What is Labor’s position on the Royal Australian Navy’s role in exercising its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? New opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles followed his predecessor Stephen Conroy’s pre-election line last week, telling Fairfax’s James Massola  “the ADF, the navy should be fully authorised to engage in freedom of navigation operations. It’s important that we are asserting our rights to navigate the high seas under international law.”

The now-departed Conroy earned a rebuke from the government back in July — Julie Bishop says Australia’s aim should be to “de-escalate tensions” in the area, which places us slightly at odds with the Americans, who are focused on ensuring the Chinese know they regard the South China Sea as international waters.

Marles similarly copped a rebuke — this time from Paul Keating, who roasted him. “You don’t outsource decisions like this to a naval commander. Or even to an admiral. This question goes to the very essence of democracy and to the doctrine of civilian control of the military.”

The Prime Minister endorsed Keating’s comments yesterday, as Marles “clarified” that he meant it should be a political decision, not a naval one. Marles was speaking from Honolulu, where he was attending the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, so perhaps he was saying exactly what his American friends wanted to hear from Australia?

Remember WikiLeaks — which Marles hates with a passion — outed him as a source for US diplomats in a cable that memorably includes “Marles said he places a strong emphasis on an increased Australian presence in Asia”. Despite his “clarification”, it sounds like Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon would be very happy that Marles is in a place like Defence.