Paul Keating has rarely taken a step back, but this time he has taken a step so far forward, lashing out at just about everyone in his path, including the leaders of his own party, that there may be no going back for him.
Anyone who has had anything to do with Keating in his long and storied political career knows his propensity for personal invective.
The black Irish, as some call it, that seething hatred for enemies real and imagined, lies deep in him, its early onset the bitter factional wars he fought – sometimes wildly, chairs flying – as a young man of the NSW Right against the hated Left.
Appearing via video link at the National Press Club on Wednesday, however, Keating the older man, aged 79, took that propensity and supercharged it, damning the Left’s Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong with the worst condemnation at his disposal.
In embracing the AUKUS security pact with the US and Britain, Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong made him, Keating of the Right, look like a Bolshevik, he declared!
It might have been amusing, another Keatingism to be added to the extensive list of his clever insults, if it had stopped there.
But Wong – by general acclamation a hard-working and effective foreign minister – was in Keating’s dismissive view no foreign minister at all.
“Running around the Pacific Islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy,” he declared, as if it were true, which by any measure, it is not.
Why, the rot extended to the entire Albanese government.
“This government, the Albanese government, does not employ foreign policy,” said the former Labor prime minister.
You’d just about swear that Keating had got his political targets mixed up; that he hadn’t changed gear since he’d spent his public energy belting Coalition leaders from Howard to Morrison.
But here he was, the ranking Labor elder, unable to rein in his fury, damning a new Labor government.
Keating could barely contain his bewilderment that the government, concerned about what it perceives to be China’s potentially dangerous expansionist policies, had ignored him and decided to arm itself, long-term, with a handful of stupefyingly expensive nuclear submarines.
It is no news that Keating does not believe Australia is in danger from China and that he takes a relatively benign view of the emerging superpower’s intentions in the region.
But the knowledge that this is a view not shared by security and defence chiefs, nor by the Australian government and its closest allies, clearly drove him beyond distraction.
“We have a continent of our own. A border with no-one. No border disputes with them [the Chinese]. Perfect!” he said.
“No, no, we’ve manufactured a problem. You know, don’t let the sleeping dogs lie. We’re giving the old dog a kicking!
“And so… one of the principle problems of this deal [AUKUS] is that defence has overtaken foreign policy. I mean, you don’t see Penny Wong out there.
“You see Richard Marles [Defence Minister] out there, not Penny Wong.
“So what’s happened is that the military have overtaken the foreign policy, and as a consequence, we’re not using diplomacy.”
Keating wasn’t using diplomacy as a guest of the Press Club, either.
A journalist with whom he disagreed about China, Peter Hartcher of this masthead, was a “psychopath”. When a young woman from Sky TV dared ask whether Keating’s views on China might be out of date, given he hadn’t received a security briefing since the 1990s, she was told the question was “so dumb it barely deserves an answer”.
Anthony Albanese embracing Paul Keating during last year’s election campaign. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Another journalist from this masthead, Matthew Knott, got the full Keating treatment when he wondered whether Keating would be prepared to use his skill at skewering journalists and his own party against China over its treatment of Uighurs or pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
“I’m surprised you even have the gall to stand up in public and ask such a question, frankly. You ought to do the right thing and drum yourself out of Australian journalism,” declaimed Keating, seething over Knott’s part in a recent series on the potential for war with China.
The language would seem almost tame to those who have been on the receiving end, over the years, of a truly furious blast from the former prime minister. A private phone call from an angry PM Paul Keating could very nearly melt a telephone wire, and afterwards often became amusing fodder for dinner table conversation.
But this was relentless and in the glare of national television cameras and viewers. No quarter, nor attempt at leavening the blast with humour, was offered.
Journalists might be fair game at the press club, obviously.
But a lot of Wednesday’s denunciation was aimed at those who now lead the party that Keating served for the best years of his life, and which made him one of the nation’s most consequential treasurers and, eventually, prime minister.
There may be no coming back to the party from this, even for this Labor legend.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.
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