23/06/2022 - 12:00

Africa awaits Washington’s man in WA

23/06/2022 - 12:00


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David Gainer reflects on the sturdy relationship between Australia and the US as he prepares for his next posting.

Africa awaits Washington’s man in WA
David Gainer departs as US consul general in July. Photo: David Henry

Most visitors to and residents of the Goldfields have probably seen it: the mine manager’s house, just outside Leonora near the old Gwalia goldmine, replete with a well-maintained green lawn amid rolling hills of red dirt and derelict sheds.

It’s better known as Hoover House, a striking testament to former mine scout and the 31st US president Herbert Hoover, whose varied contributions to Western Australia included Sons of Gwalia’s 107-year run as one of the country’s biggest gold producers and significant migration in response to the trade movement.

As living proof that gentrification doesn’t stop in suburbia, the house is now a luxury bed-and-breakfast charging rates of between $160 and $190 per night.

Not that David Gainer, who is now in his third year as the US’s consul general in Perth, has ever been to it.

He’s been everywhere else, it seems, able to rattle off the likes of nearby Laverton, Leonora and Kalgoorlie with the sort of precision only a Sandgroper could muster.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t go to Hoover House,” Mr Gainer told Business News.

“Certainly, I know all the connections, and I think it highlights that the US and Australia have been intertwined for well over 100 years, since the late 19th century, during the first gold rush.

“And we have those examples of American whaling ships being actively involved off WA’s coast stretching back to the 18th century.”

It’s a minor omission in what has otherwise been an impressively busy tenure for Mr Gainer, who after a brief trip to Bali later this month will be moving out of the consulate’s residence in Kings Park to take up the role of office director of policy for southern Africa.

It’ll be different to rubbing shoulders in Perth, if not a comfortable fit in a resume that’s included stints in India, the Czech Republic and, between 2005 and 2007, Melbourne.

That his job involves so much personal upheaval is a source of immense satisfaction for Mr Gainer.

“A big benefit of this career and the American diplomatic corps is we have posts,” he said.

“We have embassies and consulates in almost every country in the world. I had some experience in [Africa]; I was a peace corps volunteer in Malawi 30 years ago and my graduate work was on southern Africa.

“It’ll be very interesting to go back to that part of the world and work on something completely different, even though there are Australian connections.

“Certainly, I’ve been talking with and will continue to start getting better educated on the Australian connections within southern Africa, especially in the resources, mining and LNG opportunities in that part of the world.”

There is of course only so much of WA someone can see in three years on the ground.

Much has changed since 2019, though, not least of all the iron ring that fenced off the state from the rest of the country for most of Mr Gainer’s posting.

For one, he leaves Australia as Anthony Albanese settles in as prime minister and takes up policy priorities that better align with those of the current US administration, including more ambitious carbon emissions targets than conservative predecessors.

In the case of the US, political rancour seems even worse than just three years ago, with President Joe Biden’s victory inspiring what has become particularly intense vitriol among some elected Republicans and media pundits.

Their continuing outrage owes to former president Donald Trump and his congressional allies espousing what is now colloquially referred to as ‘the big lie’ that election administrators had conspired to subvert the outcome in several swing states to the detriment of the incumbent.

No evidence suggests any of this happened.

On these issues and more, Mr Gainer is unable to offer his opinions. Unlike an ambassador, whose appointment is party political, his is one of a career public servant.

Though he may have views, it’s in his best interest not to share to many of them.

Instead, his focus is more explicitly on maintaining US-Australia trade ties, investment mostly.

Here, Mr Gainer picks at a similar threat to Arthur Culvahouse, who served as the US Ambassador to Australia in the dying days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Addressing a Perth audience in December 2020, Mr Culvahouse made sure to note his country’s role in financing Chevron’s $5 billion Gorgon stage two project on Barrow Island, as well as the US’s position as Australia’s largest source of inbound investment.

Perhaps owing to a change of administration, Mr Gainer instead talks up electric vehicles, and particularly the overlap between US domestic policy and WA’s plentiful rare earths and critical mineral deposits.

For proof, look no further than Queensland-based EV charging outfit Tritium, which in February unveiled a manufacturing facility in Tennessee that was well received by the Biden administration.

“There are lots of opportunities for Australian companies looking at investing into the US with those key industries that will drive green change, be it in electric vehicle batteries or the lithium supply chain,” Mr Gainer said.

“One example I give is that, during the Super Bowl, which is the most watched television event in America every year, every single commercial that an automobile manufacturer made during this year’s Super Bowl was for an electric vehicle.

“Not hybrids, 100 per cent electric vehicles.

“The change is here, and I’ve been super impressed with how resources companies are planning for that change.

“That’s definitely an area where you’ll see continuity.

“When I mention that American and Australian investment in each other, a lot of that is in mining and manufacturing. For us, it’s about making those connections.”

Mr Gainer’s firsthand knowledge of WA’s industries will no doubt play well in Washington, where President Biden’s administration will likely be looking for policy wins amid what polls are broadly showing will be big losses for Democrats at November’s mid-term elections.

Surveys of the generic congressional vote consistently show Republicans with a narrow lead at 2 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, with Democrats trailing in most polls taken since November last year.

President Biden’s decision to withdraw armed forces from Afghanistan in mid-2021 appears to have significantly dented his personal approval ratings, while runaway inflation and supply-chain shortages are elevating him as a convenient target of voter ire.

Mohammed Younis, editor-in-chief for US pollster Gallup, echoed Bill Clinton’s maxim that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ when explaining the dynamics of the country’s upcoming election to international journalists in March.

“The economy is always the most important issue in any election in the US,” he said.

“It’s been sort of one of the mainstays of American political research. It’s been a consistent finding now for generations.”

Further dampening President Biden’s domestic agenda is the spectre of Mr Trump, who has maintained his political relevance since leaving office through a series of political endorsements and media engagements.

Despite being impeached for his role in the January 6 riots, in which protestors invaded the capitol building to overturn the election results, Mr Trump continues to maintain that he won the election and has frequently hinted that he will seek a second term in 2024.

He may face significant challenges in his path for the Republican nomination, though, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis polling well with party members as he appears to be quietly laying the groundwork for a presidential bid.

Others, including Mr Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence and Texas senator Ted Cruz, have similarly indicated an interest in the entering the presidential race.

Mr Gainer probably has his views of US domestic politics

He keeps his powder dry, however, only ever conceding that his background in history studies has given him a frame through which to view the recent embrace of populism across many Western democracies.

But none of it seems especially important to US-Australia ties, which Mr Gainer seemed keen to emphasise went beyond the cut and thrust of domestic politics in either country.

Local research bears that out, with 76 per cent of Australian respondents telling ACT-based think tank The Lowy Institute last year that they approved of the country’s US alliance.

On the US’s part, the robustness of the relationship will be on full display with the imminent appointment of Caroline Kennedy, prominent scion of the titular family and renowned diplomat in her own right, as Australia’s incoming ambassador.

“As an American diplomat, I represent foreign policy,” Mr Gainer said.

“I am a career officer like our colleagues in the military, and I swore on oath to the US constitution to defend and protect the constitution and to execute foreign policy of whomever happens to be the president.

“I've worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations in Australia, and in a lot of ways I think this relationship is beyond politics.

“For me as a career diplomat, my job is to execute foreign policy and hopefully make sure that I'm doing that as best I can … which is looking after the foreign policy of the US and of the American people.”


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