IN 1965, Queen Elizabeth appointed Robert Menzies Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an ancient and prestigious ceremonial office whose obsolete jurisdictional function, from the 1100s, centered on provisioning ships for coastal defence, well before the founding of the Royal Navy. Sir Robert succeeded Winston Churchill in the role. Those left of wing and Anglophobic of persuasion always delighted in ridiculing the sinecure and the sailor’s uniform that went with it. Yesterday, Anthony Albanese deplaned on arrival back in Australia wearing Aviators gifted to him by President Biden. Not quite the same cachet but this too was a gesture of gratitude to a subject pretending to defend a seafaring realm. It was a day of historical parallels, trite gratuities and illogical alliances thanks to a Press Club performance by Paul Keating that may outlive in folklore the AUKUS plan the PM had been in San Diego to unveil with his Ray-Ban bestie and Rishi Sunak. More halting in delivery in his 80th year, his patois, analytical skills and insults – the most brutal directed at Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong – were still more compelling than the pansy tiptoeing on eggshells that is now the lingua franca of all political discussion in Australia. “Hopping into Penny” deserves to live on as an idiom for reluctant chastisement of an ally but, sadly, is unlikely to be understood by anyone within a generation. More importantly, he was right.
Right, I mean, about the foolishness of acquiring nuclear submarines from the United States in the 2030s before building our own Holden Specials from the 2040s (with assistance from the British). The chances of this coming to fruition on time and on budget, needless to say, are zero. A hallmark of contemporary propaganda is the elephantine irrationality people ignore out of pride, obtuseness or fear of being ostracised. The supposed consensus determinedly sold over the past 18 months by commentators is that subs we won’t have for decades are vital for next week’s conflict with China. The same tactic was used during the pandemic: brazenness backed up by abuse to ‘nudge’ a nation to see past the ridiculous lie and stay faithful to the cause. By the 2040s, the boats described by Mr Keating as “clunkers” will almost certainly be obsolete. They will cost a lot more than 368 billion dollars and – unless a future government makes a clean, let’s-just-be-friends break – will lock us into a military-industrial complex that will diminish our nationhood and embolden a generation of America-haters whose over-corrections will be ruinous.
He was right about several other things: China has no designs or capacity to invade Australia and/or America; it has no logical interest in blocking delivery of its own supplies; gigantic nuclear submarines are not suited to the continental defence of Australia but to forward projection; we will never go to war against China except as a tag-along to the United States; America will superintend the deployment of Australian submarines and control their maintenance; the insistence that Canberra will be perfectly free to choose sovereignty over loyal Musketeering is risible. The concern that AUKUS was rushed and – given the scale of the proposal – afforded only peremptory draftsmanship happens to be historically correct. Born in fear and scandal following the humiliation of Afghanistan, it had a ‘get back on the horse’ quality to it from the start.
At the end of the failed War on Terrorism, and in the middle of a pandemic in which governments had betrayed democracy and the rule of law, the West’s top priority should have been healing. Not a kumbaya ideas summit overseen by Kevin Rudd or a synod on synodality chaired by the pope but punitive accountability for politicians and officials, the re-building of economies and the complete recapitulation of liberty. What we got instead – from a US President mired in high crimes and two (now ex) prime ministers desperate to seem indispensable – was the harebrained heaping of Pelion upon Ossa: extravagant gallivanting into a European proxy war, more economic disaster for newly irrelevant citizens and an asinine panic about “imminent” war. Covid has ushered in a dark era of permanent imminence whose utility to leaders is forestalling liability and a firing squad. Dismally, conservatives fall for it every time. Sky News anchors and opinionists, for example, spend a goodly part of their time castigating Messrs Albanese and Biden as tendentious, intellectually fourth-rate, witless, demented and immoral. But the Dear Leaders are admirable and infallible when it comes to nuclear submarines and World War III. The China-like universality of anti-Keating reaction is more worrying than anything the former prime minister said.
What Keating got wrong is best discussed by the rational – which excludes all those who were too mawkish, inept or lazy to refute the actual arguments he made yesterday (in between excoriating journalists). Last month’s op-ed brawl between Keating and Greg Sheridan was a useful preview of how and where he goes terribly awry. Keating was right to dismiss Sheridan as a “little American” and Sheridan was right to describe Keating’s China policy as “eccentric.” Both men were right and wrong in equal measure and both are living in the past. The Foreign Editor of The Australian is in denial about the decline of an America that is no longer the arsenal of civilisation it was between Eisenhower and Reagan. If the curtains in Kabul haven’t convinced him to reassess the suzerainty of a post-moral hyperpower, nothing ever will. For his part, Keating’s delusions are older than Ike. He still loathes Britain, wants to avenge Jack Lang and believes that he personally discovered Asia. This largely explains his one-or-the-other view of hemispherical alliances, his pre-tech obsession with proximity as destiny and a tendency to trivialise Chinese espionage. The result is that he often sounds like a hybrid of Doc Evatt and the Duke of Windsor.
Today – both as a corollary of his own casualness and as an easy alternative to substantive rebuttal – his critics seized on Mr Keating’s indifference to the fate of the Uyghurs and other victims of the CCP. His Don Rickles victims at the Press Club didn’t ask about Chinese Catholics – which would have been a more pointed question to ask one of the latter’s co-religionists. Make of that what you will. I make of it that Australian journalists and Beijing aren’t miles apart on that subject. In fact, Australia is not buying submarines to rescue Uyghurs. We’re not even buying submarines because Taiwan is a sister democracy. The AUKUS trio refuses to even recognise it as a nation. Mr Keating’s biggest error was denouncing the subs deal as the worst decision by a Labor government since Billy Hughes’ 1916 conscription plebiscite without seeing the opportunity to emulate the man who sank it. As of yesterday, he and Archbishop Daniel Mannix have much in common: disciples who loved their mockeries; both accused of treachery; both opposed by the establishment and media; both insisted nations at enmity shared a portion of blame. The difference is that Mannix was a man of objective moral judgement. To him, however guilty all the begetters of the Great War, his side – however unworthily – possessed the larger share of righteousness. Defending that share abroad and the truth at home were not mutually exclusive.