Paul Keating has single-handedly put to sea against the Albanese government’s decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines, saying the $368 billion defence project was based on the erroneous belief that China wanted to invade Australia.
He said there was nothing to fear from China and unleashed an unprecedented attack on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles, saying the AUKUS deal proved defence had overtaken foreign policy.
Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Keating rejected questions on China’s growing militarisation, saying it was just doing what any major power would do, that it would not and did not wish to attack the US or Australia. Such idealisation barely recognises the changes that have underscored the adoption of the AUKUS alliance.
As Australia knows to its cost, the balance in the Pacific is teetering and once-democratic governments are now being run by armies or strong men.
Despite this, Keating rejected the AUKUS deal as the worst in history, proven, he suggested, by the fact that of the three leaders announcing the deal at San Diego this week “only one is paying, our bloke, Albo”; he also dismissed Wong for “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”.
Keating has opposed the submarine deal from the start, dismissing it as a “handful of toothpicks”. A member of the China Development Bank for 13 years, Keating has sometimes been taken to task for not commenting on human rights issues in China, particularly involving the Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim groups. On Wednesday he again refused to be drawn, rhetorically asking reporters why questions concerning Muslims in Kashmir had not been raised during Albanese’s visit to India.
As a former prime minister, his attack is unprecedented. John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser became disenchanted with the Liberal Party after they left office. In fact, much of Gorton’s rhetoric was directed against Fraser, but the rancour of both men nowhere near approached the vitriol and contempt displayed by Keating.
“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,” was just one of his sneering sentences.
Keating evoked old Labor wins and losses to berate the Albanese government, citing Billy Hughes’ defeat over World War I conscription, John Curtin’s decision to bring the Diggers home to fight at Kokoda despite Winston Churchill’s protest and the opposition of Arthur Calwell and Simon Crean to wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan as instances when Labor got all the big international decisions right in the 20th century. “But this one is where we break the winning streak,” he said.
Keating’s speech prompts the question of what happens to his ties to contemporary Labor.
Acolytes have admired his invective skill and it has provided him a running commentary career since he lost government in 1996. Musical productions aside, he has never really been popular outside his NSW base. His personal attacks on Albanese and Wong come out of Labor’s faction warfare culture and have about them a touch of an old warrior nostalgically sniffing battle. But he’s unapologetic, saying he believed he had the backing of most Labor supporters and parliamentarians saying there was no mandate inside the Australian Labor Party for AUKUS.
Albanese leads a popular government and has some two years remaining before an election to prove Keating right or wrong.
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