If Australians could join the dots, the demise of Paul Keating’s prime ministership was assured on February 16, 1995, 13 months before John Howard did him slowly.
That summer night the Nine Network owner Kerry Packer invited himself onto his own show, A Current Affair, to attack cross-media ownership, saying he wanted Fairfax but the rules stopped him.
In passing almost, Packer also told host Ray Martin that he thought Howard would make a good prime minister. The Liberal leader was a “decent man”, an “honest man” and a “man who had made mistakes” but wouldn’t repeat them.
Years earlier, when then industrial reporter Bob Carr took treasurer Keating into the Australian painting-lined ACP boardroom and introduced him to Packer it was the beginning of a mutually beneficial back scratch. Labor changed the media legislation allowing Packer to sell Nine to media dolt Alan Bond for $1 billion only later to redeem it for a song while retaining his other media interests.
Packer gave Keating significant help in the 1993 federal election – he was allowed to crawl all over John Hewson in the leaders’ debate – but debt paid, the deal was over and John Howard was his boy. Packer’s magazine, the now defunct Bulletin, leaned kindly towards Howard, so too did his Nine Network.
But after 14 years of Bob Hawke and Keating governments, Australia was bored with Labor and if Howard was not exactly a new boy on the block at least he was a trier.
Keating had won the unwinnable election but then appeared to retreat into himself. He ignored Parliament, handing over question time to his deputy, Kim Beazley. “Paul was tired,” Beazley recalled. “The day-to-day of politics no longer excited him.” His speech writer Don Watson in his book, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, wrote that his boss, having gained the office he coveted, did not feel triumphant at all and instead suffered a “bewildered solitude”.
Besides, the old team did not help, suffering an outbreak of ill-discipline: a brace of experienced Hawke/Keating ministers damaged the Labor brand by resigning, some shooting themselves in the foot.
Out went Alan Griffiths, John Dawkins, Neal Blewett, Ros Kelly, Graham Richardson. Out too went Hewson, to be replaced by Alexander Downer who then fell to Howard. Andrew Peacock also decamped. In came Bronwyn Bishop (from the Senate), Tony Abbott (from The Australian), and Carmen Lawrence (from the West).
The state Labor MP for Cabramatta, John Newman, was assassinated outside his Woods Avenue home in September 1994. The following March Carr Labor won a one-seat majority in the NSW state election, ending seven years of Coalition rule. The Queensland election produced a hung Parliament with Labor’s Wayne Goss staggering on for seven months until an independent MP came out in support of the Coalition.
Meanwhile, outside the goldfish bowl of politics, bushfires devastated the NSW coast, killing four and destroying more than 300 homes. Mona Vale, on Sydney’s northern beaches, became the first Australian suburb to be put on eight-digit telephone numbers. Sydney Airport’s third runway and the Anzac Bridge opened. Qantas was privatised, Telecom Australia rebranded itself Telstra and the rest of the Commonwealth Bank was sold.
Pope John Paul II visited Sydney for the beatification of Mary MacKillop. Australia’s greatest enemy, the rabbit, having survived myxo, was put under another death sentence when the calicivirus escaped a South Australian island testing station and spread through Victoria. A living fossil tree, the Wollembi pine, was found in the Blue Mountains. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were granted ”Flag of Australia” status.
Gay issues seemed everywhere.
The films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Sum of Us, were box office hits. But authorities seemed stuck in the past. Victoria Police raided a gay nightclub, Tasty, and detained and strip-searched patrons, resulting in a landmark class action. Federal opposition leader Downer dumped Hewson from his shadow cabinet because of his continuing calls for moderation on homosexual issues. Keating’s Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act aimed at overriding Tasmania’s anti-gay laws caused massive crisis of conscience among federal and state Coalition MPs. Rugby league’s Ian Roberts became the first high-profile sportsman to come out.
In true crime, a bomb exploded at the National Crime Authority’s Adelaide HQ killing a detective sergeant. Former West Australian Labor premier Brian Burke did jail time for rorting travel expenses. Melbourne’s entrepreneurial spiv, Chris Skase, spent the years successfully fighting extradition from Spain. David Eastman was sentenced to life for assassinating federal police commissioner Colin Winchester in 1989. Brenda Hodge, the last person to be sentenced to death in Australia before abolition of capital punishment, was paroled after serving 11 years for killing her de facto husband near Kalgoorlie. The death of NSW teenager Anna Wood after taking ecstasy at a rave provoked tabloid outrage.
In entertainment and the arts, pay TV premiered, so too did Blue Heelers and Today Tonight, the bird left Hey Hey It’s Saturday and the curtain came down on Mother and Son and Hey Dad..!. Priscilla notwithstanding, but perhaps the hit film Muriel’s Wedding best echoes down the years. Silverchair’s Tomorrow was the top-selling Australian single in 1994, Christine Anu’s cover of My Island Home was big the following year.
Deaths in 1994 included actors Leonard Teale (71) and Madge Ryan (75) and the head of ASIO during the Petrov Affair, Charles Spry (83).
The following year saw the passing of Australia’s first woman surfer Isabel Letham (95) and Dame Pattie Menzies (94). Other deaths included English bowler Harold Larwood (90), British MI5 controller and author Peter Wright (78), philosopher and Cold War warrior Frank Knopfelmacher (72), Labor politician Fred Daly (82), Footscray legend Ted Whitton (62) and television journalist Andrew Olle (48).
In sport, the Super League War over the future of rugby league pitted media barons Packer against Rupert Murdoch. Raised by fathers who drilled into them that the Australian way to succeed in business was by government-regulated monopoly, they feigned aggression, ramped the price of the rival businesses, compromised and eventually walked away with even more millions of dollars when the game was given back to the ARL.
Meanwhile at the zenith of his bustling, bullying career as Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, showered cash on racing magnate Bernie Ecclestone to usurp the Australian Grand Prix from his poor South Australia cousins, ending 10 years of FI racing in the streets of Adelaide.
In 1994, the AFL dumped the “final four” system devised by Geelong lawyer Ken McIntyre in 1931 and replace it with “final eight”. The AFL also cut quarters from 25 to 20 minutes.