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The AUKUS mess & straight talk from Keating

Caricature portrait of Paul Keating c 1984 by John Spooner (National Library of Australia)


TUMBY BAY - Despite my increasing aversion to the 24 hour news cycle, and after the resultant negative pile-on by what passes for the media in Australia, I couldn’t help but be lured to view an interview with Paul Keating at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

Keating has an impressive intellect and an acerbic wit, which was fine-tuned even in his first days as a young Labor Party MP in the late 1960s and had become well-honed when he became Australia’s prime minister in 1991.

He also has always had his finger very firmly on the pulse of Australian and international politics.

I therefore found it a delight to hear him forensically dissect the bizarre AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) deal involving Australia’s purchase of overpriced and unfit-for-purpose submarines to be delivered at various times beginning in the 2040s.

The acquisition of these vessels is based on the questionable idea that China has aggressive military intentions towards us.

That is a subject can be argued until the cows come home. Everyone and their dog have an opinion about China’s intentions, usually dependent on their place in the political spectrum.

While that debate interested me, I was more taken by hearing a public figure like Keating speaking his mind and telling us what he thought.

I’m not sure whether a retired prime minister can still be regarded as a politician but if that is the case it was doubly refreshing to hear a politician being open and transparent.

There was none of the double speak, duck-shoving, diversions and half-truths we have come to expect from those politicians when they are not overtly lying to us.

He met every question from Laura Tingle, the interviewer, head on without the slightest prevarication.

His lively discourse was like an invigorating cool breeze on a hot summer’s day.

And it didn’t end there. During subsequent questioning from the audience of journalists, he remained every bit as candid and challenging.

Many of the media questions, particularly from representatives of the conservative press, were the usual gotcha stuff, which he dealt with in the brusque manner they deserved.

One of the younger journalists suggested to him that he was out of date on China because he hadn’t been officially briefed since he left office in March 1996.

Keating replied, “I know you’re trying to ask a question, but the question is so dumb, it’s hardly worth an answer.”

He has earlier suggested that it was more sensible to read the Hong Kong based ‘Asia Times’ that rely on Australia’s spooks to find out what China was thinking.

Despite its foolishness, it was this angle of Keating being out of date that journalists took up when in their reporting and commentary they set out to belittle him and his views.

Current prime minister Anthony Albanese and his ministers also enthusiastically pursued the sentiment that Keating was yesterday’s man and should keep his wrong-headed opinions to himself.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton predictably called Keating unhinged and suggested that the Labor Party censure him.

And yet, when you read the comments from ordinary Australians, particularly in the progressive media and on social media, it’s remarkable how many agree with Keating. The weight of opinion is with him.

In the web-based ‘New Times’, an article critical of Keating by Madonna King attracted some 150 comments, few of which agreed with her.

This response was typical:

“Just listen to yourself Madonna and understand why so many people hold journalists in such low esteem.

“Journalists should be investigating the truth of the reasons underlying this proposal.

“What is the real need for these submarines that justifies the enormous cost? Does China really plan to invade Australia or destroy Australia’s economy? Will these submarines really deter China from seeking reunification with Taiwan?

“Will these submarines really deter China from seeking to match the USA’s military might? Will this contribute further to the arms race? Is there a cheaper and better option for Australia to project its commitment to liberal democracy?

“There’s some questions for journalists to investigate in depth. But no, all the mainstream media want to do is regurgitate the information they are fed by self-interested parties.

“Keating was right to use the strong language he chose. If any issue required strong language it is this.

“Here we are with a trillion dollars of debt inherited from the Libs, social services, healthcare, housing, energy all falling apart, working families struggling to pay their mortgage, put food on the table and educate their kids, and you support spending $360 billion+ on nuclear submarines for which there is no compelling, urgent need.

“Unless you think helping out the UK with their Brexit induced export problems and transferring Australian taxpayer’s money to the USA’s industrial military complex is urgent. It is outrageous!”

AUKUS and China aside, what the Keating interview deftly illustrated is both the parlous state of the media in Australia and the disappointing and out of touch thinking of the progressive side of politics, currently represented by the Albanese Labor government.

The problem with the media can only be solved under the scrutiny of an expert and forensic royal commission, particularly as that problem pertains to the Murdoch monopoly. Such an investigation is unlikely to be initiated.

The sorry performance of the Labor government itself might require what’s left of the grassroots of the once-progressive party to guide the ship back on course. Such rebellion is nigh on impossible, it is many years since the party membership had any significant influence.

So that leaves some of the younger, better educated and more clear-eyed Labor ministers and MPs to rid the party of the shallow and misguided thinking of the Albanese-Marles leadership.

It is these leaders (who must profess superficial loyalty despite their views) we should watch to see if this AUKUS nonsense can be brought back into line before it causes too much damage.


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Lindsay F Bond

"After his success in absorbing Austria into Germany proper in March 1938, Adolf Hitler looked covetously at Czechoslovakia, where about three million people in the Sudetenland were of German origin.

"British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain [with reason] argued that Prague should be urged to make territorial concessions to Germany."

Well, I wasn't in Europe or the 1930s so what is that history for me?

In 1968 I went to contribute to life north-east of Kokoda where, in the 1940s, Australia expended the lives of Australian teens and young adults in bringing containment (victory is too prime a word) of intrusion by military forces.

Mr Keating, as a beneficiary, later kissed the ground at Kokoda.

At Sasembata, I was given a visual object lesson. I saw one of local Sas men, a gentle teacher, going off to school with an axe. I was told it was to protect his village gardens.

As an Australian child, I listened to the story of the three little pigs. Even with my less than optimal aural ability, the message got through.

Chris Overland

The containment of powers within their historic spheres of interest is a necessary prerequisite for keeping our world as peaceful as possible.

The much-demonised USA has repeatedly demonstrated the folly of 'imperial' overreach in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, just as Russia is now doing in Ukraine.

Yet major powers often are seduced or deluded by their ideologies or self serving interpretations of history into undertaking foreign 'adventures' that mostly come hideously unstuck.

For many years the much-maligned British Empire was the de facto 'umpire' whereby it used its influence to cajole or coerce other imperial powers into sticking to the limitations imposed by various international treaties and the agreed 'rules of the game'.

The collapse of the British Empire essentially compelled an initially reluctant USA to take up this mostly unwanted role as a by-product of its emergence as the world's dominant military and economic power after World War II.

The USA performs this role at present less by relying upon military power than the laborious construction and maintenance of a system of alliances with like-minded nations.

As any student of modern history will know, the alliance building process is always fraught with difficulties as nations try to reconcile their national interests with those of the USA and its allies. The notoriously tetchy France is a case in point, as is the broader European Union.

China has been unable to build a robust system of alliances because, amongst other things, its 'Wolf Warrior' approach to diplomacy has created considerable suspicion about both its methods and motives.

Basically, China's default position is that other nations must approach it as humble supplicants, not friends and allies. This reflects its long imperial traditions which have certainly begun to reassert themselves very strongly in more recent times.

It thus makes logical sense for the USA and its allies to seek to limit Chinese influence as part of the process of striking a new balance in international affairs.

Given that China is a major power this will necessarily mean reaching some accommodation with respect to its legitimate national interests.

This may mean, in practice, allowing it to re-absorb Taiwan back into the People's Republic of China. This will cause pain and embarrassment but may be seen as an unpleasant necessity given that China has a legitimate claim to the island.

The response to this action is probably not going to be outright warfare but may entail very severe economic sanctions being imposed upon China.

The actions against Russia in relation to the war in Ukraine are instructive here. Russia cannot be defeated outright in the sense of being entirely crushed. Indeed, this is not a desired outcome for anyone involved and this is well understood in the Kremlin and Beijing.

However, Russia can be grievously damaged and driven out of Ukraine by the combined impact of the rapidly modernising Ukrainian military and the severe sanctions imposed. This is the probable endgame in Ukraine, with the only question being whether Russia will lose control of Crimea.

China will know all of this and, privately at least, resent the fact that Putin has put them in the unenviable position of having to support their 'friend without limits' in the face of severe international condemnation.

Still, China knows it is bound to be a winner whatever happens in Ukraine. Russia will become increasingly dependent upon it economically, politically and, to some degree at least, militarily. In this way China's sphere of influence will grow at the expense of that of the USA and Europe.

I mention all this to demonstrate that it is simplistic in the extreme to view 'containment' as an outmoded and unnecessary strategy in international affairs. It is a complete misreading of history to conceive of it as reflecting only a bygone European colonial era.

The world is a lot more complex place than many people can imagine. Politicians necessarily have to offer the public simple explanations for very complicated and difficult problems.

The AUKUS agreement, whether flawed or not, makes much more sense when viewed in the context of a continual history of great power rivalries extending back into distant human history.

This is where the submarines may play a role in supporting the US and others to maintain the safety and security of the important seaways in the South China Seas and Pacific Ocean.

It is both fortunate and perhaps ironic that when major powers seek contain each other they tend to produce a more stable international environment, much as was the case during the long Cold War.

Corney Korokan Alone

There is no shame in rejecting outdated containment foreign polices.

The reality of multi-polarism cannot be evaded by resorting to the same imperial proclivities that have consigned the Global South, including the proud People's Republic of China, to lowly paid factory floors and suppliers of cheap raw materials any more.

It's time to embrace multi-polarism and learn mutual-respect.

The rest of the wider world will not and never tolerate a World War III - again by some deluded ilk of the same stock.

Chris Overland

It is shame that the possibility of an intelligent critique of the AUKUS agreement is being lost because of the apparent need to see it as reflecting some form of colonial thinking.

This is a false analogy and is referencing history in ways that are, at best, a distortion of the truth. The British Empire is, to paraphrase ex PM Tony Abbott, 'dead, cremated and buried'.

The American 'empire' still exists insofar as the USA is still able to project both its hard and soft power into all corners of the globe. It is a diminished power these days but it is a dangerous folly to think that it cannot or will not act to protect its national interests if they are threatened.

That said, it is very clear that China is going to resume its historic place as the dominant power in South East Asia. This will occur regardless of how many submarines Australia might operate and those in positions of power in the AUKUS partnership know this is true.

The apparent purpose of the AUKUS agreement is to create an enhanced strategic capacity to contain China's ambitions to that outcome rather than allow it to extend its influence into areas outside of its historic 'sphere of interest'.

This means, in practice, that an objective of AUKUS is to ensure that the Pacific remains an 'American lake'.

There are distinct advantages in this, not least of them being that the USA has effectively ensured that trade and commerce has flourished unhindered across the Pacific since the end of World War II.

It needs to be understood that the USA is fundamentally driven by commercial imperatives, not a lust for power per se. As former US President Calvin Coolidge said in 1925, 'The business of America is business', and this aphorism holds true today.

China's business definitely includes business but also it is driven by a powerful resentment arising from the '100 years of humiliation' for which it blames the former European colonial powers. The impact of this simmering sense of historic grievance cannot be underestimated.

The USA and other powers have concluded that China cannot become a trusted member of an international system of commerce and trade which operates according to a known and settled 'rules based order'.

There is significant evidence that this assessment is correct, not least in China's tacit support for Russia's criminal conduct in Ukraine.

The AUKUS agreement is not driven either by an unbridled lust for dominance or some sort of covert colonial sentiment.

It is a rational and pragmatic response to a changing set of circumstances on the way to achieving a new 'balance of power' between the great powers of our time.

Of course, I doubt that former PM Scott Morrison would have grasped any of this when the idea was first put to him, but I am surprised that Paul Keating apparently does not.

Critics of the AUKUS agreement need to stop talking about 'opium capital imperialists' as if this phrase meant anything or labelling journalists as 'imperial capitalists'.

This approach merely diminishes the impact of legitimate concerns about whether the AUKUS agreement is really sufficiently in Australia's national interest to justify the colossal expenditure involved and whether there are viable alternative approaches that can or should have been considered.

Corney Korokan Alone

If there is any political leader that Papua New Guinea and the rest of the Pacific Islands countries should appreciate and look up to, it is Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.

The rest of the crowd are suckers as Paul Keating aptly labelled them.

Paul Keating demolished the recycled talking points of imperial colonialists in journalism suits and lambasted Albanese and his US lapdog cabinet ministers whose uncritical judgement was laid bare in that powerful takedown.

This National Press Club recording will be an excellent case study for economics and political science students globally.

His knockout punch for 'opium capital imperialists' is nicely captured right here:

Philip Fitzpatrick

Paul Keating didn't say that China isn't a "potential threat to Australia's national interests".

He said that China has no intention of invading Australia.

Which is supposed to be why we are buying the submarines - for preventing China invading us.

He also pointed out that Xi Jinping said that China will probably move on Taiwan around 2027.

If that sparks a war between the US and China where will our submarines be?

We aren't expecting the first of the three Virginia class boats until 2033.

Chris Overland

There has been an awful lot of hyperventilating about the AUKUS agreement and what it might mean.

Paul Keating, in his inimitable manner, has forcefully argued that the agreement to provide Australia with nuclear powered submarines (SSNs) is misconceived, unnecessary and exceedingly expensive.

There is a lot to be said in favour of this argument, especially in the almost total absence of a strategic argument which might justify this decision.

Insofar as any strategic rationale has been advanced, it seems to boil down to creating a serious deterrent to any attempt by China to extend its dominance much beyond its shores.

Quite why adding a few Australian operated SSN's to the large fleet already operated by the USA is required is hard to gauge but it is undeniably the case that the mere prospect of these boats has already caused consternation to China, which suggests that the purported deterrent effect is likely to be very real.

China is, of course, busily building SSNs itself, as well as aircraft carriers, air warfare destroyers and other naval craft.

Its army, navy and air force are already much larger than would sensibly be required for purely defensive purposes.

While there may be little risk of China wanting to invade Australia, there is no doubt whatsoever that it plans to resume its historic place as the dominant power in Southeast Asia.

Simply ceding that position to a power ruled by a single, authoritarian political party seems to me to be a very bad idea.

History presents us with many examples of how such powers behave when they wish to impose their will upon others.

Perhaps the primary significance of this agreement is that Australia is to join a very select club, being composed of those very few countries with the capacity to construct and operate arguably the most complex and dangerous warships ever built.

To do this will be no small endeavour. Australia will have to invent from scratch an intellectual, engineering and technical capacity that does not currently exist.

Thousands of people will need to be trained in highly specialised areas such a nuclear engineering, metallurgy, computer system design and maintenance and complex construction techniques in areas such as super high-quality welding and metal fabrication.

In a way, the acquisition of these skills may be more important than the submarines themselves.

So, I think that Paul Keating is fundamentally wrong in believing that China does not represent a potential threat to Australia's national interests.

Whether the AUKUS agreement reflects an effective and 'value for money' response to that potential threat is hard to gauge but successive governments of different political persuasions seem to think so.

We can only hope that their judgement is correct.

Kurumbi Wone

The dead British empire led by America is now resuscitating itself by weaponising Australia to attack China.

The majority of ordinary Aussies are not even aware of it.

Indonesia, once thought capable of carrying out the task for the southern empire, is now regarded as unworthy of any consideration.

"Indonesia couldn’t blow out a candle," said Mark Latham, a One Nation leader (Sky News, 16 March)

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