Friday, May 11, 2012

Great Moments in Australian Politics: Hewson, Keating and the GST

(Caution: risqué language)

In 1990 John Hewson (above) became leader of the Liberal Party of Australia following Andrew Peacock’s loss to the incumbent Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke.  He had only been a Member of Parliament for three years and lacked the skills in political tactics of Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating.  Nonetheless in 1991 he launched a radical economic package – Fightback! - that included the proposed introduction of a complex Goods and Services Tax. 

In December 1991 Keating rolled Hawke and became leader of the Australian Labor Party and Prime Minister.  Throughout 1992 Keating attacked Hewson’s Fightback! package.  He called it an attack on the working class by taxing across the board rather than taxing the wealthy.  He also referred to Hewson as a “feral abacus.”

Hewson lost the 1993 “unloseable election” to Keating.  A key moment in that loss was the famous “birthday cake interview” ten days before the election.  Interviewed on A Current Affair, he was asked by Mike Willesee “As an example of this, if I buy a birthday cake and GST was in place, do I pay more or less for that birthday cake?”  Hewson fumbled on whether the cake would be decorated, whether it would have ice cream on it, candles on it and so on.  He looked ill informed and incompetent.  Many saw this as the moment he lost the election.  In a 2006 interview he stated “Well I answered the question honestly. The answer's actually right. That doesn't count...I should have told him (Mike Willesee) to get stuffed!".

That, however, is not the end of it.  The best is yet to come.

Paul Keating (above, with some of his descriptions of his opponents), as already noted, won the “unwinnable” 1993 election.  In his “true believers” victory speech he commenced with “Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Well, this is the sweetest victory of all. This is a victory for the true believers: the people who, in difficult times, have kept the faith.”

Keating was well known for his tough, abusive and intolerant personality.

In the leadup to the 1993 election he sought to capitalise on Hewson’s birthday cake debacle.  At a chemist shop in Brisbane he walked into a chemist shop and enquired of the pharmacist which items would be subject to GST and which were exempt.  The pharmacist had no clue and the media dutifully reported it.  Keating looked good.

Having kicked one goal, Keating’s minders decided to have another go, this time in the Southern Coast town of Nowra.  The Labor candidate for Gilmore, Peter Knott, was told to find a pliant bakery owner so that Keating could once again score points in front of the media.

On the appointed day Keating dutifully entered the shop with the media contingent to ask questions of the befuddled owner.  The owner, however, had other ideas.  Instead of displaying confusion about the GST, he tackled Keating about payroll tax, actually a State tax.  He wouldn’t let Keating go and went on and on about it.  The cameras and journos loved every minute of it.

Keating left as quickly as he could, angry and humiliated.

Knott won his seat and was a Member of the Federal parliament for the next three years but Keating never spoke to him again.

If he was obliged to refer to Knott, he never referred to him by name, nor as the Member for Gilmore.  Instead he called him “the cunt from the pie shop.”

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