Why Keating went rogue

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When Paul Keating finally won his spectacular double-tap leadership coup against Bob Hawke in 1991, legend has it he sent a message to Hawke’s jittery praetorian guard: “Peace in our time.”

In other words, there would be no reprisals, no payback, no stripping of ministries for those who had the misfortune to back the wrong horse.

For the quintessential Labor brawler and bomb-thrower it was a remarkable and unexpected act of grace. It was also a smart move.

Keating went on to cement his name in the Labor pantheon by winning an unwinnable election and ushering in a suite of visionary, groundbreaking and nation-changing reforms, including introducing our current superannuation scheme, legislating Indigenous land rights after the Mabo ruling, the introduction of enterprise bargaining in the workplace and setting out a pathway for Australia to become a republic.

These achievements bestowed upon him an almost godlike status among the party faithful. While the general voting public loved Hawke more, Keating was always the hero of the true believers.

But his one Shakespearean flaw was the one legacy that is now mired in blood and shame and the one legacy he now appears willing to die in a ditch for at the expense of all else.

Paul Keating addresses the National Press Club. Picture: Martin Ollman/NCA NewsWirePaul Keating addresses the National Press Club. Picture: Martin Ollman/NCA NewsWire

And this is the Keating government’s resolute and almost obsessive determination to hitch Australia’s fortune and fate to the great powers of Asia.

This was most stark in the forging of economic, security and military ties with Indonesia under the dictator Suharto even as his regime was murderously oppressing the people of East Timor.

Labor’s brutal realpolitik position at the time was that there was nothing Australia could do to stop Indonesia’s occupation of Timor anyway, so it might as well just ignore the atrocities and accept the status quo.

When Keating’s ultimate nemesis John Howard — an equally shrewd and ruthless pragmatist — proved that wrong by liberating the country it would have been a dagger through the heart of the former PM, and one that is no doubt twisting to this day.

But the even greater Asian power that Labor turned to was China, which Gough Whitlam had made history by visiting as Opposition Leader in 1971 and again as Prime Minister in 1973, neatly book-ending US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972.

Gough Whitlam meets Chairman Mao Zedong in 1973.Gough Whitlam meets Chairman Mao Zedong in 1973.

This was all part of a great Western project to engage with the world’s biggest country — which had essentially become a hermit state — and gradually bring it in to what is perhaps optimistically referred to as the family of nations.

Labor has been obsessed with China ever since, often championing engagement as a counterweight to UK imperialism and US superpower, often championing engagement for Australia’s economic interests, and often championing engagement for a few bucks in consultancy fees.

But China has changed. What once seemed like an inevitable path of economic, social and political liberalisation has been stopped dead in its tracks by Xi Jinping, who has been belligerent, nationalistic, expansionist, militarily aggressive, internally repressive and who only recently again effectively appointed himself dictator for life.

Paul Keating says he reads every day, so I’m pretty sure he has read that.

In other words, the China that Keating and the ALP once rightly embraced and attempted to steer towards common global values of free trade, human rights and a rules-based order has become a superpower that happily violates all of those pillars in its pursuit of economic coercion, military dominance and territorial expansion.

Everybody knows this. It is literally etched on the face of the planet in the shape of the military bases that are springing up in the South China Sea and on the invisible faces of those disappeared by the People’s Republic like Australian journalist Cheng Lei.

China has grown more authoritarian under Xi Jinping. Picture: Jade Gao/AFPChina has grown more authoritarian under Xi Jinping. Picture: Jade Gao/AFP

It is a pity that Keating was too busy attacking Australian journalists at the National Press Club this week to mention Australian journalists locked up by the authoritarian regime he was defending.

It is even more shameful that Twitter’s supposed hero of Australian journalism Laura Tingle, the president of the NPC and facilitator of Keating’s abuse, let this diatribe run free.

A handful of lunatic lefties still subscribe to Keating’s increasingly marginal position that however murderous or militaristic China might be it is nonetheless a more benign alternative to evil post-imperial powers like the UK and US and all of this is a kind of colonial moral relativism.

When China produces its own Fawlty Towers or Seinfeld, or indeed a Senate oversight committee, perhaps I will believe them.

But in the meantime Keating appears less like a luminary and more like a lunatic.

His wounded pride in having hitched Australia to China’s star, only to see China regress to totalitarian type, should have provoked a crisis of conscience.

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Instead he seems determined to gaslight the globe in an effort to convince the world that he, and only he, was still right all along and the rest of us in the real world are the ones who are mad.

And the sad part is that that, in the end, is the true essence of a madman.

Read related topics:ChinaJoe Hildebrand

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