Paul Keating has launched a frontal attack on the authority of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and a $368 billion nuclear submarine deal that he says represents a foreign policy takeover by American interests.
Keating said the AUKUS submarine deal was the worst international policy ever enacted by a Labor government in a century, putting Albanese on a par with the infamous party rat Billy Hughes.
“History will be the judge of this project in the end. But I want my name to be clearly on the record among those who say it’s a mistake,” she said.
“Who believes that, despite its enormous cost, it does not offer a solution to the challenge of great power competition in the region or to the security of the Australian people.”
Rushing high-level employment figures defend Albanese on Wednesday and claimed that Keating’s views were out of date and did not apply to China under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
“China has changed in the last year,” said Bill Shorten. “They are not the same China they were in the 1990s.”
But Mr Keating’s arguments are not so easily dismissed and his prediction of a “big reaction” at AUKUS from Labor members appears to be on the mark.
At the heart of the dispute are fundamental differences over a growing China and its goals: Keating says the country poses no threat to Australia, which also leads him to conclude that such groupings are primarily aimed at defending American interests. .
He even accuses former Liberal Party staffer turned intelligence chief Andrew Shearer, known as a regular wiretap in Washington DC, part of a “pro-American cell” embedded in the government.
But Keating’s suggestion that US interests have benefited from AUKUS while Australia foots the bill is not far from mainstream criticism.
“For $360 billion, we are going to get eight submarines. It must be the worst business in all of history.
“At the Kabuki show in San Diego a day or two ago, there were three leaders standing there. Only one is paying. Our friend, Albo. The other two have the band playing ‘Happy days are here again.’
A defense analyst wrote this week that the AUKUS deal seemed unsustainably expensive given a deal to buy a U.S. submarine while building another type from scratch.
As a senior Labor figure said on Wednesday, Albanese was supposed to have reluctantly agreed to his predecessor’s defense deal. But the suggestion he chose to enlarge it could hurt him on the left.
Appealing to the Labor base could already prove tricky, as University of Queensland economist John Quiggin has pointed out, because the budget has been constrained by as yet untouched Coalition (and now AUKUS) tax cuts.
The traction AUKUS is getting among ALP supporters is on display this week in Illawarra, a former steel town and stronghold of the Labor left interested in government manufacturing policy, but where opposition to AUKUS has taken center stage.
“All of this (economic recovery) is now at risk because of a genius idea from some warlord somewhere,” said Arthur Rorris, head of the Wollongong-based South Coast Labor Council, which represents 50,000 members.
Rorris, a union leader who has clashed with his party before, began the campaign last week after an ABC report identified Port Kembla as a preferred site for a new submarine basedespite his record of anti-nuclear activism.
“Disbelief is how it started,” he said. “And I think now it’s turning into anger.”
The campaign is aimed at the defense department, but it travels spurred on by local skepticism from AUKUS, a view local MP Stephen Jones nearly endorsed last year. He declined an interview on Wednesday.
A contemporary disputes Keating’s claim that AUKUS is either a new low point in security policy or a break with Labour’s foreign policy tradition.
“Do we want this country or not? And if we want this country, we have to do something to be able to afford these technologies,” former defense minister Kim Beazley said.
All three (Mr Albanese out of Parliament in a former life as a left-wing operative) remember a Labor revolt over American influence, when a caucus rebellion canceled a plan to seize MX missiles from the Pentagon in 1985.
This time Albanese and Keating have switched sides.
But now there is no realistic prospect this time of an uprising of parliamentarians in an era where the power of the prime minister has been consolidated.
ANU history professor Frank Bongiorno says Keating has been more philosophically consistent than his detractors care to admit.
“It’s the radical nationalist Labor tradition, perhaps with a dash of Irishness,” Professor Bongiorno said. “I think that’s important to him.
“I think he’s really angry at the idea of Australia going back into the Anglosphere, that the British side of this probably makes him even angrier than the American side.”
Keating had long advocated for Australia to leave the Anglosphere and its colonial past behind and embrace Asia.
The resolutions that leaked from the much diminished network of local Sydney Labor branches condemning AUKUS this week are further evidence of the potency of ambivalence about the US alliance.