23/11/2011 - 11:14

Rock star reception a bit much

23/11/2011 - 11:14


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The federal government is involved in a high-stakes game as it seeks to balance the needs of two important allies.

Rock star reception a bit much

The federal government is involved in a high-stakes game as it seeks to balance the needs of two important allies.

WHAT is it about American presidents that causes Australian leaders to put their natural political instincts to one side? Even the Americans must continue to be amazed. 

Barack Obama was always going to get a warm welcome during his recent lightning visit to Canberra and Darwin. His position, and his engaging personality, meant that was assured. 

But he got more. Julia Gillard, who early in her term revealed international relations was not her strong suit, could hardly wipe the smile off her face. Mr Obama was so charming that the gravity of the decisions regarding placement of US troops in Darwin, and the new US strategic attitude to the region, seemed to go over her head.

It is one thing to be respectful and supportive of the world’s superpower; it is another to appear to throw caution to the wind and provide unqualified support. Even good friends need to keep their distance so that critical advice can be given when needed, without fear or favour.

The best-quoted example of sycophancy involved prime minister Harold Holt (1966-67), who hosted Lyndon Baines Johnson as the US was shoring up support for its ill-fated Vietnam involvement. It was Mr Holt who said Australia would go “all the way with LBJ”, which was pretty close to the truth.

His successor, John Gorton, proved something of a wildcard and had great reservations about Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. He did, however, say Australia would go ‘a waltzing Matilda’ with the US.

Like just about everything else, things changed during the Whitlam years (1972-75). Soon after his election, Gough Whitlam wrote to president Richard Nixon expressing his deep concern at the breakdown of negotiations with the North Vietnamese and the “resumption of heavy and widespread bombing …”

Mr Whitlam said he was later told of president Nixon’s anger at receiving the letter, especially from an ally.

“His anger turned to fury when (Jim) Cairns, and then (Tom) Uren and (Clyde) Cameron (all cabinet ministers), unaware that I had written to Nixon, intruded with mounting stridency about murderers and maniacs in the White House,” Mr Whitlam wrote in his account of his years in office. 

It’s fair to say that was the low point in modern Australian-US relations, and Mr Whitlam said he moved quickly to ensure “maverick ministers” did not speak again outside their portfolio areas.

Since then, links have generally been good to very good. There was no repetition of the Whitlam government experience during the Labor years under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and George W Bush and John Howard got along famously. Mr Bush dubbed the Australian a ‘man of steel’, and a free trade agreement was negotiated. 

Now the Americans are promising to give the Pacific more attention, with Darwin a new focal point for military movements. China was quick to comment on the strategic significance of the move, and appeared less than happy.

Australia, of course, has a foot in both camps, and that’s where expert diplomacy is needed. Philosophically, historically and culturally, Australia has much in common with the US. A good friendship has developed.

China, on the other hand, has become a major market for Australian coal from the east coast, and iron ore and LNG from the west coast.  

The development of this new market has been crucial to the health of the Australian economy as other countries struggle to stave off recession. 

Ms Gillard may well have developed a close friendship with President Obama. There’s nothing wrong with that. But whether it was wise to stroll publicly with their arms around each other is another matter. 

The British press castigated Paul Keating for even just guiding the Queen at a function with the gentlest of touches. He was dubbed the ‘Lizard of Oz’ for his troubles.

Ms Gillard’s approval ratings have received a bounce, but it might be in her – and Australia’s – best interests in future to avoid being too touchy-feely in public with the president, even if he is the leader of our ‘great and powerful ally’. 

Blast from the past

REMEMBER the National Civic Council? That was the organisation started 70 years ago by the Melbourne-based campaigner BA (Bob) Santamaria to combat what was perceived to be the growing Communist influence in the trade unions and the Australian Labor Party.

The resulting tensions led to the famous Australian Labor Party split in the mid-1950s and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which had a big hand in preventing the ALP winning power in Canberra until the Whitlam victory in 1972.  

Mr Santamaria died in 1998, but the DLP lives on. In fact after a 37-year gap, the party is again represented in the Senate. A Ballarat blacksmith, John Madigan, gained just 2.34 per cent of the primary vote in Victoria in last year’s federal election, but with the benefit of some judicious preference deals, won a seat.

The NCC lives on, too. In Perth last week it hosted a $70-a-plate function for more than 120 guests to hear not only Senator Madigan but also the opposition Senate leader Eric Abetz. Those present included senior Liberals, several current and former MPs, the odd union leader and prominent business types. And the Greens were the centre of attention.

Senator Abetz was especially critical of the Greens’ campaign to close down Tasmania’s forestry industry. He said timber was not only one of the state’s three major industries, it was also a genuinely renewable resource. 

And the Greens’ strategy seemed to have little impact on the use of timber. Imports from small neighbouring Pacific countries had jumped by more than 50 per cent.

He added that the carbon tax would hit export earnings and was essentially a redistribution of wealth. 

Senator Madigan said the major parties continued to underestimate the Greens. There were now nine Greens senators, who promoted themselves as protectors of the environment. But their ‘social engineering’ policies were not in Australia’s best interests.

He added that the DLP was regrouping in other states and would challenge the Greens. The party had targeted 14 seats in last year’s Victorian election, resulting in a 0.5 per cent cut in the Greens vote. In other seats with no DLP campaign, the Greens vote had increased by 1 per cent.

“Can’t you smell the whiff of a fight?” one guest said as I was leaving. Could it be the 1950s all over again except with the Greens being the target for the DLP and the NCC, instead of Labor?

The modern foot soldiers might resemble Dad’s army, but they could just have found a new cause as a rallying point.


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