As the old adage goes, time will tell whether Paul Keating’s scepticism about AUKUS and his extremely benign view of China’s intentions turn out to be justified.
That judgment could be many years away.
History’s reading can be very different from some contemporary assessments. Looking back, we know the American (and Australian) commitment to the Vietnam war was futile. The years of combat in Afghanistan achieved nothing (as distinct from the initial invasion, which was a necessary response after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States). The Iraq war was counter-productive.
From the opposite vantage point, those in the 1930s who thought Hitler could be appeased were wrong.
Keating’s claims that the AUKUS plan for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines is a bad and dangerous deal and that China is not the threat the government and many others believe it to be, are opinions shared by a number of critics.
Despite the bipartisanship over both the China threat and AUKUS, the views of experts are divided.
But Keating in his Wednesday National Press Club appearance undercut his own case by taking his argument too far.
Even those who are doves on China would struggle to accept his condition of a China threat to be an invasion of our continent by troops brought by an armada of ships. China isn’t a threat to us because it could not invade, he insisted. The ships would be sunk along the way.
That sounded distinctly old-fashioned, on almost any criteria of modern warfare.
As for China’s intentions, no one can be sure of what they will be. Just as they have changed in the last decade, as China has become more assertive and aggressive, so they may evolve in future, according to that country’s domestic developments and the external environment it faces.
As things stand, the strategic outlook in the region has become distinctly more dangerous with China’s growing power and ambition, which is driving the present response in terms of upgrading defence capability.
On the submarine deal, we are also looking into a crystal ball when we are talking about three decades.
Australia has had repeated missteps over the last decade in trying to get together a successful submarine program. It will be a miracle if this one goes smoothly. And that’s apart from the matter of changing governments in the three countries and whatever develops in the international strategic situation.
Nothing can be foreseen with the degree of precision that the plan outlined this week might suggest. Governments can only operate on what seem reasonable calculations at the time.
Keating not only attacked the AUKUS agreement (as he did when it was announced in 2021) but personalised his assault by targeting Anthony Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles (although Marles was credited with being “well-intentioned”).
He painted Albanese as someone who hadn’t previously shown any “deep or long-term interest in foreign affairs” but then “fell in with” Wong and Marles to lead this “great misadventure”.
Keating has long been critical of Wong privately. Wednesday’s comments about her had a particularly sharp edge.
He declared that “running around the Pacific Islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy”.
Well, it actually is, at least up to a point. The Albanese government has worked hard on improving Australia’s standing among small Pacific countries, helped by its climate policy and a great deal of travel by Wong.
That’s not to say Australian influence will prevail in the long run, given China’s intense courtship of these countries. It’s another of those longer-term imponderables.
The government is keeping its reaction to the Keating missiles as low-key as practicable. It’s holding the line on the issues of substance about AUKUS and strategy, and defending Wong; it is casting Keating as being in the past, while trying to avoid hitting back at him in personal terms.
Albanese said on Thursday: “He’s entitled to put his views, he’s put them. They’re not views I agree with in this case. But Paul Keating was a great treasurer, a great prime minister, he has my respect, and I have no intention of engaging in a public argument with Paul Keating.
"The Labor Party, we praise our heroes for the contribution that they’ve made. But my responsibility in 2023 is to give Australia the leadership that they need now, not what they might have needed in the 1990s.”
With AUKUS having Coalition support, the extent to which the opposition can exploit the Keating attack is limited. Instead, it is saying what senior ministers can’t. Peter Dutton called them “unhinged comments” and said the government should rebuke the former PM.
Keating is obviously hoping he’ll motivate the Labor base – he said he expected branch members to react against the government’s policy. The government, which so far had not had a revolt in the ranks over AUKUS, will hope it can deny enough oxygen to the story that it blows over relatively quickly.
It wasn’t only Albanese and his ministers who received a serve from Keating. His attacks on journalists, including questioners at the National Press Club event, were bitter.
Generally, I take the view that we in the media dish out a lot of criticism and so, when we’re on the receiving end, we should suck it up.
But there is a line (or should be) between what is acceptable and unacceptable, for both journalists and public figures. Keating was on the wrong side of that line.
It should not be acceptable to call an author of a recent series of anti-China articles in the Nine newspapers a “psychopath”. Or to tell the co-author, who asked Keating a question, “You should hang your head in shame […] you ought to do the right thing and drum yourself out of Australian journalism.” The insults just took attention off his condemnation of the substance of the “Red Alert” articles.
Even worse was his putdown of a young journalist who asked a reasonable question that suggested Keating might be out of date on the China issue because he hadn’t been briefed since the mid-1990s.
“I know you’re trying to ask a question, but the question is so dumb, it’s hardly worth an answer,” Keating replied, before suggesting the reporter was trying to ingratiate herself with her employer.
Keating has always had a rough tongue. One reason he was against the televising of parliament decades ago was he knew invective, effective when he deployed it against opponents in the theatre of the House of Representatives, came across badly when viewed in the suburban lounge room.
Just as some of those gratuitous insults looked ugly to many viewers of Wednesday’s performance.