The ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote: “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.” On this measure, Paul Keating rated zero this week. He appeared at the National Press Club in his long-established function as the chief apologist in Australia for the Chinese Communist Party.
The trigger was the federal government’s AUKUS submarines agreement. In critiquing the deal, Keating overreached in trademark extravagance to make personal attacks on the leaders of the party that gave him his career.
By contrast, his targets – Anthony Albanese, Richard Marles and Penny Wong – performed admirably on the Thucydides index. Wong, in particular, the subject of Keating’s most wantonly vicious scorn, displayed iron restraint.
Each of the three, asked by reporters to respond to Keating, expressed some respect for the former Labor leader, politely rejected his views as out of touch, and declined to descend to his level of personal insults.
“My responsibility in 2023,” said Albanese, “is to give Australia the leadership they need now, not what they might have needed in the 1990s.” In a tone of sorrow rather than anger, Albanese added: “I think it is unfortunate that Mr Keating chose such very strong personal statements against people. I don’t think that does anything other than diminish him, frankly.”
In the same vein, Wong said Keating, in his views and tone, “belongs to another time”.
Only Peter Dutton allowed himself to have a little fun, describing Keating as “old Uncle Arthur in the sherry cabinet. There he was abusing family members.”
In fact, Keating revealed at the press club that Albanese privately had treated him with the greatest courtesy. Before travelling to Bali in November to meet Xi Jinping, the prime minister had invited Keating to Kirribilli House to discuss China relations. “I was the last person to talk to him before he saw Xi Jinping at the G20,” said Keating.
What Keating didn’t reveal was that the government also had given him the benefit of a private, early briefing on the AUKUS deal. And that Albanese has returned every phone call Keating has made to him.
And how did Keating repay this respectful treatment? Apart from attacking the deal itself, which is fair game, he tried to undermine Albanese every way he could. He made the absurd claim that the government had “no mandate” for the policy. In fact, Albanese took the AUKUS plan in principle to the 2022 election as Labor policy.
Next, Albanese and Wong had sold out to the US, he claimed, and betrayed Labor’s Left faction (Keating was a member of the Right faction and loathed the Left).
“The two principal people on the Left in Australia are now Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong,” Keating said. “And what they’ve done, they have, essentially, accommodated the strategic wishes of the US. Uncritically. Uncritically.”
How did this happen? According to Keating, Albanese had relied on two “seriously unwise” ministers in Wong and Marles, the Defence Minister. And Albanese had been “befuddled” by his own small-target election strategy into doing America’s bidding.
The ship of state, according to Keating, is in the hands of a ship of fools. As usual, everyone else is wrong. Only Keating can be right.
Keating went out of his way to abuse Wong. He accused her of being a weak foreign affairs minister who merely aped Liberal Party policy, and then this: “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.”
This is gratuitous, condescending and insulting. He went on to extend the insult to the Pacific Islands themselves: “Foreign policy is what you do with the great powers. What you do with China. What you do with the US. This government, the Albanese government, does not employ foreign policy.”
The Pacific doesn’t matter, apparently. As Keating well knows, the Pacific Islands are key to Australian security. The Japanese Imperial Army established its bases in Papua New Guinea and the Solomons to cut off Australia from the world. The geography hasn’t changed. No, it seems Keating wanted to rubbish the Pacific Islands simply because it’s been one of Wong’s priorities.
On Friday Albanese made a point of praising Wong. She would “go down as Australia’s greatest foreign minister, when history looks back – when you look at her achievements in less than one year as foreign minister, our relationship with France has been repaired, our relationship with the US has never been stronger, our relationships in ASEAN has never been stronger … We’ve put back together the Pacific Islands Forum.”
Keating so lacks self-awareness that he volunteered to the press club that he had tried to control Penny Wong. “I’ll tell you a little story,” said Keating. He brought up a book I wrote in 2021, . In Sydney, the book was launched by Malcolm Turnbull. Keating said he tried to stop Wong from launching it in Canberra.
For context and full disclosure, Keating has been critical of my analysis and reporting of China for some years. At the press club this week, he variously described me as a “psychopath”, a “maniac”, the “enfant terrible” and “old acid drop himself”.
None of which I begrudge in the least. His invective can be hilarious. And free speech is a bedrock Australian value. Though Keating doesn’t necessarily agree, as he explained. Wong, he said, was going to launch the book and add some comments to the back cover: “So I discuss it with Gareth Evans and Bob Carr about this, and I said, ‘You’ve got to tell her if she goes to the launch and she puts something in the back of the book, I’m into her. And I think Carr is too. And so she didn’t.’ ”
For someone who’d just admitted to leading a group effort to bully Labor’s leader in the Senate and foreign affairs spokesperson into silence on China, he looked inordinately pleased with himself. But towards the end of his appearance, the chair, the ABC’s Laura Tingle, said: “I have received a message that Penny Wong actually launched Peter Hartcher’s book, contrary to what you’re saying.”
Keating: “No. No, she’s launched it, but she didn’t put the sticker on the back.” If he meant an endorsement, he was wrong about that, too.
By telling this story, Keating’s exposed himself as an obsessive, a bully and a would-be censor. All to protect the Chinese Communist Party from criticism. Does he really think it so fragile?
Evidently. For instance, where most saw China’s trade bans on Australia as economic coercion, Keating at the press club dismissed them as mere “commercial reactions”.
And asked his view of Xi Jinping’s mass repression of China’s Uyghurs, denounced as “genocide” by five Western parliaments and investigated by the UN as possible “crimes against humanity”, Keating would only say that “there’s a dispute about that”.
But while Keating did an outstanding job of protecting the interests of the CCP, Australian Labor, he seems to think, can fend for itself. It’s hard to see what Keating achieved this week, other than diminishing himself and alienating Labor.
Because Labor and the Coalition agree on the AUKUS plan, Keating’s opposition is colourful but irrelevant.
As for the submarines, Keating argued that Australia should build, say, 50 more of its existing six conventionally powered Collins-class boats, and not get the nuclear-powered subs. Because the Collins-class would be able to prevent an enemy from “crossing the beach”, he said. But this is not the only definition of Australian security.
As Marles this week explained, because Australia is an island nation dependent on maritime trade, “so much harm can be done before ever setting foot upon our shores”. Australia needed to be able to protect its shipping access and economic lifelines at great distances, and nuclear-powered submarines would allow it to do so.
Asked about the prospect of war, Albanese restrained himself, in a way a Morrison government minister might not have: “I don’t think it is constructive to talk about war,” he said on Network 10’s on Thursday. “We want peace and security in the region. The advantage of nuclear subs are they can go faster, they are quieter, they can stay at sea for longer, they are just better.”
And, cutting through all the pyrotechnics of the week, Albanese went to the bottom line: “That provides a greater deterrent, then that is a good investment.”
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