Michael Pascoe: Hurt feelings overwhelm media’s ability to weigh Paul Keating’s substance

According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent, David Crowe: “[Paul] Keating’s assessment [of Australia’s AUKUS submarine deal] is a doddering delusion. In his twilight years, at 79, the former leader sounds deranged.”

That was after dutifully reporting the government’s briefing against the former prime minister and apparently being outraged by Mr Keating offering “sneering answers to reasonable questions from journalists – going personal in almost every answer”.

“The vision of an old man treating young women with derision was jarring,” according to the article.

That’s opposed to the SMH chief political correspondent’s ageism and treating the former prime minister, a giant of Australian politics, with derision, suggesting he was senile. No “jarring” there.

Press gallery groupthink

The SMH’s anti-Keating spray is of no account other than as an example of how preciousness and groupthink are orders of the day for most of the press gallery.

Such were the hurt feelings on their peers’ behalf over the undiminished sharpness of the Keating tongue and his capacity for vicious invective, the gallery proved incapable of investigating and weighing the serious substance of what Mr Keating was saying.

Like just about anyone who questioned the Keating line back in the day when he had the press gallery eating out of his hand, I once suffered his public derision in a Parliament House media conference.

So what? It was irrelevant.

The main event is what counts, not the sideshows, but it has been the sideshows of Mr Keating’s language and low opinion of many journalists that have dominated reporting of his National Press Club appearance.

In the process of pearl clutching, several serious and deeply relevant issues raised by Mr Keating have been ignored.

I don’t just mean Mr Keating’s central case that China does not want to invade Australia. That’s a given, never mind the mainstream media’s collective swallowing of the defence industry Kool-Aid.

It’s not even the debate we’ve never had about whether two or three operational Anglo-American nuclear-powered submarines at some point in the future are our best defensive bet. But I’ll come back to that.

Unexamined questions

Instead, Mr Keating opened the door to the unexamined question of how we arrived at this point, both nationally and within the Labor Party.

Overlook the Penny Wong sideshow; concentrate on the main event – the allegation that the senior Labor figure convinced the leadership group to adopt Scott Morrison’s defence policy holus-bolus to avoid being wedged, abandoning any previously espoused principles in the process.

This puts Labor on the same level as Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton – people prepared to damage Australia’s best interests for domestic political reasons.

aukus san diego

Anthony Albanese with Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak at the historic AUKUS announcement in San Diego. Photo: Getty

Mr Keating has had an ear and a tongue in Labor’s policy development. Clearly his recommendations have not been accepted, but his contacts are such that his allegation must be treated very seriously – especially when the claim fits the facts.

Nothing else makes sense of the leadership triumvirate of Albanese, Wong and Marles pledging allegiance to AUKUS and nuclear-powered submarines within hours of hearing of such things and knowing bugger-all about them.

Merits undebated

And having made that pledge – the merits and ramifications unexamined, undebated – the Albanese Government locked itself in for the ride whatever the cost, not even waiting for the fig leaf of its Clayton’s defence review.

The same leadership group also swallowed whole the defence and “spook” industry built up over nine years of Liberal-National governments that ranged from decidedly odd, to ineffectual, to quite deranged and carrying various degrees of colonial leanings.

The bastardisation of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has been dealt with by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, but otherwise the machinery of the Albanese Government is the one Scott Morrison built.

Good heavens, this Labor Government even re-appointed Tony Abbott to the War Memorial Council – the same Tony Abbott who oversaw ruthless dismissals and non re-appointments of people who served the previous government, regardless of their talent and professionalism.

There’s being a small target and then there is being no target at all.

On Wednesday, Mr Keating alluded to one such Morrison appointment: Australia’s spy chief Andrew Shearer.

As the AFR reported, there was Labor disquiet at the time about Mr Shearer moving from being Mr Morrison’s cabinet secretary to head the Office of National Assessments in 2020.

Among other things, Mr Shearer previously had been national security advisor to John Howard and Tony Abbott when they had been prime ministers, and was a noted China hawk.

It has been suggested AUKUS and the half-trillion dollar submarines (nobody believes they’ll only end up costing $368 billion, do they?) have been very much Mr Shearer’s doing.

If the present press gallery was plugged into more than what it is fed, that is something that would be interesting to explore.

Good to know

You can’t know where you are if you don’t know how you got there – and we don’t know how the AUKUS pie was made other than it was done with great secrecy and little, if any, disinterested input.

Mr Keating hinted at the role of the British armaments manufacturer, BAE – a company deeply embedded in the Canberra defence community as well as pretty much being the British defence industry.

A British company wanting to sell its technology, a British prime minister in Boris Johnston desperate to sell something (anything as his Brexit disaster unfolded), a not-very-bright Australian prime minister looking for a distraction and a wedge, a local defence establishment stuffed with Austral-Americans, an American government wanting to expand its Australian bases …

It would be good to know – but, hey, Paul Keating called someone “a nong”.

And then there was Mr Keating’s straight drop: His claim that France made a counter-offer of nuclear-powered submarines with earlier delivery and a lower, fixed-price contract, but the Australian Government didn’t get back to them.

Notice any headlines about that? Neither did I.

Former prime minister Paul Keating issued a scathing assessment of AUKUS at the National Press Club.

Claims of French counter-offer

But on 3AW, Neil Mitchell did follow it up with Mr Albanese and received the sort of reply you expect from a politician not wanting to answer the thrust of the question:

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, is it correct that the French came back to us with another offer on submarines and we didn’t even get back to them?

PRIME MINISTER ALBANESE: No. No, that’s not right. I have respectful relations, including with France. And we had discussions with France, I’ve had discussions directly with President Macron, our Foreign Minister and Defence Minister have had a two-by-two meeting with their respective counterparts. We have a respectful relationship with France. We’ve determined to go with the AUKUS arrangements. We liaised respectfully with a range of nations and informed them in an appropriate manner. And none of the announcements that we made just a couple of days ago would have come as any surprise to the nations that we have good relations with, and one of those happens to be France.

Read that carefully and you’ll see that Mr Albanese indicated he did get back to them – but didn’t go near the question of the offer.

And then there’s the matter of ‘sovereignty’, a word very loosely thrown around and its meaning dodged as we have bound ourselves to America’s China containment policy.

Make no mistake, the point of having nuclear subs is not to protect our sea lanes but to threaten China’s as part of the US fleet.

Paul Keating is not alone in doubting the suitability of nuclear-powered subs for our defence.

Former senator and submariner Rex Patrick has provided an easy analysis of the case for more non-nuclear subs – the sort of alternative view to the government line that’s exceedingly rare in our media.

Mr Patrick, who has actually spent time at sea on (or is that “in”?) nuclear subs, likens them to a Ferrari – a fantastic piece of machinery, but not actually very good for a number of tasks you might want of your vehicle.

Don’t take your F40 off-road, for example, and you can’t cart a load of kids in the back.

Veteran defence and security correspondent and author Brian Toohey says the defence establishment has been fudging about the supposed superiority of nuclear and the failings of non-nuclear boats, especially the latest models.

Instead of digging into the matter to find out the truth about our biggest defence spend ever along with its strategic ramifications, let’s just claim Paul Keating has lost it.

Hot tip: He has not. You could see on Wednesday that he sometimes has to search for a word, that they don’t come quite as easily as they used to.

That’s common enough at much younger ages than 79.

But he knows exactly what he is looking for and what it means when he uses it.

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