WHEN I noticed in a Twitter sidebar on Tuesday that former Prime Minister Paul Keating would be “in conversation” at the National Press Club yesterday with Laura Tingle, I assumed it would be a farce. I was right, of course, but you should never boast about predicting what Basil Fawlty called the “bleedingly obvious.” Tingle is a star-struck Keating loyalist of decades standing and obviously had no intention of asking him any troublesome questions. Like, for example, is he still being paid by Beijing as a consultant to the China Development Bank? If yes, the obvious follow-up would be: how much? “Always back self-interest,” as the man himself always liked to say, “at least you know it’s trying.” When it comes to China, Keating tries like nobody else.
But this was one of those cosy ABC-style chats where a Labor elder is more or less invited to sling mud pies at an incumbent Coalition government. Preferably – in Keating’s case – with those Jack Lang-era insults and aphorisms that give urban luvvies a thrilling taste of rough trade class war as it used to be waged. The fact that Keating’s upbringing was more posh than Scott Morrison’s and that he has always hated the white-collar leftists who revere him makes for a misanthropic shtick. Anyway, the Great Man’s form at the NPC was poor and his observations – reheated scraps from his statement on AUKUS in September – were Biden-esque and despicable.
The confab’s theme was ‘Australia’s Strategic Framework.’ Whoever thought of that must have had Keating rather than public edification in mind. The Art Vandelay of international relations, he likes to speak of policy in this realm as ‘architecture’ that can only be imagined and built by savants like him. One fault in all vain autodidacts, of course, is that the shortcuts they take through orthodoxies come at the expense of tradesmen’s details. A perfect example was Keating yesterday mocking the signing of AUKUS at the Cornwall meeting of the G7 in June: “So here we have the Prime Minister going back to Cornwall, where James Cook had left 245 years earlier and where Arthur Phillip and the first fleet had left 233 years earlier. The ignominy of it speaks volumes.” So does embarrassing inaccuracy. Tony Wright points out that “Cook actually left Plymouth, in Devon, and Phillip’s First Fleet departed Portsmouth, Hampshire.”
From little errors, big errors grow. Keating reiterated his usual lies about the Liberal Party vis-a-vis ‘our’ so-called region, ignoring that it was Robert Menzies who pioneered ‘engagement with Asia.’ Labour movement neanderthals clung to their hatred of Asians until the mid-1960s, if not beyond. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to argue that the contemptuous way Keating talks about Japan – as he did again on Tuesday – is a version of that same prejudice, albeit re-worked to flatter its larger foe. So garish is Keating’s sinophilia that its undercoat seems as much personal as historical. When he excuses Beijing’s provocations as misdemeanors attributable to this “rude” power’s “testosterone,” I get the feeling it’s part apologia by proxy for his own heyday, part resentment of his own decline. He once enjoyed damaging men; now he enjoys humiliating his country and the Anglophone world to which it still belongs. Even if Keating’s (borrowed) hermeneutic of continuity about the Chinese is true – that they have made of communism a new Confucius – it speaks more of a mass psychosis than it does of superior antiquity or harder earned aggrandisement. It follows that if China doesn’t want to be treated like a fat baby born in 1949, it should act accordingly.
Various other boasts and observations made by Keating are too lightweight to get very riled about: he and Kim Beazley built the ANZAC frigates (back in the sleepy 1990s) or that China’s economy is bigger than America’s (it isn’t, not by a big margin). A few others were reasonable: the French have a real (though overly whisked) grievance, the likely AUKUS delivery date for nuclear submarines is strategically ridiculous and Australia’s independent war-fighting ability has been foolishly reduced to niche missions at the behest of Washington. But it is a disgrace for a one-time Prime Minister to demand the abandonment of Taiwan, to praise the Chinese Communist Party for controlling media “in a socially good way,” to jeer at the “ballot box” and to pretend school shootings in the US are a more troubling marker of civilisational illness than five million victims of an engineered virus and 45,000,000 killed by Mao Zedong.
Just how big a disgrace? Well, Keating is more prominent than the mostly amateurish agents of the USSR that once infested the ALP like cockroaches. His utterances are daffier than H.V. Evatt’s and his fidelity to a nation that has threatened to shower his homeland with missiles is only slightly less impressive than Kim Philby’s. Despite a demonstrated interest in good causes, Keating has chosen to waste his emeritus prestige on China. That is strange and sad.