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Cleaning out the Nutters: Paul Keating, China and Australia’s Security Establishment

Inimitable to a fault, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating had been fairly quiet on his party’s policies till an impromptu press intervention last week. Catching two journalists of the ABC off-guard, Keating took little time to land a few blows against Australia’s foreign and domestic intelligence security officers. They had, in Keating’s view, “lost their strategic bearings”. The security agencies were effectively “running foreign policy”; when such matters eventuate, only one conclusion can be reached: “the nutters are in charge.”

For the former Labor prime minister, the China Syndrome had clotted the grey cells of the security wonks, blocking perception and clarity. Security chiefs were knocking on the doors of Parliamentarians; prejudices were doing the rounds. Australia, the United States and other like-minded powers had been in denial about the Middle Kingdom and its aspirations, seeing them as defence and security threats in various guises. They had to “recognise the legitimacy of China”; it had to be respected for rising from poverty even if that particular story did not sit well with the United States.

Keating took a particularly sharp interest in John Garnaut, foreign correspondent and former national security advisor to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That particular China hand written in August 2018 that any spirit of democratisation worth its salt died with the protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989. “Belatedly, and quite suddenly, political leaders, policy makers and civil society actors in a dozen nations around the world are scrambling to come to terms with a form of China’s extraterritorial influence described variously as ‘sharp power’, ‘United Front work’ and ‘influence operations’.” In Garnaut’s view, the world’s many eyes were upon Australia to set an example.

Keating advocated a cleaning operation, a large broom applied with swiftness removing the likes of Garnaut and the carriers of paranoid whispers. “Once that Garnaut guy came back from China and Turnbull gave him the ticket to go and hop into the security services, they’ve all gone Berko ever since.”

On some level, Keating’s comments are bound to be relevant, even if they put the noses of such types as Peter Jennings at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute out of joint. (No, especially if they do.) Security chiefs and their cronies can get long in the tooth and worn in thinking. Wrinkled and crusted, a clear-out is far from undesirable. A salient reminder from Napoleon comes to mind: move your bureaucrats around once every five years; sedentary practices often result in unhealthy concentrations of power.

Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten was far more diplomatic, suggesting that his party had a good working relationship with the current chiefs, claiming respect and a co-operative working interest. The potential prime minister is mindful who he will have to work with. “The three Bs are the biggest threat to Bill Shorten once he’s in office: boats, bombs and bytes,” came an opinion from a senior official to the ABC.

A chance of sorts had been presented to the Liberal-National government. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, generally quiet in this election, smelled an opportunity to use the Keating intervention. “Since September 2014, Australia’s law enforcement agencies have disrupted 15 major terrorist attack plots and conducted 41 counter-terrorism operations, with 93 people charged.” Such a statement reads like the body-count figures from the US effort in Vietnam: they are units of poor measure rather than attributes of effect. But Dutton, like many a plodding police officer, misses the picture in favour of the stabbing daub.

Another effort was made by campaign spokesperson and Trade minister Simon Birmingham, speaking in a debate held in Adelaide. Keating, he claimed, had insulted “the heads of our intelligence services”. He did note that “Labor have distanced themselves from the remarks by Paul Keating” but found it hard to resist the point that the former PM “is not an isolated figure in terms of… Bob Carr and others who sit within the (Labor) ranks.”

Did the Coalition government have a better approach? “We make sure we maintain a firm and consistent approach (towards China) and in doing so make sure we keep Australia’s economic interests strong (and) our national security interests strong too.” Suitably weasel-like, in other words.

Labor’s Senator Penny Wong, also at the same event, expressed a degree of disgust (“really desperate,” she fumed), though it should only be treated in the context of her desire to be Australia’s next foreign affairs minister. The China psychosis in Australian political thinking can be unpredictable, swaying between a “come and buy my coal” to “stay out of my backyard, Huawei”. Seeing the prospect of having to deal with the foot soldiers of the Middle Kingdom in a new government, Wong is attempting to play that Janus-faced game Australian politicians have proven rather bad at, whatever the likes of Garnaut and Jennings might think.

Not wishing to be either pleasing harlots or submissive doormats, yet wishing to keep a hand in the voracious Chinese market (Cathay, I hear you say!), the Australian political class has had to tailor, trim and modify their traditional fears of the Yellow Peril while still shouting from the rooftops about it. Only the likes of mining magnate Clive Palmer can express unvarnished dislike for people he sees as his business competitors and hungry beyond satiation. The rest, notably those wallahs buried in the security establishment, can rest easy that Keating’s eminently sensible suggestion will not come to pass.

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  1. Perkin Bottleneck

    Keating’s comments were apposite. We can be allies of the USA without being a catamite.
    No country deserves, or should get, our unquestioning loyalty. It took a Labor PM
    Curtin to tell Britain that Australians might JUST feel that Australia’s defence was more important than Britains, but the draft-dodging Royal arselicker delayed Australia coming of age, and John Kerr and Betty Battenberg nipped it in the bud. We transferred our arselicking to Uncle Sam, and haven’t stopped.

  2. Phil

    Binoy sure packs a lot into a short article – great reading and astute observations

  3. Jon Chesterson

    Nutters indeed – I think Keating is on the money, we need to be friends with China and let America be our customer! (aca Morrison’s blunder)

    The Liberals are playing dirty games as usual, they have taken huge donations from Chinese companies, kept it quiet and vilify Labor for next to nothing. The Liberals are first to turn on the old yellow peril racist rubbish. It was also they who let the Port of Darwin be turned over to China, but we didn’t hear much about that in the mainstream press or Parliament – now that was the biggest political blunder of them all, and all on Morrison and Turnbull’s watch. The Liberals are so conflicted and corrupt it is almost impossible to imagine how they could ever foster a congruent, productive and meaningful relationship with China, which would result in mutual collaboration and respect. China have turned a third world country of 1.4 billion people into a thriving society and economy, something few Australians could even imagine, hell we can can’t even manage 23 million! I take my hat off to China. As for the US, well they have Trump, probably the richest nation on earth and just look at the poverty, inequality, hypocrisy, corruption and the cruellest meanest totalitarian interfering, war mongering secret service, military and foreign policy the world has ever known.

    Mutual friendly and productive collaboration can only come from Labor as both Keating and now Shorten have demonstrated. And before anyone goes looking for differences between them, I can imagine the private conversation between them, especially when you have ministerial appointed advisors with no credentials, nutters like Garnaut and Pezzullo. Keating didn’t name them specifically but it shouldn’t be that hard to work it out. Only those offended would be by virtue of their own guilt and incompetence, what’s left of the public service wouldn’t be. But of course the Liberals love to make a meal of it because they’re to stupid and corrupt, there’s nothing left in the truth-fact box to fight with, so they have to throw stones at the opposition like the bunch of moral and cultural morons they are.

  4. Phil

    Ah Keating his Irish ancestry always there to entertain.

    What he meant to say was Australia’s security wonks couldn’t track an Elephant in the snow.

    Ask Greg Sheriden he’ll know what’s going on. He’ll bore you shitless explaining it.

  5. mark delmege

    Keating is correct but I dare say one of Shorties first stops will be a quiet unreported dinner with the yanks.

  6. mark delmege

    As a matter of interest has any Labor front bencher supported press freedom and Wikileaks?
    I can understand Shortie backing away from controversial issues pre election and I believe it was no coincidence that Assange was grabbed the very day that Scomo called the election but does Labor actually have a backbone? Will it post Saturday do what Corbyn has done and ‘call for the UK Government to oppose Julian Assange’s extradition to the US’ (I don’t think so)

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