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How Keating won Libs' unlosable election

AAP logoAAP 31/12/2016 Max Blenkin

It was regarded as the unlosable election - for the coalition that is - and perhaps no-one was more surprised than Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating as polling night unfolded.

Far from losing, there was a 5.5 per cent swing to Labor which increased its majority by two to 13 seats in parliament's lower house.

The result was mostly down to Keating's energetic campaigning against Liberal leader John Hewson's goods and services - a bit rich in the circumstances considering Keating had long favoured such an impost as a necessary economic reform to broaden Australia's tax base.

Cabinet documents for 1992 and 1993, released by the National Archives of Australia, reveal there were plenty of reasons why Labor should have lost.

For one thing, Keating had replaced the popular Bob Hawke on his second leadership bid in December 1991.

Labor wasn't in great shape. Don Watson, who became Keating's speech writer, recalled a pervasive fatigue and a sense that after nine years, Labor's agenda had been completed.

Archives historical consultant Nicholas Brown said Keating, as Hawke's treasurer, had been charismatic, pushing an economic reform agenda which was likely to win respect but not popularity.

Keating went into 1992 with a personal approval rating of just 25 per cent.

That would sink to 17 per cent in August 1993, making him the least popular of all recent PMs. By comparison Julia Gillard's popularity bottomed at 23 per cent, Tony Abbott at 24 per cent while Malcolm Turnbull hit 34 per cent.

The economy was doing Keating no favours. Unemployment rose to 11 per cent (it's now 5.7 per cent) and the deficit blew out to more than $5 billion (now more than $30 billion).

Hewson released his ambitious economic reform policy in November 1991, still remembered because of his proposed GST and the catchy title - Fightback!

In February 1992, Keating released his own visionary economic policy, now mostly forgotten, not least because of its title - One Nation.

From this era, Keating is perhaps better remembered for his assertive Australian nationalism than for the accompanying economic reforms. He talked of Australian independence free of the British empire and declared Australia would have a new flag by 2000.

Still, Keating was civil to the monarchy, welcoming Queen Elizabeth in her 1992 visit, but earning the opprobrium of the British tabloid press and the title "the Lizard of Oz" for placing a guiding arm around Her Majesty during one civic function.

Keating called the election for March 13, 1993. The campaign featured two events which have gone down in Australian election lore, both involving the coalition's proposed GST and cake.

On March 3, Hewson was interviewed by Nine's Mike Willesee who asked how the GST would apply to a birthday cake. Many date Hewson's election loss to his fumbling answer.

Seeking to capitalise on his opponent's cake woes, Keating ventured into a pie shop in Bomaderry, on the NSW south coast, at the instigation of the Labor candidate Peter Knott.

As the PM held up a cake, the owner told the gleeful media, he could expand his business and employ more people if he didn't have to pay (state) payroll tax plus wholesale sales tax on cake ingredients, which was pretty much what Hewson had in mind. Keating seethed.

Inside Labor, this became known as the The Great Pie Ship Disaster. According to press gallery legend, the acerbic Keating subsequently referred to Knott as "the c... from the cakeshop."

Perhaps Keating's enduring achievements from this era relate to indigenous affairs.

On December 10, 1992, Keating made his watershed Redfern Speech in a park in inner-city Sydney, marking a fundamental shift in the troubled relationship between indigenous and white Australia.

As complex as our contemporary identity was, it could not be separated from Aboriginal Australia, he said.

"We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice."

The speech straddled two significant events, both relevant today. In April 1991, the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was released.

It had been launched in 1987 to examine why so many indigenous people were dying in jail and police custody.

It found no difference in the death rate of indigenous and non-indigenous prisoners but more indigenous prisoners were dying because of the their disproportionately high rate of arrest and incarceration.

Since then, the death rate has fallen but indigenous incarceration rates have doubled.

On June 3, 1992, the High Court delivered its judgment in Mabo v Queensland, a complex case in which judges rejected the doctrine of terra nullius - that no-one owned the land of Australia when the first European settlers arrived - in favour of native title over land.

This was politically enormously difficult. Labor introduced the Native Title Act in 1993 which created a national tribunal to determine claims.

The coalition fought this legislation tooth and nail, with the Senate only passing the legislation on December 21, 1993 after a marathon sitting which ran for 56 hours and eight minutes.

Hewson declared this a day of shame. The Sydney Morning Herald said Mabo could be judged the most profound achievement of Paul Keating's political career.

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