talking gibberish”. The real distinction that shines through is that he likes Keating, who he emphasises as immeasurably more sympathetic. He manages to modify detail in the drafting of Keating’s superannuation legislation and Keating seems to handle it with an easy grace.

It helps kick this diary on that everything is jotted down a few hours after it happened. There’s a marvellous moment when Evans hears — and is clearly chuffed to hear — that Margaret Thatcher has said, “Yes, we thought Senator Evans was very good. We can work with his ideas.” He says if this ever gets out his reputation in the Labor Party will take a battering. And it’s clear throughout that he is completely wowed by the biggest stage imaginable. He takes it up to the Americans when he sees them and you can almost hear Hawke’s trepidation at the thought of what he might say to Caspar Weinberger or Paul Wolfowitz. At one point Hawke rings Evans to ask how he could possibly say the US had provoked the New Zealanders into banning nuclear ships. Evans was clearly the kind of headstrong politician who could never keep his mouth sufficiently shut.

This is a rich, rollicking book even though it is at least as much a serious one. I love the moment when Don Chipp is holding forth in the Senate about “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti and Evans can’t stop himself. “I draw Senator Chipp’s attention, in drafting his questions, to the merit of Francis Bacon’s aphorism that constant hyperbole is comely in nothing but love.” He adds in a note to himself that they had better kiss and make up.

We’re fortunate that Evans was there, making a nuisance of himself in this government, which for better or worse has defined Australian politics and in particular economic management ever since. Yes, he found “not only the general substance, but also the dynamics of the conversation much more sympathetic with Keating than with Hawke”, but he was there to back Neal Blewett when he had a fit at the idea of lowering the Medicare rebate and he attacked Hawke’s proposal to make younger dole recipients do community work.

At the same time, Evans is, as critic Lionel Trilling said of EM Forster, “a liberal at war with the liberal imagination”. When a Labor QC accuses him of selling Lionel Murphy down the river, his automatic impulse, mercifully resisted, is to punch his lights out. He is forever angrily defending liberty against his own government which he fears, at least sometimes, is dangerously right-wing. On the other hand, he says Hawke’s tears are genuine when Murphy dies and he asserts, credibly enough, that in the face of all of his flaws, Murphy was a great jurist and that “the bastards always win in the end”.

Evans has produced an impressive, intimate view of government of the most blow-by-blow kind. This is a book that will fascinate everyone with a feeling for the human face of politics and for the fact it needs to be defended. It’s also attractive that Evans can talk about how a profile of himself is published next to an article about lesbian nuns; that his daughter’s birthday party, with little girls in ballet dresses, is probably the last moment of innocence; that his son pines for him to play cricket in the nets more often, like other dads. It’s attractive that he thrills to Antony Sher’s Richard III, that he tries to read Proust or Middlemarch at Christmas and ends up with detective stories.

Inside the Hawke-Keating Government is a masterly account of the period it covers. It’s a pity it’s not 10 times longer but it remains nevertheless a fragment of a great work of epical range and virtuosity and human interest. It constitutes one of the finest pieces of political writing.