Former Australian prime ministers tend to be less conspicuous in public life than their counterparts in other countries.
Occasionally, they make an appearance at political functions and events to remind us that they are still alive, their
estate still breathing, their lawyers still working. For the most part, the pronouncements are less than profound, let
alone relevant. But there are a few radiant surprises. Malcolm Fraser was one, considered dour when prime minister
through the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s, yet utterly provocative on becoming an elder statesman. It was he,
a Cold War warrior so keen on keeping the US involved in the Asia-Pacific, who became the firmest critic of the
The Labor side of politics has Paul Keating, the last, dare one use the word, visionary, in the prime ministerial pack.
With his electoral defeat in 1996 at the hands of the undistinguished, anti-Asian John Howard, Australia returned, in
large measure, to the reassuring protections of the US military alliance. The Asia-Pacific region was less one to
accommodate than seek armour against. Ever risky, ever dangerous, they remained the swarthy barbarians of alien tongues
and troublesome ambition. There were threats nearby and everywhere, and it would require a lengthy alliance without
qualifications to protect Canberra.
This sort of foolishness is yielding its grim results. Not a day goes by that does not see Australian politicians sign
themselves up to the next suicidal conflict that might take place over Taiwan or over the South China Sea. On November
10, Keating, at the Australian National Press Club, was bursting to speak to the audience
about his taking of the geopolitical temperature. It was his modest effort to try to arrest this seemingly imminent
His targets were many, largely because so many have been offered. The AUKUS security alliance, made over the cadaverous
remains of the Australian-French submarine contract to build 12 attack class submarines, involved an undertaking by the
UK and the United States to aid Australia in building eight nuclear-powered submarines. Such submarines are never going
to meet water till two decades have passed, and this was the equivalent of “throwing a handful of toothpicks at a
As for Chinese ambitions themselves, Keating projected an attitude starkly reminiscent of that mischievous history don,
A.J.P. Taylor, when he turned his eye to the ambitions and behaviours of great powers in Europe. China was not a rule
breaker, but instead working within the very rules that had been created by an international order preceding their rise
to power. They were behaving according to standard dictates of power and, along the way, “remodelled” in its entirety,
the Australian economy. “They are in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy, they have testosterone running everywhere,
the Chinese, but we have to deal with them because their power will be so profound in this part of the world.”
Reasoned in such a way, China was “simply too big and too central to be ostracised.” It was “now so big and it is going
to grow so large, it will have no precedents in modern social and economic history.” The United States would have to
play the role of a “balancing and conciliatory power in Asia” and Australia would be foolish to involve itself in the
Taiwan dispute, it “not [being] a vital Australian interest”. Alas, Washington had other ideas – at least for the
moment, having not “come to a point of accommodation where [it] acknowledges China’s pre-eminence in east Asia and the
Asian mainland, in which case we can start to move towards a sensible relationship with China.”
As for where Australia fitted into the alliance structure of the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific, Keating offered a
razor-sharp assessment. “We have no relationship with Beijing, so why would the Prime Minister of Malaysia or Thailand
talk to us about east Asia when we are non-speakers with the biggest power, the Chinese?” A significant power such as
Indonesia had been consistently, and assiduously ignored. Canberra persisted in trying to find its “security from Asia
rather than in Asia.”
He also levelled a blow at his own party’s shadow foreign minister, one Penny Wong, who had “taken a position there
shouldn’t be an ounce of daylight between her and the [governing] Liberal Party.” Doing so, he suggested, meant that
“you end up with a pretty quiet political life. No big disputes because you are glued to the government. But you make no
national progress.” This was a source of much regret for the bruiser of old, repudiating that “proud history of
engagement with Asia and including China” Labor held. “Now it’s just gone ‘pass’ so debate trickery goes on.”
His suggestion, and one that will be rebuffed with apoplectic fury in Canberra and the strategic fold, is to accord
China a degree of recognition befitting its stance. “If we give China the recognition I believe it is due in terms of
legitimacy … then I think a lot of these issues, the so-called 14 points, sort off fall of the table.”
On the role of Britain, Keating was appropriately savage. This desire to be involved east of Suez, again, was a childish
nostalgia impervious to reality. “Can Britain help us here? No. The other state that was able to help us was France and
we rudely turned our back on it.”
The reaction to such sober edged analysis was never going to go down well in the lunatic, zombie establishment gearing,
and oiling, for war. There are invisible submarines to build, a regional arms race to encourage, false promises to make.
Australia’s Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, suggested the title
of “Grand Appeaser Comrade Keating”.
Australia’s noisiest shock jock commentator for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, Andrew Bolt, concluded
that Keating was not of this planet. “Keating’s big message was this: Australia’s in China’s region. China is very big,
and we, and we – and America – should stop challenging it … and instead, in his words, accommodate ourselves to China.”
Such rubbish regularly gilds the tree of conversation on Australia’s strategic ambitions.
There have been some defenders of the former prime minister, insisting that he has something sensible to say. ABC host
and commentator Stan Grant tells his audience
that Keating “is not an apologist for Chinese authoritarianism but a cold-eyed realist about Chinese power and how it
can be incorporated into a global political order.” But realism, for the moment at least, has been anathemised. The
Anglophone alliance that is AUKUS is testament to that fact. Blood-thirsty nostalgia, and the ning-nongs, are intent on
running the show.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.