Australia Redux


Over the course of a long political career, newly re-appointed federal Labor leader Kim Christian Beazley has demonstrated an impressive consistency in his views on strategic policy. In 1974, he submitted his masters’ thesis to the University of Western Australia on “the evolution of Australian Labor Party attitudes to the United States alliance, 1961-1972″. He had the benefit of unparalleled access to Labor’s internal records, thanks to his father, who was a senior party figure. The thesis demonstrated how the right faction took control of Labor’s foreign policy in the lead up to Gough Whitlam’s election win in 1972.

 

While aspects of the Australia-US alliance were opposed by many within the party and the labour movement, the right faction was able to knock them into policy subservience, thus neutralising an important electoral vulnerability. As Beazley noted in a speech to a June 2001 conference on the US-Australian alliance at the University of Sydney:

“Conservatives throughout the 1950s and 1960s used arguments about the alliance as a stick with which to beat Labor. It was crude but effective politics which played into the Labor split and the fear of communism.”

 

Australia’s alliance with the US was a matter of great interest to the 25-year-old Beazley. For him, it was essential to depoliticise the alliance, to make it bipartisan. A decade later, he became minister for defence in then-PM Bob Hawke’s government. Similar themes confronted him — rank-and-file opposition to US bases at Pine Gap, Nurrungar and on the North West Cape and misgivings about the foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration in the US.

 

New Zealand had effectively walked out on the ANZUS pact, and some Australians were wondering openly whether Australia should follow suit. Beazley believed that the solution was to ensure that the “public should benefit from a contemporary explanation of the value of the alliance”. Accordingly, the Labor government argued that the US bases “contributed to the deterrence of nuclear war and the verification of compliance with arms control agreements”.

 

In 2005, Beazley once again finds himself at the centre of debates about the US alliance. As leader of the ALP “opposition”, he will have to manage negative attitudes towards the US alliance within his own party, as well as in the broader community. Many people have expressed misgivings about Australian participation in the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. For Beazley, however, the problem was that Australia’s commitment to the wars had been too feeble. In conversations with members of the Defence Sub-Committee of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, he criticised the tokenistic nature of PM John Howard’s commitment, arguing that Australia was merely waving the flag, not carrying its weight as an alliance partner. He expressed the view that a more substantial ground force would have been desirable. On this issue, a Beazley Labor government might have outflanked the Coalition from the right.

 

Beazley is keen to balance his support for the US alliance with greater regional engagement. The most important feature of this “regional engagement” is the need to avoid the nightmare scenario of having to choose sides in any conflict between the US and China. Beazley’s chief criticism of the Howard government’s regional approach is that it has given the impression that Australia is a mere proxy of the US. By contrast, Beazley takes the view that Australia must make it clear that it will not participate in any attempt to contain China. After all, Australia’s population and GDP are both likely to decrease relative to that of East Asia. As a middle-level power, Australia will have neither the economic nor the military clout to wield significant influence in the region.

 

However, unlike some other middle-level powers, Australia cannot immerse itself in a regional economic or political union; neither the European Union nor a future East Asian union would accept it. Nor can it become the 51st state of the USA. It will therefore have to make its own way in the world.

 

Under a Beazley government, Australian diplomats will argue strongly for a US presence in East Asia, but one that tolerates the rise of China. According to this line of thinking, it is counter-productive to confront China militarily. Rather, China should be encouraged to accelerate the privatisation of its economy, secure foreign investments and increase trade. The fervent hope of Australian planners is that both the US and Taiwan desist from provoking China militarily.

 

Beazley’s defence policy towards the rest of the region has also followed very consistent themes, the most important of which is the need to build greater links with the Indonesian military. This is because — for him — the complexity of Indonesian society can be reduced to a narrow set of geopolitical considerations. Beazley is quoted in The Search for Self-Reliance: Australian Defence Since Vietnam as arguing that Australian strategists “do not address the complex texture of political, economic, cultural and social characteristics of our neighbours. On all these subjects we make no judgements: we address only the simple facts of geography, in light of what history tells us about the vulnerabilities of our territory and approaches.”

 

The “war on terror” has provided the Howard government with a good pretext to renew military cooperation, which had been suspended after Indonesia’s campaign of state-sponsored terror in East Timor. In “opposition”, Beazley will not take issue with this policy. In government, he can be expected to continue it.

 

In his first press conference as Labor leader on January 28, Beazley emphasised that Australian troops in Iraq would stay for as long as Australian diplomats were in Iraq — that is, indefinitely. He also called for Iran to comply with US demands. In other words, Labor’s new leader is once again attempting to knock the members into policy subservience. Whether they obey is another matter.

 

Clinton Fernandes is an historian and author of Reluctant Saviour (published by Scribe, 2004)

 

 

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