John Hewson
Paul Keating has a point on AUKUS

The bottom line of the AUKUS deal is that it locks us into the US military strategy even further, to the point where if the US again does something stupid, such as to support Taiwan in a military confrontation with China, it would be likely that we would join with the US, thereby exposing Australia to the risk of some sort of revenge or no-regrets attack from China. Where’s our sovereignty in all that?

Surely it should be an early priority of the government to state publicly that if the US engages in a war with China over Taiwan, we will not join them. On the ABC’s Insiders last Sunday, Defence Minister Richard Marles said there had been no commitment given to joining such a war, but the government must definitively rule out any prospect of this. Yes, doing so might put the AUKUS deal at risk, but if we objectively consider the full price we are expected to pay in dollars and in subservience to the US, this is surely a risk worth taking.

Doesn’t it strike people as odd that with all the ground we are expected to give for AUKUS, we didn’t even get a binding security treaty, just loose “understandings”?

To consider the detail of the AUKUS deal, from the little we actually know at this stage, we need to begin with the recognition that its origin was basically yet another political stunt by Scott Morrison. He made the decision with about as much forethought and evidence as his delusional secret appointments of himself to multiple ministries. With an eye to the coming election, his aim was to wedge the Albanese opposition on national security and propagate the drum-beating instincts of Peter Dutton and himself.

As it turned out, this was another example of a dumb Morrison political strategy. It backfired on both fronts. The Albanese government has effectively reversed the wedge by giving Morrison and the Coalition “credit” for the initiative, and therefore for its longer-term consequences. An important question is, assuming a genuine threat, will the Chinese really be deterred by our nuclear-powered submarine capability?

What seems to grate most with defence experts is that the deal was politically driven, with no proper top-down analysis of our defence requirements leading to consideration of the most cost-effective way to achieve those requirements with maximum effect. Morrison has boasted that he didn’t properly involve his departments and that the deal was the best-kept secret in our history since World War II. He got so excited he started talking about 007.

Former prime minister Paul Keating correctly stepped beyond party discipline to seek to ask the relevant questions and to comment on the appalling media agendas being run by some on this issue. He was mostly attacked by those journalists, who let their egos and agendas outweigh what should have been their concern for the substantive issues involved in such a massive and expensive reset of our national defence strategy.

The worst of these was the warmongering agenda being run by Nine media, basically in support of the Dutton opposition. Their contrived series on the “Red Alert” of Chinese invasion was little more than a scare campaign. It was grossly irresponsible journalism. The papers’ international editor, Peter Hartcher, sounding particularly stung by the criticism, has attempted to muddy the issue. He suggests his motive has been on the high ground, to try to stimulate public discourse on the issue.


I would class Keating’s recent National Press Club appearance as vintage Keating, but turned against his party. As I have said on many occasions: it should never be Labor or Liberal, right or wrong, but it should always be Australia first.

I was particularly surprised by the widespread media criticism of Keating’s remarks, with some pundits even suggesting that he had lost it, or was becoming senile, or was just craving relevance. This struck me as unusual because he had always been the darling of the press gallery. He could do no wrong and was widely lauded for the vindictiveness of his characterisations of individuals such as me. I always found it hard to get a favourable or objective run for anything I did or said. Yet the press has become oh so prudish when they are the subject of his very personal and derogatory invective. It’s not as if they didn’t deserve it.

Not to detract from the substance of his remarks on AUKUS, Keating did go too far with his criticisms of Foreign Minister Penny Wong. She inherited an almost impossible task in repairing our relations with our Pacific neighbours, given the damage done by the former prime minister Scott Morrison.

I must say, I have been fascinated by the global focus on “the rise of China” rather than the more relevant development, namely the demise in the substance and global standing of the US. Given the speed with which China has become the world’s largest economy – and in so doing has raised many millions out of poverty – the country should be given the global respect that this deserves, especially with countries searching for ways in which they can develop productive economic, cultural and environmental relationships with the Chinese. Yet this is not the focus of the coverage.

Another area of substantial criticism of the AUKUS deal has been best summarised by Robert Hill, a Defence minister in the Howard government and a former United Nations representative. Hill contests the merit of our commitment in relation to our foreshadowed investment in the development of a new British submarine, saying in a commentary published this month by consulting service Dragoman that “it is disappointing that we invest so little in Australian indigenous Defence capability. Most major nations invest in their own industry so that industry can significantly contribute to their own economy and security”.

This type of criticism obviously hurt the government, given the amount of time it devoted in question time this week trying to claim enormous benefits in terms of jobs, new skills and technology transfers that will flow from the deal. Hill’s position was best summarised as “too many eggs in one basket”. Some have said Defence policy has become our Industry policy. The industrial benefits of the original French subs deal were ruthlessly exaggerated by the Coalition in the hope of winning or retaining seats in South Australia. Do I hear echoes?

In short, is it wise to unnecessarily antagonise our largest trading partner by sucking up further to the US, committing ourselves to further doing their bidding? Especially when so much will happen geopolitically and in submarine and associated technologies during the next three decades, creating genuine doubt about the usefulness of an AUKUS-type deal.

As Thomas Jefferson said, in a different context, “I tremble for my country.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as "Keating has a point on AUKUS".

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