The ramblings of ex-Prime Ministers, Presidents and CEOs is a feature of all political life, history and cultures.
From a previous leader being led away by aides in a show of brute dominance by the incumbent (China only recently), the media catching antics of Boris Johnson caught in a web of confused accountability (UK) or the bitter comments of Australia’s Paul Keating on all things geopolitical, the challenges of today are rarely neatly dealt with by those out of power or relevance.
Political leadership is tough and harsh. It breaks you down in spirit, health and perspective – if you read between the lines of many biographies of former holders of great office. It is not often that they find peace or purpose with dignity.
De Gaulle and Churchill were able to dominate their “retirements” by force of personality, circumstance and a less critical media. Presidents Reagan and Carter were able to slip into dignified retirement as they chose to be “away” from the cut and thrust of their successors period of office.
Whitlam and Fraser were on a unity ticket in the end for the Australian Republic referendum (1999) only to see it crash and burn. Elites coming together to “tell” the people which path is correct was never easy.
The recent outburst by Paul Keating – commonly given the Aussie slang term a “spray of venom and vindication” – on China, America and the AUKUS defence arrangements is an example of the danger of taking ex PMs with anything other than polite respect.
Without the benefit of current briefings by the relevant agencies (ex-Presidents still get their secret agency briefs) and questions of commercial, personal and ideological bias, Paul Keating caught our attention in Australia like a shooting star.
Bright and prominent for a few moments, then slipping away to historical oddity status.
The AUKUS deal (the name that many in the media give it) is a long-term strategic reaffirmation of long standing security, defence and defence industry alignments.
It is no surprise that Australia’s oldest ally (the UK) and its great and powerful ally (the US) have joined up to secure multiple gains. To protect and preserve regional and global security, good friends need to be closer.
Taiwan, a blue water PLA Navy and cyber/space incursions all tell us that China is not behaving other than a strident “rising power” … think Kaiser’s Germany or Napoleon’s France.
The Keating outburst was manna for the journalist class: here was a leading ex-PM from the left (hardly the left when he was the poster boy for centrist third way social democrat politics) prepared to question, criticise and condemn a newish Labor Government for its commitment to a previous centre-right government’s strategic position.
We have had rubbished ex-PMs strive for relevance: Liz Truss or David Cameron (UK), Silvio Berlusconi (Italy) or Ehud Olmert (Israel). Presidents as weak, controversial or discredited as Sarkozy (France), Steinmeier (Germany) or Zuma (South Africa) have all struggled. It is about a loss of authority in office, defeat by public opinion or casual disconnect with the following political circumstances.
Keating was his best and worse: strong and direct narrative laced with a dismissive contempt for media, stakeholders or current experts. The strategic need for AUKUS was downplayed and the cost/impact of the program of technology transfers expressed. More importantly, it was intervention from a voice from the past which countered the strong bipartisanship of today’s huge security challenges.
Commentators, policy geeks and media contributors recognise one thing about ex-Prime Ministers (Rudd, Trudeau, Blair) … they get airtime, airplay and accusations of relevance. To get attention in a crowded info space is priceless. To get continued debate, review and engagement is worth dollars to business or culture opinion leaders. To be even questioned as to your continued ability to contribute to the big debates is an asset.
Easily, the Paul Keating of the 1980s was an unquestionable Cold War warrior of the right of social democratic Labor politics. Nothing better than to beat up the Left (be it the soft woke kind or the hard semi-Stalinist hard liners). But when uncomfortable geopolitical ties and links to other regimes remain, it is a problem of dignity and often insight.
We can adore our political leaders from the distance past – the “greats”. We can use them to “mobilise” our contemporary campaigns of reform, renewal and resistance to dictatorship.
The political leader that has seen his or her own best days is better seen and not heard on hard issues that require a nimble understanding of the current. Embarrassment over East Timor (Whitlam), disquiet over war measures with respect to Quebec (the older Trudeau) or problematic Iraq War decisions (Blair) all contribute to the cynical observation: they need a platform to continue to be relevant.
The here and now of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the PRC’s reckless steps in the Indo-Pacific and the continued Iranian colonialisation of certain minorities in the Middle East all demand clarity of response.
In a pre-war/ pre-conflict environment, old or tarnished voices are a luxury of pluralism. In a near conflict time, it is obligatory that past leaders shoulder some of the loyalty and discipline that they demanded when in office.
Free societies have a fight on our hands. It is not going away.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors.