Paul Keating's ability to cut through the political static with a memorable speech or turn of phrase has not been dulled by the passing of time. In his Keith Murdoch Oration, delivered in Melbourne on Wednesday night, the former prime minister returned to a favourite subject: the need for greater Australian engagement in south-east Asia. In his plain-spoken fashion, Keating described the region as Australia's natural stamping ground, and that this warranted it being the primary focus of diplomatic and strategic thinking. Instead, however, our foreign policy objectives continued overwhelmingly to be yoked, he said, to those of the United States. Keating singled out the Howard government as the modern exemplar of this propensity for equating Australia's strategic interests with those of Washington's, and of adopting an overly deferential attitude towards the US. He was not particularly charitable to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard either, asserting that their continued displays of servility to the US had diminished Australia's standing in the region.
In arguing for south-east Asia and the Association of South-East Asian Nations - and in particular Indonesia - to be the primary focus of our diplomatic and strategic thinking, Keating was also, in effect, calling for the rehabilitation of policies and initiatives he and his predecessor, Bob Hawke, took to put Australia on a more assertive and independent foreign policy course. The Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum - a proposal Keating says he unveiled to then US president George Bush snr in 1992 - was arguably that. It certainly marked a shift in emphasis from maintaining bilateral relationships to one of building multilateral relationships.
Gareth Evans' success in forging a number of initiatives in Asia, notably the Cambodia Peace Accords and the ASEAN Regional Forum, also accorded with Labor's view that Asia, not America or Europe, was where Australia's destiny lay. Such was his zeal in this regard that Keating personally undertook the task of putting Australia's relationship with Indonesia on a healthier, more productive footing.
In one of his first acts as prime minister, John Howard effectively rejected this Asia-first foreign policy by reasserting the primacy of Australia's ties with the US, Britain and the other Anglophone countries. In the words of Keating, ''John Howard had us dancing to the tune of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, while upon the release of the WikiLeaks cables, the Chinese discovered that Kevin Rudd, as prime minister, had been advising the US to reserve the military option against them''. US President Barack Obama's ''oral and policy assault on China and its polity'' from the House of Representatives in November 2011 - where he had been invited to speak by Julia Gillard - brought ''immediate pangs of disquiet'' from the Indonesian Foreign Minister and later from his President.
Keating's argument that Australia is sitting near the centre of what is ''the most active, economically active and weighty part of the world'' - and that we need to be part of that economically, psychologically and strategically - is compelling. Many Australians may feel otherwise of course, and to the extent that Australia's population comprises an Anglo-Celtic and European majority this is understandable. Our greatest affinity is with the Anglosphere. It was always thus, and it will continue to be the case, in spite our growing economic and strategic ties to Asia.
Not that Keating has advocated we tear up our alliance with the US. Public support for the ANZUS alliance is such that no government would contemplate such a move, though as Keating has pointed out, the alliance is not the automatic guarantee of US military assistance that characterises defence agreements between the US and Japan, and the US and Taiwan.
Keating's pithy assessment that ''our strategic bread is entirely buttered in the Indonesian archipelago'' and points north is, of course, well recognised by our senior defence planners. Arguments for an even-handed approach with China are not disputed. The government's recently issued Asian century white paper is an acknowledgement of the region's growing economic importance. For all the rhetoric about greater, more nuanced engagement, however, our subservience to US foreign policy continues to manifest itself, to the irritation of neighbours like Indonesia and trading partners like China. As Keating asserts, we must ''recognise the realities of our geography and strike out on our own''.