Paul Keating calls nuclear submarines deal worst decision by Labor government since WWI conscription

Former prime minister Paul Keating has launched an extraordinary attack on the Albanese government over its adoption of the AUKUS pact, accusing it of making the worst foreign policy decision by a Labor government since the attempted introduction of conscription in World War I.

In a speech released to journalists, Keating singled out Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minster Richard Marles for strident criticism, accusing them of setting Australia down a “dangerous path” by deepening ties with its closest security allies.

The former prime minister has accused the Albanese government of  setting Australia down a “dangerous path” by deepening ties with its closest security allies.

US Navy/ Kate Geraghty

Keating’s intervention at a fiery appearance at the National Press Club, in which he jousted with journalists while blasting senior members of his own party, came on the day after the government revealed a plan to spend up to $368 billion acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and United Kingdom.

Keating has been strongly critical of AUKUS since it was announced in September 2021 by the former Morrison government, saying it undermined Australian sovereignty and risked provoking conflict with China.

He said signing up to AUKUS had broken Labor’s long “winning streak” on foreign policy over the past century and was a “deeply pathetic” moment in the party’s history.

“Falling into a major mistake, Anthony Albanese, befuddled by his own small-target election strategy, emerges as prime minister with an American sword to rattle at the neighbourhood to impress upon it the United States’ esteemed view of its untrammelled destiny,” he said in remarks released before his appearance.

“Naturally, I should prefer to be singing the praises of the government in all matters, but these issues carry deadly consequences for Australia and I believe it is incumbent on any former prime minister, particularly now, a Labor one, to alert the country to the dangerous and unnecessary journey on which the government is now embarking.

“This week, Anthony Albanese screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain the United States has laid out to contain China.”

Answering a question about how Labor came to support the AUKUS pact, he said: “The answer lies in Anthony Albanese’s reliance on two seriously unwise ministers: Penny Wong and Richard Marles.

“Penny Wong took a decision in 2016, five years before AUKUS, not to be at odds with the Coalition on foreign policy on any core issue. You cannot get into controversy as the foreign spokesperson for the Labor Party if you adopt the foreign policy of the Liberal Party, if you are on a unity ticket to deny the Liberals any wedge on foreign policy and defence.

“You may stay out of trouble, but you are compromised. Self-compromised.”

Keating was particularly personal in his criticisms of Wong during a question and answer session, saying: “Running around the Pacific Islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy. It’s a consular task. Foreign policy is what you do with the great powers: what you do with China, what you do with the United States.

“This government, the Albanese government, does not employ foreign policy.”

Keating said of Marles that he was “well-intentioned” but was “completely captured by the idea of America”.

Underlining his increasing isolation from the party he once led on foreign policy and defence, Keating revealed he had approached Albanese’s office for a meeting in February about the AUKUS pact but had not received a response.

He also received no reply from Albanese in the same month when he emailed the prime minister a “long paper” on the importance of sovereignty on foreign policy.

“I don’t think I suffer from relevance deprivation, but I do suffer concern for Australia as it most unwisely proceeds down this singular and dangerous path,” he said.

Keating presented a largely benign view of China’s rise, saying it was “not the old Soviet Union” and was “not seeking to propagate some competing international ideology” to the United States.

“The fact is China is not an outrider,” he said.

“China is a world trading state – it is not about upending the international system.”

Keating said: “Every Labor Party branch member will wince when they realise that the party we all fight for is returning to our former colonial master, Britain, to find our security in Asia – 236 years after Europeans first grabbed the continent from its Indigenous people.

“That of all things, a contemporary Labor government is shunning security in Asia for security in and within the Anglosphere.”

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