One of the core areas of interest for Gough Whitlam and his government in the realm of international affairs was a process of modernisation in Australia’s engagement with international law and its impact on the domestic scene. Some of this related to imperial practices that continued to play a central role in national civic life (God Save the Queen or Imperial Honours), but most other activities were strongly connected to numerous international treaties that the Whitlam government endorsed and legal domestic offshoots within areas such as indigenous rights or racial discrimination. The desire to present a more modern and even cosmopolitan Australia to the world (and its own region) was a driving factor in leaving behind the last vestiges of the White Australia policy, earnestly opposing Apartheid and promoting multiculturalism. In terms of the cultural and political relationship with Asia (another key part of the Whitlam program), this was not only sensible but a practical objective.
There were great successes and some failures, notably the catastrophe of East Timor, but the general intent of moving the Australian state in the direction of increased cultural, diplomatic, economic and political independence was clear. The consequences of this period continue to be felt and have formed recognisable political pillars that have influenced approaches toward multiculturalism, health (Medicare), diplomacy, indigenous rights, international law or Australian citizenship. An area worthy of revisiting considering Whitlam’s ambition of a more independent and forward-thinking society, is the relationship with the United States.
It is now well documented that Whitlam’s own relationship with the US government during the period was far from calm, it was in fact exceedingly tense. Some of Whitlam’s statements and comments on Vietnam and interventions into foreign policy (along with other members of the Australian Labor Party) had angered Washington even before ALP victory in the 1972 Federal Election. The emergence of Whitlam and the ALP as the new Australian government after such a long period of conservative rule (noted for a dutiful and willing embrace of the anti-communist relationship with Washington), potentially threatened this desired status quo. Whitlam had thorny relations with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) regarding its operations in Chile during 1973 and in East Timor during 1975. He also raised question regarding secretive US bases operating in Australia (such as Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North-West Cape), which did nothing to endear him to Washington or those within the Australian military and intelligence establishment who saw the US alliance as sacrosanct. That serious pressures and interference were brought to bear on the Whitlam government (within and without) to effectively cease and desist from “irresponsible” behaviour (perhaps worse) is worth closely considering. Opponents of Whitlam (both at home) and in Washington were hardly unhappy with the end of his government, nor particularly concerned by the unusual manner of its dismissal (11 November 1975). The Hawke Labor government would “fix” the ALP perception problem around the US alliance by ignoring US efforts to undermine Whitlam and support ALP opponents by clinging to ANZUS and Washington with a death grip like intensity.
Yet, the questions raised in the Whitlam period persist. While shared arrangements are now spruiked regarding such facilities in Australia, these are not “Australian” facilities they are American. They are also (just as they were in the past) used for American strategic concerns and activities much of it related to intelligence gathering and military capabilities including drone strikes, military operations or the possible use of the massive US nuclear arsenal. Existing Australian input is ultimately predicated on getting shared intelligence and US protection, but let’s reiterate again these are not “Australian” bases. They could be used for activities we may still not in fact be fully aware of, agree with, or be able to halt without somehow risking the “alliance”.
The Trump era does not establish anything particularly new in this regard, Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ saw the Australian military and intelligence establishment renew its focus on China (an old foe), the Bush II era through the ‘War on Terror’ saw Australia in Iraq and Afghanistan then even in Syria with Obama etc. The Trump era brings nothing so much new but does include his tv show arrogance and rhetorical unpredictability. While most US administrations consider it inappropriate to publicly broadcast their real attitudes about the rest of the world, all view US dominance as paramount, American exceptionalism as something to be proclaimed publicly as a “fact” and do not react passively toward those who do not conform to their priorities. It is of course naturally well received when useful allies willingly accommodate US priorities into their own foreign policy and security arrangements.
President Trump bluntly expresses his policies, ideas and thought bubbles publicly and seemingly without a filter, should a real crisis appear (particularly in relation to China, North Korea etc.) this President could easily place the Australian “alliance” in a most unfortunate position by exposing its limitations. Genuine Australian fealty to the US international order is naturally anticipated and expected by Washington on questions of security and war, but the Australian political and military elite need to at least suggest to the Australian public that saying “no” might be an option. To be clear, many in the Australian political, military and intelligence establishment very closely identify with the US alliance, often the only real question is the extent of Australian military and diplomatic support, but a Trump could very publicly and humiliatingly demand the expected Australian support in a crisis exposing the reality.
Are the pillars of our security and political establishment able to publicly say “no” to Washington on foreign policy questions related to war and security, are they truly certain as to where our current alliance arrangements could lead us in the Trump era, do they shake with fear over the US reaction to any suggestions that intelligence facilities on Australian soil should actually be “Australian”? A good relationship with the world’s only superpower is desirable, but any alliance that can be jeopardised by publicly saying “no”, or by privately entertaining absolute Australian domestic jurisdiction over a Pine Gap, reflects tensions self-evident during the Whitlam period left unresolved.
A revised “partnership” could genuinely enhance Australian security planning, more strongly protect our own interests and demonstrate that our diplomatic support should not be taken for granted by Washington. This is what “independent” nations are expected to do in relation to such things. If our politicians fear to even discuss the possibility of absolute Australian control over a Pine Gap or heaven forbid that we might not want such facilities here at all etc. this is clearly telling. Our leaders through increasingly gritted teeth continue to pledge public fealty to Washington despite Trump’s outbursts and twitter tirades, this only locks us into self-imposed limitations. To be even slightly compromised about very serious issues such as questions of war, security and diplomacy is to accept less than complete independence. This is very problematic as Australian interests are not always going to be the same as “America’s” interests. We also prevent ourselves from being a more constructive and honest counsel for our American friends. If we are interested in advancing the ideas of independence as explored by Whitlam, the Trump era highlights the necessity to reframe the US-Australia relationship.
These are the personal views of the author. He is an Honorary Lecturer in the School of Culture, History and Languages at the Australian National University and currently lectures in Global Studies at the University of Canberra. In 2016 he was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights with the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Studies, University of London.