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One of the younger journalists suggested to him that he was out of date on China because he hadn’t been officially briefed since he left office in March 1996.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