LOVED or hated, nobody has ever doubted Paul Keating could take care of himself in any political brawl. That’s why even for a longstanding critic of his excesses – of language, historical claims and self-estimation – it’s surprising to feel a little sorry for him. Like his attack on the AUKUS deal, his meltdown about British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s linkage of possible Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine was not entirely wrong. I’m not squeamish about beating up China – even gratuitously – but exploiting headlines to warn of World War III at the Lowy Institute is extravagant, if not quite “demented.” If it isn’t verifiably true, it shouldn’t be said. If it is, there isn’t much that t-shirt-banning Australia can do about it.
At the heart of the Keating decline is spite and pride. Any wisdom he has to offer is indecipherable beneath layers of brutality – of the kind the press indulged for 40 years. Sycophancy has been very bad for him. This doesn’t mean the former Prime Minister is losing touch with reality in the sense that his contemporary Joe Biden is. His delusions are not of a clinical but of a moral variety. Like a Bankstown pensioner in the 1970s who discovered the dim sim, he has a patronising old Laborite’s view of Asians pursuant to which ‘engagement’ with them is the epitome of magnanimity. But most Australians under 60 don’t see Asians this way.
Mr Keating famously hates the British, the Liberals (who had to drag ALP neanderthals away their historical loathing of Asians) and anyone who moves the focus of foreign policy away from his own 1980s enthrallment with ‘our region.’ He still thinks proximity is destiny when in fact hemispheric reach has become at least as important as it was in the nineteenth century. The world has changed (again) but Mr Keating won’t change with it. His view of himself as a Great Man of History is more important. It’s a sad but predictable autumn for an ‘icon’ spoiled rotten.