Sad, isolated Paul Keating’s bile will divide his party

Anthony Albanese was greeted as a dignitary when he arrived at a kava ceremony in Fiji on Wednesday, around the time Paul Keating was treating him like dirt. The prime minister was seated as the guest of honour while Fijian soldiers watched him drink from a coconut shell filled with kava, the local drug extracted from a pepper plant and famous for its bitterness. But that was nothing compared with the bile from Keating.

Something snapped on Wednesday. The former prime minister broke with the current prime minister in a way that sends a cyclone through the Australian Labor Party, hurls its members around and forces them to decide whose side they are on when they land. Where do they stand on the AUKUS pact on nuclear-powered submarines? Do they back Albanese or Keating?

So a fracture is opening within Labor without any pressure from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton or any other outside force. Just when Albanese thought he had settled the AUKUS policy, he has to watch for unrest in his own ranks.

There is no way back for Keating after the torrent of invective he poured over Albanese and other leading Labor figures for making a decision he cannot support. In other times, perhaps, relationships might survive a vigorous difference of opinion on a new submarine fleet. In this case, however, the savagely personal attacks leave Keating utterly isolated from his Labor successors.

By the time Albanese landed in Sydney on Wednesday night, Keating had marooned himself on an island all his own. The big question is how many will join him.

Keating is trying to appeal to the Labor faithful. “Every Labor Party branch member will wince when they realise that the party we all fight for is returning to our former colonial master,” he wrote in a nine-page condemnation. He drew on history by citing the parallel of Billy Hughes, the Labor prime minister who split the party over conscription in World War I.

Keating’s AUKUS criticisms drew on another former prime minister, Billy Hughes.

Ronald Leslie Stewart

“Let those who think with me, follow me,” Hughes declared. What does Keating want? A split?

Labor is wedging itself on defence. There is no sign of a backbench revolt, let alone a minister joining the unrest, but one party branch is circulating a motion against the AUKUS decision, former Labor cabinet minister Peter Garrett has come out against it, and former Left faction leader Doug Cameron is also critical. None of this would matter without Keating going rogue.

“I don’t think I suffer from relevance deprivation,” Keating wrote, but he clearly suffers from a wounded ego. The fact is that Albanese and senior ministers cannot give Keating the time and attention he demands. He calls ministers on sitting days in parliament and expects them to drop everything so they can talk. Some will no longer take his calls.

So his solution is a tirade to cut them down to size – because nobody can have any stature next to the giant of the past.

This does not mean the AUKUS pact is beyond question. In fact, it reaches so far into the nation’s future that it must be questioned. The essential decision in government is that the alliances which have worked for Australia since the Second World War – with the United States, but also with the United Kingdom and the Five Eyes intelligence community in the Anglosphere – will continue to support the nation’s security and economic wellbeing.

For how long? Well, the last of the eight AUKUS submarines could be built in Adelaide in the 2050s or the early 2060s – there is uncertainty about whether each vessel will enter the water every two or three years – and this means the boats could be operating in the 2090s.

Keating’s verdict is that nuclear-powered submarines are the wrong type for Australia, but he reaches his conclusion with idiosyncratic assumptions. One is that the only threat that really matters is an invasion: Chinese soldiers on Australian beaches.

Yet the advice to Albanese and his cabinet ministers is that one of the threats is a blockade that stops trade and cuts off undersea cables. Another of his assumptions is that the submarines could not cross the “very shallow plateau” off the Chinese coast – again, as if the only scenario is an attack on land. Yet the advice is that the boats are needed for their capabilities in the open seas.

The argument from the Royal Australian Navy, and put by Albanese in an interview with 3AW host Neil Mitchell on Thursday, is that the future fleet must be nuclear-powered because the vessels will travel further, faster, more quietly and with less chance of detection. This question about their capability is separate from assumptions about their purpose.

Australian National University professor Hugh White makes a cogent argument for a bigger fleet of conventional submarines. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull raises the serious question of sovereignty because Australia will be so reliant on its ANZUS ally (which, of course, it already is for its fighter aircraft, armaments, intelligence and so much more). Keating, however, begins his attack with narrow assumptions about what the submarines are for. This weakens his case from the start.

When one senior member of the government saw some of Keating’s remarks at the National Press Club, his verdict was summed up in a word: sad. The sight of Keating trying to demolish the government on national security is incredibly depressing for ministers who used to regard him as a Labor hero and now have to worry about branch members joining him.

While his appearance offered compelling sport for some, it hardly gave him gravitas. The National Press Club treated Keating with generosity and respect by placing him in a studio in Sydney while journalists in Canberra had to ask questions to a television screen. He took advantage of the special treatment with sneering answers to reasonable questions from journalists – going personal in almost every answer. Young women copped the worst.

The vision of an old man treating young women with derision was jarring. What if John Howard had done the same? Or Clive Palmer?

The political judgment from Albanese and his colleagues is that they must not wrestle Keating in a mudfight. They will try to dismiss his claims without engaging in personal rancour. They will portray him as being out of touch by citing two numbers: 1996, when he last held power; and 27 years, the time he has spent out of office. They will contrast the 1990s with the 2020s.

Keating could, of course, win his battle for the branches simply because so many members want to believe in him. But this requires a tortured choice for Labor supporters who are otherwise happy with Albanese and senior figures such as Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who many see as the heart and soul of the party.

Keating said Albanese was weak, had never displayed an interest in foreign affairs and was fooled into wasting taxpayer money. He said Marles was “seriously unwise” and had been captured by the US. He said Wong was not up to the job of foreign affairs. “Running around the Pacific islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy,” he said.

Does anybody actually believe this? That Wong, who has worked without stop over the past 10 months to repair relations in the region, is a dud minister? Keating’s assessment is a doddering delusion. In his twilight years, at 79, the former leader sounds deranged. If his view on ministers can be so bizarrely adrift from reality, can anyone trust his view on submarines?

The polite response to Keating within the government is that he is diminished by his attacks – that it is sad to see him fall so low. They believe it is best to respond gently. But the fracture in the party is impossible to ignore. The question is how far it spreads.

David Crowe is a director of the National Press Club.

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