Paul Keating faces Kerry O'Brien

It could be billed as a clash of the titans: two battle-hardened warriors facing off in a TV arena. But it's a lot more civilised than that. This encounter takes place amid the golden light and polished wood of a refined male domain, the elegant Sydney office of former prime minister Paul Keating, as he's interviewed by veteran journalist and anchorman Kerry O'Brien. And the atmosphere is more akin to port in the library than pistols at dawn or swords at sunset.

But it is also an extensive and revealing engagement between two men who are regarded as dominant forces in their respective fields; the possessors of formidable reputations, feared and admired, loved and loathed, commanding figures whom the unwary or the unprepared cross at their peril.

In Keating: The Interviews, O'Brien (Lateline, The 7.30 Report, and Four Corners) guides the former Labor leader through a reflection on his life and career. The conversations took place over three sessions, culminating in 16 hours of footage that has been edited into four hour-long episodes. Few politicians could hope to hold viewers' interest over four hours of prime-time TV which, while sprinkled with photographs and snippets of archival footage, is essentially two men talking in a very nice office.

But, as O'Brien says of his subject, ''Love him or hate him, not many people are indifferent to him. Keating remains one of the most fascinating political leaders, certainly in my lifetime, and arguably since Federation. Controversial but fascinating.''

In addition, O'Brien observes, Keating is ''a natural storyteller'', who can make talk about budgets and bank reform ''come alive, particularly when he's taking you behind the scenes and giving you his recollections of what was going on and who was doing what''.

The idea for the series grew from a well-received session at the Sydney Writers' Festival and O'Brien says he felt confident about producing a multi-part chronology because Keating is such a compelling, politically pivotal and multi-faceted subject.

''He is a communicator, although not in the context of today's politicians, who seem to be schooled in the quote unquote 'art' of handling a political interview to the nth degree, to the point where there's not a shred of spontaneity left in the process.''

To make this work, O'Brien says, the subject ''has got to have something to say and be able to say it in an interesting way''.

''I think that most people would agree that he ticks the boxes on both of those counts.''

O'Brien also believed Keating and his key role in ''one of the most intense periods of reform in Australian history'' justified attention at a level that's virtually unprecedented. One of the few comparisons might be the 1977 interviews conducted by David Frost with Richard Nixon, in which the circumstances were markedly different — notably the Watergate scandal and the disgraced president's resignation — and in which, O'Brien notes, Nixon was paid to participate.

But here, too, the motivation is to explore a significant chapter of history in detail and to elicit a first-hand account of it from a leader who, 17 years after his exit from politics, has resisted any impulse to produce a memoir.

O'Brien says the former member for the electorate of Blaxland, who was elected at the age of 25, became federal treasurer for prime minister Bob Hawke (1983-91) and then prime minister himself (1991-96), came to the table ''ready to play''.

''I think it appealed to him to be able to explain himself in his own words, even though he knew I would challenge him where I thought it necessary. His view of the history of that time was that Australia was pulled through the transition from an old economy to a new economy, from old directions to new directions, and he sees himself as being at the centre of that,'' O'Brien says.

What emerges from the interview - or at least from the one and a half episodes that O'Brien was prepared to release for preview - supports his view of a fascinating figure: intense, ambitious, strategic, a man of fierce intellect, steely resolve and unwavering clarity of purpose.

Keating also emerges as a smartly dressed bundle of contradictions - a boy from working-class western Sydney who left school at 14, joined the Labor Party and determinedly climbed through its ranks; a teenager enthralled by classical music and antique watches, who managed a rock band and became passionate about neo-classicism; a man with a taste for Wagnerian opera and Italian suits, who earned a reputation as one of Parliament's most aggressive verbal brawlers.

''Having enemies worries some people,'' Keating muses. ''For me, it's a badge of honour.''

O'Brien is at pains to stress that ''none of this is about endorsing what Paul Keating or Bob Hawke did, or what the Hawke-Keating government did''. He's also insistent that ''the last thing I wanted this to be was an extended version of a 7.30 Report scrap. This is a more discursive set of interviews. I've got a responsibility to endeavour to keep him honest. But I've got to try to strike that balance between testing some of the claims and not turning it into a combative affair.''

The first episode deals with Keating's childhood, rugged initiation into Labor Party politics and formative influences, ending with the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Later comes the relationship with Hawke, their economic agenda, the bitter battle over leadership succession and Keating's time as PM.

Reflecting on the series, O'Brien says, ''I certainly feel I've seen more of Paul Keating than I had before, but even after all of this, there remains something enigmatic about this guy and that's tantalising.''

Keating: The Interviews Tuesday, ABC1, 8.30pm

The story Paul Keating faces Kerry O'Brien first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop