Former Australian Labor Party prime minister Paul Keating is highly intelligent, often thoughtful and occasionally very funny. Like all of us, he is adversely affected by the consequences of what Christians call The Fall. Namely, the imperfectability that pervades the human race.
On Wednesday, Keating addressed the National Press Club in Canberra. Usually such appearances involve a speech followed by a question-and-answer session. On this occasion, however, Keating issued a nine-page statement titled AUKUS – that is, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Nuclear-Powered Submarine Pathway. He then devoted an hour to an interview with the club’s president, Laura Tingle, including a period responding to journalists.
The speech was tough-minded and direct – as would be expected from Keating. In opposing AUKUS, he referred to Britain as “our former colonial master” and described former British prime minister Boris Johnson as “one of the great vulgarians of our time”.
Australia’s Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers, Richard Marles and Penny Wong, were depicted as “seriously unwise”.
Keating also expressed disappointment that Anthony Albanese had not responded to a “long paper” sent to him about AUKUS and had not taken up an offer of “a conversation” with Keating before Albanese met US President Joe Biden earlier this week.
Keating labelled AUKUS as “irrational in every dimension”. Moreover, he criticised nations such as Japan and South Korea and referred to Taiwan as a “so-called democracy”. China and its ruling Chinese Communist Party, however, escaped a fanging or indeed any criticism whatsoever.
Keating’s essential position is that the US is using Australia to achieve its self-assessed “untrammelled destiny” to dominate East Asia and contain China. He also believes that Britain wants to use AUKUS to once again become an important player in the Asia-Pacific and to benefit its submarine-building capacity.
Then there was the reference to the Prime Minister as “our bloke Albo” along with the comment that “the American President can hardly put three coherent sentences together”. Johnson was referred to as a “fool”, the leadership of Australia’s security and intelligence agencies were dismissed as “dopes” and “ning-nongs”, and Nine’s Peter Hartcher mocked as “manic” and a “psychopath”.
Some members of the Keating fan club regard such put-downs as witty. They are, in fact, mere abuse. Whatever one thinks of Biden and Johnson, who in September 2021 signed off on the initial AUKUS agreement with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, they were heads of government at the time. And Biden remains so.
Only a fool would believe that a democratic leader is all powerful. And Keating is not a fool. The fact is that the Democratic Party administration in Washington, the British Conservative government in London and the Labor government in Canberra support AUKUS. As do the Republicans in the US, Labour in Britain and the Coalition in Australia, which are currently out of office.
All three nations are responding to recent decisions by China to increase its military power in the Asia-Pacific and its influence beyond that. This was not acknowledged by Keating at the press club.
Until the advent of the Labor governments headed by Bob Hawke and Keating in the 1980s and early ’90s, there had always been an isolationist and/or nationalist minority group within the ALP. At times this was a product of hostility to Britain and/or anti-American. Between the end of World War II and that of the Cold War with the communist Soviet Union, about one-third of the ALP caucus at any one time would have been opposed to the Australian-American alliance. This is no longer the case.
The two most insightful questions at the press club were asked by Sky News’ Olivia Caisley and the ABC’s Andrew Probyn. Caisley suggested that, unlike Wong and Marles, Keating has not received a strategic briefing since the mid-’90s and wondered if he was out of touch with respect to the possibility that China was a military threat to Australia.
Throwing the switch to abuse, Keating responded that the question was “so dumb it’s hardly worth an answer”. But he gave one. Namely, that there would be no point in China “wanting to occupy Sydney and Melbourne militarily”.
Keating seemed unaware that an island continent such as Australia can be conquered by a hostile nation by interdicting sea lanes and air lanes. Which is why present and past Australian governments have sought the support of friendly nations such as Britain and, later, the US in providing security.
Probyn took up Keating’s claim that China had not threatened Australia. He asked him to reconcile this with the fact that China had imposed sanctions on Australian coal, timber, wine, lobster and barley, while encroaching into the South China Sea.
To which Keating replied that “a threat to Australia is a military threat” such as China coming to “occupy Australia”. He added a “similar threat would be if someone went to occupy Tasmania”, and went on to define the question as “silly”.
The point is that Australia’s security was threatened by Imperial Japan in 1942 and 1943 despite the fact it is now acknowledged that Japan had no intention of undertaking a military invasion. There are easier ways to conquer an island continent.
Earlier, Keating told the press club that Australia could secure its sea lanes with “50 Collins-class boats” – overlooking the fact such submarine technology is more than a half-century old.
No sensible Australian, American or Brit wants a war with China. But it always makes sense to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. In his press club address, Keating reflected that Albanese and Wong were now the “two principal people on the left in Australia” and complained that “they have essentially accommodated the strategic wishes of the United States uncritically”. He added that the Albanese-Wong stance in 2023 made one-time right-wing Labor operatives such as himself “look like Bolsheviks”.
Now that is clever and funny – but only if it was meant as a joke.