As baby diplomats we learned always to vote in good company. Countries, we understood, were judged by the company they kept. Not any more. The countries Australia rubs shoulders with now, and the hips we are joined at, make people who used to represent Australia overseas wonder how much worse it can get. Other Australians who come back after a decade abroad say they can’t believe what we have become.
The downward trend started in 1996 when the American neo-cons began planning for the US hegemony that would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union. The times suited John Howard, who was aware of their plans long before we joined the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and who wanted Australia to be part of the action. He would have known the US had plans to ‘reform’ Middle Eastern countries – all with oil and gas capacity – in its own interests, which invariably matched the interests of Israel. The only one now left on the US list of seven is Iran. In 2014 Howard told a public meeting in Sydney Iran would be next. Don’t say we weren’t warned.
For more than 15 years Australia has been fighting illegal wars, in shrinking coalitions of Anglo-allies, with precious little to show for them except deaths, disabilities, destruction, and debts. We have voted with a handful of other satrapies against the aspirations of Palestinians. We have received damning reports from the UN Human Rights Council for our treatment of Indigenous people and refugees, and for that we have been admired by far-right Europeans. We are backsliding rapidly from our Paris commitments on climate change and from our responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef. We excluded ourselves from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Law of the Sea Tribunal in order to pressure fledgling Timor Leste to sign a treaty that favoured Australia and, in particular, Woodside Petroleum. We refuse to sign the Treaty banning nuclear weapons for which Australians won a Nobel Prize.
Now Australia proposes to move our Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to withdraw our support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
At least some of the other policies that marked Australia’s descent into bad company were carefully considered by one major party or the other, and debated in Parliament. Not this time. All the Liberal candidate for Wentworth had to do, it seems, was come out with these two radical proposals, to have Prime Minister Morrison adopt them, literally overnight. Suddenly, decisions that had nothing to do with advancing Australia’s interests were taken, and were no longer radical. So whose company are we in? On Jerusalem: the US and Israel of course, and Guatemala. On Iran: the US and Israel. No parties other than the US, not even Britain, have abandoned the JCPOA. War could follow.
Australia is called – in a new, scorching critique of what passes for our foreign and defence policies – an ‘Island off the Coast of Asia’. Professor Clinton Fernandes shows that time and again, for 230 years, Australia’s dealings with our region have been driven by territorial ambition and trade, and by security, siding with powerful distant allies to keep regional countries at a disadvantage for as long as possible. Fernandes argues that in our desire always to be on the winning side, we have ingratiated ourselves to the US even when it was to our disadvantage. We have repeatedly fought in illegal wars that were none of Australia’s business.
We are still doing it, and isolating Australia from the very region to which the global centre of economic gravity is moving. If our leaders could see beyond the next election – or the next by-election – they would be taking advantage of our proximity to China’s dynamism and India’s potential, not by trying to build a Quad to contain or confront China, or provoking China with ‘freedom of navigation operations’, but by shedding the ball and chain that the US alliance imposes on our self-interest and independence.
There’s no time to lose. The symbolic move of our Embassy in Israel for the Government’s short-term political advantage in Wentworth is one thing. Much more urgent is the need to change the war powers. We must ensure that Australia enters no new war, particularly not with Iran, without a debate and a vote in both houses of Parliament, followed by regular reviews, and by a full independent inquiry afterwards. To the surprise of many Australians, this is not how we do wars. The Prime Minister can decide, virtually alone, and the troops are dispatched. There may be a debate in the House, but no vote. In successive conflicts since Vietnam, prime ministers have even by-passed the Governor-General who is commander in chief. Australia and three other democracies – Canada, France, and New Zealand – preserve this undemocratic practice. It has led us into to disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Iran would be no different, and it could be worse. The US always needs a coalition to justify a war to Congress: what would happen if they held a war and no allies came?
Australian leaders repeat the ‘international rules-based order’ mantra as if we uphold it. Unfortunately, whenever it suits us, Australia doesn’t. An invasion of Iran would not have a resolution of the UN Security Council behind it, and we are not threatened by Iran: hence Australian forces would be committing the war crime of aggression. So would the Prime Minister. Perhaps former diplomat Dave Sharma will remind him of that.