Labor MPs have accused Paul Keating of being out of touch on China and launching gratuitous attacks on Foreign Minister Penny Wong after the former prime minister accused the Albanese government of making a colossal blunder by backing the AUKUS pact.
During a fiery display at the National Press Club, in which he lambasted the most senior members of his party and jousted with journalists, Keating said the government had signed up to “the worst deal in all history” by agreeing to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the United States and United Kingdom.
In an intervention that derailed the government’s efforts to sell the benefits of the submarine program, announced a day earlier by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Keating said Labor had broken a century-long “winning streak” on foreign policy by signing up to AUKUS, a move he described as “deeply pathetic”.
“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,” he said.
“This week, Anthony Albanese screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain the United States has laid out to contain China.”
The long-time critic of the AUKUS pact was especially pointed in his criticism of Wong, 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.”
He also attacked Defence Minister Richard Marles, saying he was “well-intentioned” but “completely captured by the idea of America”.
Keating presented a largely benign view of China’s rise to superpower status, 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.”
Labor MP Peter Khalil, the chair of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, said of Keating’s criticisms of Wong: “It’s poor form to play the woman, not the ball. He showed a fundamental misunderstanding of what soft power through diplomacy can achieve.”
Keating’s view of China did not reflect its increased assertiveness under President Xi Jinping, Khalil said.
“The world we are living in is not the 1990s. There has been an unprecedented military build-up by China, the militarisation of the South China Sea, restrictions on imports from Australia, human rights issues in Xinjiang.
“This is something he is wilfully blind to and does not see … he’s blind to the reality that’s playing out before us.”
Speaking on the ABC’s , Marles said he had huge respect for the achievements of the Hawke-Keating government but added: “It’s a government that finished in 1996. And our responsibility is to be governing the country in the national interest in 2023.”
Marles said Keating’s intervention had not shaken his belief in AUKUS because Australia’s dependence on international shipping routes meant it needs a long-range submarine capability.
“It’s wrong to think about our national interest being confined to the continent, we need the collective security of our region,” he said.
He strongly defended Wong’s performance, saying in less than a year she was already “one of the greatest foreign ministers we’ve had”.
Former Labor leader Bill Shorten told Sky News: “I think the strategic nature of China has changed in the last year. They’re not the same China they were in the ’90s.”
Victorian MP Raff Ciccone, the chair of the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, said: “Keating’s comments were unfair and ill-informed, and he should reflect on his conduct.”
Noting Keating was “not privy to current intelligence” from security agencies, Ciccone said it was “very unfair that he attacked the work of Richard Marles, Penny Wong, [Defence Industry Minister] Pat Conroy and the prime minister who have been able to achieve an outstanding AUKUS deal with our closest allies, the United States and the UK, and repaired the relationship with the Pacific”.
Victorian Labor MP Julian Hill, chair of parliament’s defence subcommittee, said Keating had been a brilliant prime minister but “our strategic circumstances have changed and the hard reality is we cannot afford not to do this [purchase nuclear-powered submarines]”.
“I dearly wish that the world was as he thinks it is, but it simply is not,” Hill said.
“Australia faces the biggest military build-up since World War II and if we don’t face that reality we surrender our sovereignty.”
Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts said: “Any reasonable observer would recognise the success Penny Wong has had rebuilding relationships in the Pacific and South-East Asia while stabilising our relationship with China. I’ve seen that up close.”
NSW Labor MP Jerome Laxale praised Wong and Marles for re-establishing good relations with Pacific Island nations “after the Morrison government had trashed it”, saying: “I respectfully disagree with Mr Keating there.”
Underlining his increased isolation on foreign policy and national security from the party he once led, 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 a sovereign 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.
Labor sources said they did not believe Wong and Keating had spoken in several years and that Keating was frustrated she had taken a different stance from him on China.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said: “I think it’s incumbent upon Richard Marles and others to come out today to rebuke the unhinged comments of Mr Keating because they should be taking the advice of the military and the intelligence chiefs as opposed to Paul Keating.”
Dutton said there was “clearly division within the Labor Party [on AUKUS], there’s no question about that”.
Asked about China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority – which the United Nations has said includes arbitrary arrest, rape and torture and may represent “crimes against humanity” – Keating said: “What if the Chinese said, ‘What about deaths in custody of Aboriginal people in your prison system?’ Wouldn’t that be a valid point for them?”
Keating said Labor was “shunning security in Asia for security in and within the Anglosphere” by signing up to AUKUS, adding he believed “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”.
Khalil said Keating’s emphasis on the Anglosphere overlooked the fact Japan was doubling its defence budget and India had joined the Quad grouping in response to China’s assertiveness.
“Last time I checked, India and Japan are not Anglo,” he said, adding: “I don’t know what polling he is doing to say he represents the Labor membership.”
Marles and Wong were contacted for comment.
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