Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has accused Paul Keating of diminishing himself by attacking the federal government’s most senior cabinet ministers, saying he “fundamentally disagreed” with his predecessor’s views on modern China and the AUKUS partnership with the United States and United Kingdom.
Speaking a day after Keating savaged the AUKUS pact as “the worst deal in all history”, Albanese said the government’s decision to spend up to $368 billion on a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines over the next 30 years was a worthwhile investment to enhance Australia’s national security in a volatile era.
Keating on Wednesday said Albanese had mistakenly relied on advice from “unwise” colleagues such as Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles in agreeing to support the AUKUS pact when the Morrison government announced it in September 2021.
“I think it is unfortunate that Mr Keating chose such a very strong personal statement against people,” Albanese told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell in his first interview since returning from a week-long trip to India and the United States.
“I don’t think that does anything other than diminish him, frankly. But that’s a decision that he’s made.”
Asked to comment on Keating’s criticisms of Wong and Marles, Albanese described both ministers as “outstanding”, saying: “I’ll defend them and I’ll defend myself as well for the job that we’re doing.”
He continued: “Paul Keating wasn’t complimentary about all three of us yesterday, but that is his prerogative to do so.
“I fundamentally disagree with his view, and I disagree with his attitude towards the state of the world in 2023.”
Wong also hit back at the Labor luminary, saying Australia could not “wish away” China’s rapid military build-up under Xi Jinping.
“Keating has his views, but in substance and in tone they belong to another time,” she said.
“We don’t face the region of 30 years ago. We don’t face a region that we hope we had. We face the region of today and we have to work to ensure the region we want for the future.”
Wong said Keating’s refusal to condemn Beijing’s human rights abuses would have been “distressing” for the Uyghur community in Australia.
Asked during his National Press Club appearance 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 the issue was “in dispute”.
He added: “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?”
Speaking in Adelaide on Thursday, Wong said: “He may have his views but the government has ours and we’ve raised our concerns about the treatment of Uyghurs with the PRC, with China, at all levels.
“I would say to Mr Keating to consider the evidence that was presented to the UN through the UN report on this matter.”
Rebutting Keating’s view that Australia was wasting money on the AUKUS submarines, Albanese said it was important for Australia to have a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, rather than conventional vessels, because “they are less detectable, they’re faster, they’re able to stay away from the port for longer”.
“They’re essentially just much, much better,” he said. “And we should acquire assets which best defend our nation.”
In his comments, 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.
Stressing that China had no desire to invade Australia or the US, he said: “The fact is China is not an outrider. China is a world-trading state – it is not about upending the international system.”
Albanese took a different view, saying : “China has changed its posture and its positioning in world affairs since the 1990s when Paul Keating was active in politics as a parliamentarian and as a leader. That’s the truth of the matter.”
Albanese said he wanted to have a good relationship with China, Australia’s largest trading partner, but added that “we disagree with China [on] its attitude towards human rights, we disagree with some of its actions in the South China Sea, we disagree with its much more forward leaning position in our region and will stand up for Australian values will stand up for our national interest”.
He said “the truth is that Australia and China have very different political systems and have very different values. It is China that has seen the fastest and most significant growth in military expenditure in the post-war period of any nation, and that is just a fact.”
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