Madonna King: Paul Keating’s AUKUS spray was of a bygone era

Reporting on Paul Keating, as prime minister, was always a bit like going to the theatre.

He held court, in Canberra’s House of Representatives, like few others.

Acerbic one-liners that would make everyone, except for his target, laugh.

Clever, too, because his abuse – and that’s the best way to describe it – always carried a touch of truth for some.

Andrew Peacock was “a faithful old dog”, of no use to anyone.

John Howard, “the little desiccated coconut”, needed a Valium because he was “wound up like a thousand-day clock”.

Peter Costello was “all tip and no iceberg”.

The Opposition was full of “scumbags”, who couldn’t manage a “tart shop”.

Someone else was a “stupid, foul-mouthed grub”, a “slithering, mangy maggot”, and the whole Senate “unrepresentative swill”.

He got away with how he said things, because of what he said and because being prime minister between 1991 and 1996 was very different from being a leader, in public life, in 2023.

Just imagine that sort of billingsgate coming out of the mouth of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese now, or a state premier.

It would be simply unacceptable.

The brash, bull-in-the-china-shop leadership of Paul Keating might have been fit for purpose almost 30 years ago, but it certainly isn’t any more.

And that’s why this week’s National Press Club address has been focused as much on how he addressed criticisms around the AUKUS deal, as much as the deal itself.

On balance, he presented a view that many – including former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – supports; that the AUKUS submarine pact might not be the best deal.

And that is a very legitimate discussion point.

But the way it is said makes all the difference.

Turnbull explained that the $368 billion deal came with a “very high risk’’ of failure. Keating called it the worst deal in history, with some colourful descriptions either side of that.

Keating’s criticism of his own party went much further though, enveloping his successor’s core national security platform, and lambasting the Prime Minister, foreign and defence ministers along the way.

And that’s where he lost his argument in the eyes of many – including in his own party.

It was how he said it, even more than what he said.

Voters will disagree over the threat posed by China, but it is fair that we consider our preparedness and know that is top-of-mind for decision-makers.

And an MP, with any pulse on their electorate, knows that this topic is popping up every day in discussions at dinner parties, and around the work water cooler.

The job of a leader is to respond to that, and Anthony Albanese made that point very clearly yesterday. The world has changed, he said. China had changed its position. And its position in the world had changed, too.

“My job is to govern Australia in 2023 based upon what we see as the facts before us,’’ Albanese told 3AW radio. And he’s spot on.

Keating has an enormous brain, and a well-honed foreign policy interest.

But he does not have the same access to information and intelligence as our decision makers, and going on his comments, he wouldn’t consider that material anyway.

But in putting his argument, there was no need to savage journalists for asking legitimate questions, or colleagues who he knows have access to that information.

And that’s especially the case in 2023, 27 years after Paul Keating left Parliament.

Back then, Bill Hayden and Sir William Deane shared Yarralumla. Bob Carr, Wayne Goss and Jeff Kennett ran NSW, Queensland and Victoria. Shane Stone was the chief minister of the Northern Territory.

Back then, our nation mourned the murder of 35 people in the Port Arthur massacre, as well as 18 deaths after a collision between two Blackhawk helicopters near Townsville.

The Wood Royal Commission was held in NSW; in the same state and year as Ivan Milat was found guilty of the murder of seven backpackers.

The world has moved on, and so has the way we speak; whether it’s in the classroom, in the office, or in our political discourse.

Paul Keating is a giant of the Labor Party. He deserves a policy legacy as architect of the deregulation of the Australian economy, the Native Title laws we now have, and for putting a republic on the agenda.

His contribution to foreign policy, particularly the strong bilateral links he encouraged with our Asia-Pacific neighbours, is hugely significant.

But in 2023, 27 years after he left Parliament, he needs to understand respectful language, the work of our intelligence agencies, and that those who vote for our politicians expect decisions to be made in all our best interests.

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