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The New Daily
The New Daily
James Robertson

Keating warns of Labor backlash on nuclear subs

Paul Keating unleashes on Labor over AUKUS 10 News First – Disclaimer

Support for the hugely expensive acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the US has stained Labor’s foreign policy record and has “no mandate” inside the party, former PM Paul Keating says.

Mr Keating took no prisoners in a broad-ranging National Press Club address on the AUKUS submarine deal on the deal announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Tuesday – and its reflections on senior government figures.

Under the deal, Australia will acquire 11 nuclear-powered submarines for $367 billion – three of them used from the US and the remainder in a yet-to-be-finalised design.

On Wednesday, Mr Keating said that was impractical but also a sign the Albanese government’s foreign policy was focused on US interests.

“For the cost – $360 billion – we’re gonna get eight subs,” he said.

“It must be the worst deal in all history.”

Mr Keating reserved special criticism for “two unwise ministers” – Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong – who he said had led Labor to try to neutralise the Coalition’s advantage on defence and foreign policy by narrowing the parties’ differences.

“If you adopt the foreign policy of the Liberal Party … You may stay out of trouble but you are compromised,” he said. “Self-compromised.”

Comment has been sought from the ministers’ offices.

Earlier, Mr Keating described the AUKUS plan as Labor’s worst decision in government since wartime PM Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription.

He was quick to snap back when one journalist asked him why he was so sure that AUKUS was unnecessary, and that China posed no military threat to Australia.

“Because I’ve got a brain,” he retorted.

The former PM spared no feelings as he roamed on topics such as the state of foreign policy, the quality of journalism in Canberra and national security “ning nongs” in the intelligence services.

“If I were you, mate, I’d hide my face,” he helpfully advised one writer for a metropolitan newspaper whose recent coverage of China had been assessed as passing hawkish.

To another, who questioned his criticism of the deal because he hadn’t been briefed “on the issue since the mid-1990s”, Mr Keating was equally curt.

“You don’t need a briefing from the dopey security agencies that we have in Canberra to tell you that. I mean, I know you’re trying to ask a question, but the question is so dumb, it’s hardly worth an answer,” he said.

In pointed remarks that veered close to inviting MPs unsatisfied with the policy to test the waters in the party room, Mr Keating said AUKUS had little support in Labor’s local branches or parliamentary party.

“There’s no mandate inside the Labor Party – no mandate [for what…] Prime Minister Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and [Defence Minister] Richard Marles are doing,” he said.

“When the average branch Labor Party member gets on this […] I think there’ll be a big reaction.”

Mr Keating said the longer-range nuclear submarines that were key to the deal would not better defend Australia. Instead, they would be used only to draw Australia closer to China’s shore – and possibly into conflict.

The former PM, a long-time critic of sacred cows in Australian foreign policy –  including the American alliance – said despite being from Labor’s right, he had been left politically homeless by a foreign policy he claimed had been ginned up jointly with the Coalition.

“Every Labor Party branch member will wince when they realise that the party we all fight for is returning to our former colonial master, Britain, to find our security in Asia,” Mr Keating said.

“They adopted the strategic wishes of the United States, uncritically,” he said.

“This isn’t left [… it makes me and other former Labor MPs now] look like Bolsheviks.”

Mr Albanese joined his US and British counterparts in San Diego this week to announce the 30-year deal.

“Only one’s paying though: Our bloke,” Mr Keating said,

“We have been here before: Australia’s international interests subsumed by those of our allies.

“Anthony Albanese’s government has picked up and has taken ownership of the strategic architecture of the Morrison government – but taken it up in full and with unprecedented gusto.”

Mr Keating denied being motivated by personal commercial interests in China. Rather, he said he was moved to speak out of concern.

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

Mr Keating said Mr Albanese had not pursued a chance to discuss foreign policy issues with him earlier this year, prompting him to air them in a public forum.

“Generally, I have found the Prime Minister responsive to calls, texts and email,” he said.

That changed in February, he said, when he sent the PM a lengthy email outlining a leader’s duty to maintain national sovereignty.

When he did not hear back, Mr Keating contacted Mr Albanese’s office seeking a discussion before any major decisions on AUKUS. He said he decided to speak publicly when that approach was also rebuffed.

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