Showdown over subs triggers fight among Labor’s faithful

Paul Keating lets rip at Labor over AUKUS

Labor legend Paul Keating has delivered a full-frontal attack on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s authority and a $368 billion nuclear submarine deal he says represents a takeover of foreign policy by American interests.

In an extraordinary swipe, Mr Keating said the AUKUS submarine deal was the worst international policy enacted by a Labor government in a century, putting Mr Albanese on par with the infamous party rat Billy Hughes.

“History will be the judge of this project in the end. But I want my name clearly recorded among those who say it is a mistake,” he said.

“Who believes that, despite its enormous cost, it does not offer a solution to the challenge of great power competition in the region or to the security of the Australian people?”

Senior Labor figures rushed to defend Mr Albanese on Wednesday, stating Mr Keating’s views were outdated and did not apply to China under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

“China has changed in the last year,” frontbencher Bill Shorten said. “They’re not the same China they were in the ’90s.”

But Mr Keating’s analysis of the local politics and his prediction of a “big reaction” on AUKUS from Labor faithful might be on stronger ground.

Changed views

Aside from policy, Mr Keating parts ways with the prevailing national security consensus on the question of China’s motivations and its strategic intentions.

Mr Keating said Beijing posed no real threat to Australia’s security in the form of a future invading force. So, he said, deals like the AUKUS pact were less about the defence of Australia than upholding American interests.

He characterised other parts of government as motivated by the same goal, like Liberal staffer turned spy chief, Andrew Shearer, who – according to the former PM – is part of a broader “pro-US cell” in government.

A suggestion that America’s interests have done best out of AUKUS while Australia foots the bill is not too different from that made by other former PMs.

“For $360 billion, we’re going to get eight submarines. It must be the worst deal in all history,” Mr Keating said.

“At the Kabuki show in San Diego [to announce the deal] a day or so ago, there’s three leaders standing there. Only one is paying. Our bloke, Albo. The other two, they’ve got the band playing Happy days are here again.”

One defence analyst wrote this week that the AUKUS deal was made unsustainably expensive because Australia decided to acquire two variations of submarines: One bought from the US and one built jointly with Britain and in Adelaide under a complicated and costly arrangement.

Voters could hardly think less of Mr Albanese for adopting sensible policy negotiated with the US national security establishment but a ballooning bill will prompt questions about whether AUKUS has been upsized.

Local rebellion?

AUKUS’s strength as an issue is being tested this week in Port Kembla, a former steel town with a lot riding on the government’s industry policy but where defence policy has taken centre stage.

“All of this [economic recovery] is now at risk because of some brainwave of some military boss somewhere,” said Arthur Rorris, head of Wollongong’s South Coast Labour Council, which represents 50,000 members.

Mr Rorris, a union boss who has taken on the ALP before, began the campaign last week after an ABC report identified Port Kembla as a preferred site for a new submarine base – something he claims could cancel local industry.

“Disbelief is how it started,” he said. “I think it’s turning to anger now.”

It’s a tiny campaign trying to halt a forthcoming decision by the defence department by taking every advantage of Sky News’ appetite for stories about Labor dissension.

But it travels on the steam of locals’ scepticism about nuclear defence technology, if not conceptually then as a prospective addition to the neighbourhood.

It’s a perspective local MP Stephen Jones came close to endorsing on TV last year; he did not respond to an interview request on Wednesday.

Ambivalent history

Mr Keating’s claim that AUKUS is a low for Australian sovereignty or a break with Labor’s foreign policy tradition is not accepted by all of his contemporaries.

“Do we want this country or don’t we? And if we want this country, we have to do something about being able to afford these technologies,” former defence minister Kim Beazley said on Wednesday.

All three (Mr Albanese, while advising anti-war MP Tom Uren) could recall a Labor revolt over American influence, when a caucus rebellion cancelled a plan to take MX missiles from the Pentagon in 1985.

Now former lefty Mr Albanese and Mr Keating have switched places as advocates for the national security establishment.

But ANU history professor Frank Bongiorno said Mr Keating had been more philosophically consistent than his detractors conceded.

“It’s the radical nationalist Labor tradition, perhaps with a dash of Irishness in there,” Professor Bongiorno said.

“I think that’s important for him.

“I think he’s genuinely angry about the idea of Australia kind of returning to the anglosphere – the British side of [AUKUS] probably angers him even more than the American side.”

Will it matter?

“I don’t know what purchase issues around sovereignty and independence and all those kinds of themes have these days in Australian politics,” Professor Bongiorno said.

“On the other hand, I think [if] there’s a perception that Labor is effectively cutting key social programs because it’s building submarines [that] becomes more difficult and problematic issue.”

At a time of high inflation and recent rhetoric about the constraints of a structural deficit, AUKUS, while not subject to public debate at first, may still need a social licence.

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