The Press Club comments made by Paul Keating against AUKUS were the catalyst for a number of Labor voices to speak up against the security deal, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.
IT WAS A SIGHT to behold and took the wind out of the bellicose sails of the AUKUS cheer squad. Here, at the National Press Club in the Australian capital, was a Labor luminary, former Prime Minister of Australia and statesman, keen to weigh in with characteristic sharpness and dripping venom. Paul Keating's target: the militaristic lunacy that has characterised Australia's participation in the U.S.-led security pact that promises hellish returns and pangs of insecurity.
In his March 15 address to a Canberra press gallery bewitched by the magic of nuclear-propelled submarines and the China bogeyman, Keating was unsparing about those "seriously unwise ministers in government" - notably Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles, unimpressed by their foolish, uncritical embrace of the U.S. war machine.
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In terms of history, this was chilling to Keating. The AUKUS security pact represented a longing gaze back at the Mother Country, Britain, "shunning security in Asia for security in and within the Anglosphere". It also meant a locking alliance with the United States for the next half-century as a subordinate in a containment strategy of Beijing. This was a bipartisan approach to foreign policy that saw the U.S. dominating East Asia as "the primary strategic power" rather than a balancing one.
For Keating, the impetus for such madness came from a defence establishment that dazzled the previous Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. That effort, he argues, was spearheaded by the likes of the U.S.-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Andrew Shearer of the Office of National Intelligence. They even, he argues, managed to convince PM Anthony Albanese, Marles and Wong to abandon the 20-month review period on the scope of what they were seeking.
The steamrolling Keating was also unsparing in attacking a number of journalists for their ditzy, adolescent belligerence. The sword, once produced, was never sheathed. Peter Hartcher, most notably, received a generous pasting as a war infatuated lunatic whose anti-China campaign at the Fairfax presses had been allowed for years.
In terms of the submarines themselves, Keating also expressed the view that the Royal Australian Navy would be far better off acquiring between 40 to 50 of the Collins-class submarines to police the coastline rather than having nuclear-powered submarines lying in wait off the Chinese shoreline.
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As we all should know, submarine policy is where imagination goes to expire, often in frightful, costly ways. For all Keating's admiration for the Collins class, it was a nightmarish project marred by fiascos, poor planning and organisational dysfunction within the defence establishment. At stages, two-thirds of the Australian fleet of six submarines were unable to operate at full capacity. The lesson here is that submarines and the Australian naval complex simply do not mix.
The reaction from the Establishment was one of predictable dismissal, denial and distortion, typical of what Gore Vidal would have called deranged machismo. Instead of being critical of the powers that are, they have turned their guns and wallets on spectres, ghosts and devilish images. The tragedy looms and it will be, like many tragedies, the result of colossal, unforgivable stupidity.
At the very least, the intervention by Keating, notably in the Labor Party, has not gone unnoticed. Within the Labor caucus, tremors of dissatisfaction are being recorded, breaches growing.
West Australian Labor backbencher Josh Wilson defied his own party's dictates by telling colleagues in the House of Representatives:
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Wilson's views are not outlandish to the man. He is keen to challenge the notion of unaccountable executive war powers, a problem that looms large in the Westminster system.
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A gaggle of former senior Labor ministers have also emerged, even if they initially proved sluggish.
Peter Garrett, former Environment Minister and frontman of Midnight Oil, while proving a bit squeamish about Keating's invective, found himself in general agreement:
Kim Carr, who had previously held ministerial positions in industry and defence materiel, revealed that the matter of AUKUS had never been formally approved in the Federal Labor caucus, merely noted. Various "key" Labor figures - again Marles and Wong - agreed to endorse the proposition put forth to them on 15 September 2021 by the then Coalition Government.
He also expressed deep concern "about a revival of a forward defence policy, given our performance in Vietnam".
For Carr, the shadow cast by the Iraq War was long:
For former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, there were three questions: whether the submarines are actually fit for purpose; whether Australia retained genuine sovereignty over them in their use; and, were that not the case, 'whether that loss of agency is a price worth paying for the U.S. security insurance we think we might be buying'.
Will these voices make a difference? They just might, but if so, Australia will have to thank that political pugilist and Labor veteran who, for all his faults, spoke in terms that will be considered, in a matter of years, treasonous by the Empire and its sycophants.
Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is a lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.