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Federal election: personal styles of Paul Keating and John Hewson.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: This time it's personal, and that was the slogan adopted by the Canberra Raiders in 1991 when they tried to pull off three back-to-back premierships. Now we see Paul Keating trying to pull off the fifth back-to-back election win for Labor, and we see John Hewson trying to break a decade-long drought for the Liberals in Federal power. And for both of them this time it is personal, very personal.

Paul Keating and John Hewson seem to be driven by mutual antipathy. More than in any other campaign, save for the final Whitlam versus Fraser encounter after the dismissal, this is very much a personal battle between two driven individuals. And I thought it was worth dissecting this this morning, what it means for this election and for the nation, with the help of two journalists who have made it their business to try to find out what makes these two men tick. Christine Wallace is a senior journalist with the Financial Review, and, of course, author of the controversial biography, Hewson, a portrait. Good morning, Christine.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Good morning, Matt.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: And Michael Gordon is Deputy Editor of the Sunday Age, and author of the book, A question of leadership - Paul Keating, political fighter. He's with me too. Good morning.

MICHAEL GORDON: Good morning.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Christine Wallace, firstly, are you surprised at the depth of the personality contest here?

CHRISTINE WALLACE: No, not at all, Matt. It's been evident, absolutely from the first moment John Hewson walked into Parliament, and even a bit before that. I remember as a young Melbourne Herald journo going to talk to Keating once, it was 1987 in fact, and Keating had every one of Hewson's Business Review Weekly columns that he'd written in the previous four years cross-indexed, ready to go. And I think Keating saw Hewson coming a long way off, and saw him as a serious threat to Labor's continued rule, and took him very seriously and personally from that very moment.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Now, John Hewson yesterday said one of the, I mean very few insights we get into what he thinks of Paul Keating and that is he doesn't aim very well. He has only spoken a few words to him, and there was some respect for him there as a political fighter.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Well, that would largely come from the fact that he faces him across the Dispatch Boxes for week in, week out when Parliament sits. And, you know, Keating is a pretty formidable man to sit opposite from. Hewson, to his credit, has never been cowardly. He's a bloke who never takes a backward step in that sort of bloody political realm, but you know, it's difficult to do anything but respect Keating's enormous capacity as a parliamentarian. On his feet, in a battle, he's just absolutely daunting.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Are they similar?

CHRISTINE WALLACE: In some respects they're Bib and Bub, you know, even in the most superficial ways. They're about the same age, they're about the same height and build. When they stand across each other in Parliament you know, you're almost like looking at a couple of cousins, you know, really hammering it out. And that sense of shared territory, coming from that similar sort of early childhood experience they had, growing up not far from each other, about 10 kilometres away from each other in Sydney's south-western suburbs, it's really telling. It's like these guys both know precisely where each other comes from. They just absolutely go for it like a couple of schoolyard scrappers.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes, and they both like cars and nice trinkets and so on.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Exactly.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Stay with us Christine. Michael Gordon, this need, I suppose, for Keating to focus on someone, as Christine Wallace was saying there, clipping every one of his articles all ready to go, cross-referenced and so on, is that part of his makeup? I mean, is it a personal thing against Hewson or is it just that he really has to have someone to latch on to, as he did with John Howard?

MICHAEL GORDON: I think there's some truth in that, but I think it's also true that with Hewson, this has been coming for quite a while and that even when, in the Placido speech, when Keating was saying that he had to deal with Peter Reith and he didn't like that, he wasn't interested in Reithy. It was the other bloke he was interested in. And I think from both sides this has been coming for quite a while. Even on Hewson's side, it was Hewson who had this ugly picture of Keating behind his desk, even while he was a Shadow frontbencher, depicting this sort of really ugly man with a vacuum cleaner sucking up Australian families.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: It's a very graphic cartoon. It was from, yes, I can't remember the book it was from, or an album cover or something.

MICHAEL GORDON: It was an out-of-work painter, I think, but it wasn't a very good painting.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: No. What is it, do you think they see a bit of each other in each other?

MICHAEL GORDON: I think there's an element of that, as Chris said, the same age, the same sort of background, but I think it goes deeper in the sense of the paths they've chosen and I think each sees the other path as less legitimate, even illegitimate. I think with Keating he believes that the skilling he's gained from his commitment to the Parliament, commitment to politics, has given him qualifications for the position he's in and the position he wants to be re-elected to. Hewson, on the other hand, finds politics, the business of it quite distasteful. You know, he says it took him the four degrees to get his confidence. He really believes that his path is the more legitimate.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. What is it do you think though about, I mean that's almost a professional thing, but what is it about Keating that gets under Hewson's skin, because when you read the biogs on him he's somebody who has tended to challenge himself rather than other people to date.

MICHAEL GORDON: I think it does get back to, you know, the way they were brought up, the way you had, I think both the church and the parents were very important and with Dr Hewson, his father was one who believed he'd been dealt a tough hand by fate. You know, his father died early. He didn't get the education that he wanted. Hewson talks about the drives after dinner where he'd take them across town to show them where you could live if you kicked on, whereas Keating's very powerful influence was Matt, who really, when the family's lot improved they moved to Condell Park in Bankstown, a better end of Bankstown. But also I think Matt probably had some frustrated ambitions that he possibly would have wanted to go into Parliament and he saw Paul's career as being able to do what he couldn't. So I think it does go back to their beginnings.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. Paul Keating idolised Matt and learned politics at his feet, effectively, almost from the cradle, and I think was the last person to see him alive and so on. And yet, we might pick this up with Christine Wallace, it would appear John Hewson's father was, almost a bit of a frosty relationship there, certainly one where the father expected the son to produce the goods.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Well, exactly. There's a lot of paternal pressure on John Hewson to get an education, to deliver, to keep delivering, but don't expect any pats on the back. And, in fact, probably the biggest lesson he learned from his father was, you know, keep trying, nothing you ever do is going to be good enough, you've just got to keep scaling those heights and maybe you get a bit of paternal approval and the end of the day. And I think that's very much what John is still doing.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. I think when he finally made it at university, and I can't remember which one, the father's comment was he was getting a bit big for his boots.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: That's true, but to be fair to poor Don Hewson, when you look at the graduation photos, he's there beaming. Perhaps it was the classic Australian male thing. He just never got around to articulating it. But certainly when John was a young fellow he was pretty sparing with the pats on the back, and John felt that pretty acutely.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: I was talking to a Hewson insider yesterday who said he was amazed that the Doc's hot temper hadn't surfaced publicly to date. Does he have a bit of a short fuse?

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Well, behind the scenes you do get the odd story of a melt-down, particularly in relation to media stories John doesn't like. He's been known to completely do his block and blame staff. You know, how could you let this article appear, sort of thing. But the bottom line with John is he's extremely controlled, and he's not a guy that's going to lose it in public, like some other politicians relatively frequently do. Control is a key word with John, and you just never see it in public. He's capable of going white with rage behind the scenes, but never in front of the cameras.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. Keating's been known to give the odd media serve - this is to you, Michael - the odd serve to journalists late at night, when he's been a little unhappy with whatever they've written.

MICHAEL GORDON: Yes, I think that's right. It was interesting talking to Laurie Oakes who has been the recipient of a number of these, and he made the point that even when Keating's in this full flight at least you learn something. So there is an upside to it as well.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: .... couple of those, and I'm not sure I learned anything from them.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, you learned not to answer the phone after you'd written a nasty piece. Now, the religion thing, John Hewson's Baptist upbringing and the hint of Freemasonry too in the family, and Paul Keating's Irish Catholic background as well. Michael, to what extent is religion a factor?

MICHAEL GORDON: I think that's sort of the second main factor after their fathers. I think in Keating's case there was a big overlap between the young Catholic organisation and Young Labor, the emphasis on community, really, there was a natural fit. I think John Hewson talks about his Baptist upbringing and how it is an individual relationship with God, there's total immersion, the focus is very much on the individual. So I think that the religion is very important.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Christine Wallace, your view on that?

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Well, yes, it's absolutely crucial, Hewson's Baptist upbringing. It's really probably the dominant force shaping his character. And it's very evident in his politics. That sense of inner certainty Baptists have that they have the true way, the true knowledge, the true way forward and they want to share it with people. But, you know, having spread the word, people can take it or leave it and if they don't accept it, well, they can go to hell, literally.

And there's a bit of that in John's approach to politics. I mean, the original way he was selling Fightback was, really, you know, this is the word, this is the gospel, take it or leave it. You know, I'll walk away from you if you don't buy it. And he seemed to modify that a bit. That, plus that slight sense of separateness that being a Baptist in Australia confers, only about one in fifty Australians are Baptists - I should add some of my best friends are Baptists.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You don't need to do that.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Don't think this is a Baptist bash. But, you know, the overwhelming, the sort of dominant thread in Australian culture is very Anglo-Celtic. It's, you know, boozing, laughing, yarning, having a good time. It's not about that Baptist stricture of not dancing, not drinking, not smoking, you know, not exposing yourself or making yourself vulnerable to sin. You know, it was very much against the grain of mainstream Australian culture, and I think that created in John an extra sense of outsideness that he still hasn't lost and he still carries with him to this day.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Now, they both would seem to me to have had a relatively sheltered upbringing. I mean, how broad is their world view, because Paul Keating's been nurtured in the bosom of the New South Wales Right, and we've got John Hewson nurtured, really, in academia?

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Well, it's an interesting question. John Hewson, of course, went overseas and lived in North America for five or six years, and when he came back, extensively travelled in Asia and Europe and so forth. So, you know, at a literal level you'd think he was relatively worldly. But at the same time as doing that he was concentrating exclusively on economics, so his professional orientation is quite narrow and he's never really had an opportunity to broaden out from that.

Keating, on the other hand of course, went into politics in his mid-20s and has never done anything else. Yet politicians have a fantastic opportunity, if they choose to utilise it properly, to broaden their horizons, and that's certainly evident with Keating. He's travelled the world several times over. He's acquired some very sophisticated cultural tastes. Privately, in discussion on foreign policy issues, he can be absolutely fascinating. He really does have a vision for Australia in the region and in the world that would surprise most people if they got more insight into it.

I think you really have to, in sort of world view terms, acknowledge that Keating does definitely have an edge, and that's quite an important thing for someone who's going to lead the nation, I think.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Michael Gordon, what's your view on that? I mean, is travelling round as a politician, does that give you a real world view, or does it just give you, I suppose, quite a comfortable travelling itinerary?

MICHAEL GORDON: I think it does, and I agree with a lot of what Chris said, but I also think that Keating's years in the Treasury did mean that his focus was more narrow than it would have otherwise been. It did mask a lot of the other interests that did prevent him from furthering some of those interest. And I think what's been interesting about this year is the extent to which both he and those around him have really tried to make up for some of that lost ground. And even I think some of the women's policy stuff is quite interesting, and how Anne Summers when she came on board, really said, well, you've got to treat this like the economy and just as you'd be briefed by senior bureaucrats about the economy, she brought in Jennie George and Susan Ryan, just for informal meetings, but for a number of prominent women around the country to really bring him up to speed on an issue. And I think Keating's sort of long tenure of the Treasury did narrow his focus, and I think didn't help him.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Look, I think we've scratched the surface, but I've enjoyed that. Michael Gordon, thank you for coming in.

MICHAEL GORDON: Pleasure.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: And a very interesting read your book is, too. I'm enjoying it, thank you, Michael Gordon. And Christine Wallace as well, thank you.

CHRISTINE WALLACE: Thank you.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Christine Wallace is an astute observer as well. She's a senior journalist with the Financial Review and author of the controversial biography Hewson, a portrait. And Michael Gordon, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Age and author of the book A question of leadership - Paul Keating, political fighter.