Doing us slowly: why Paul Keating’s legacy is killing the current government

Has the time come for Paul Keating to put the geo-political cue in the rack? AAP Image/Guy Wilmot

In charting how Australia has influence in its foreign policy, the figure of Paul John Keating rightly looms large. Yet his recent speech is less effective as a call for greater independence from the USA, than as a useful reminder of the need for greater independence from PJK.

Keating says early on in his Keith Murdoch lecture that “it has always struck me how influential Australia had been in the councils of major powers across the twentieth century”, and the rest of the speech is devoted to describing how the governments since his own have failed to retain or extend that influence in the twenty-first century.

The clear thread of Keating’s logic is that the Australians who pushed for the country to have a significant role in regional and global multilateral organisations were the champions of influence, and the rest “occupied the non-threatening wallow”, seeking solace in the shadow of a friendly great power.

As such, Gough Whitlam (1972-1975) and Bob Hawke (1983-1991) get a few nice — though not too nice — words about them, but everyone else is largely dismissed. Keating complains that his own government’s “era of effective foreign policy activism has passed” and in turn Australia has “rolled back into an easy accommodation with the foreign policy objectives of the United States”.

Such complaints are to be expected from an old partisan warrior, but the problem with this claim is that it misses part of the story of how Australia achieves influence, and as such, how to explain some of our current foreign policy problems. As work by [David Martin Jones and Andrea Benvenuti on Robert Menzies](http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/JCWS_a_00168](http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/JCWS_a_00168), and Michael Wesley and [David Cooper](http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-8594.2011.00140.x/abstract](http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-8594.2011.00140.x/abstract) on John Howard (1996-2007) demonstrates, Australia’s history of influence is too complex to reduce to one of successful independents and cowardly followers. Australian influence has as often happened through the quiet word in the ear of Washington, London as it has in bold initiatives on the global stage. More often than not, we needed both, with the quiet support of the UK or US serving as the foundation for Australian initiatives to be heard.

Now, it’s incontestable that the Howard government wanted closer ties with the US and was initially suspicious of the regional achievements of its predecessors. But, could that really be said about the Rudd government? Rudd’s government was highly, almost cripplingly activist.

It couldn’t possibly find enough multilateral endeavours to launch and advance, almost none of which were at the behest of Washington. Rudd’s government pushed strongly for the G-20, announced and promoted the idea of an Asia-Pacific Community, established a new anti-nuclear proliferation commission, worked tirelessly to get into the final room at the Copenhagen’s summit and initiated a variety of other efforts to ensure Australia got a seat at the big players table.

The end result of all this activity? If anything, less real influence for Australia, especially in Asia. Multilateralism of the kind Keating succeeded at will not always be the only, nor the best approach. In trying to replicate the success of the Keating government, but applying the same policy tools (if not same ideas) of the 1980s and 90s to the late 2000s, the Rudd government found its energy dissipated and ineffectual. Gillard has thus far avoided the same temptations, but as the Asian Century White Paper shows, the temptation to retread Keating’s path is strong.

Keating’s re-telling also downplays the importance of the USA in his own achievements. In 1991 when he took office, the USA had just completed a stunning victory in the Cold War, ushering in a “new world order” of liberal, democratic capitalism that Keating built upon. Likewise, though Hawke and Keating did the leg work to build APEC, it would never have come about without American backing.

None of this is to downplay the significance of Keating’s own achievements. To paraphrase an old line, Keating may be immodest, but he has much to be immodest about. And he is exactly right when he notes that “our relations with countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have been focused on transactional issues of marginal long term significance”. The current government can protest, but Keating’s argument for Australia to seek a closer relationship with Indonesia is compelling and robust.

However, the full story of how and why Australia has influence in the world is far more complex than Keating lets on. Instead of his tired framework of independence vs dependence, Australia needs to be both closer to the US and more adventurous in its policy. We need to use both multilateral, minilateral and bilateral approaches. Keating’s values and ideals are right, but new paths are needed to achieve them.

That can only be done by valuing and learning from the full history of Australian foreign policy influence, not just that hallowed era stamped with the initials PJK.