On the last weekend in June, the ALP will hold its NSW Conference. The agenda is packed with items including indigenous, community and country issues, education, health, and social justice. Right at the end is ‘Australia and the World.’ This is to be expected, as State governments aren’t responsible for foreign affairs and defence – although they do have to consider treaties. But resolutions from the NSW ALP will go forward to Labor’s National Conference in December, where they could influence the more vigorous debate you might expect about the growing list of problems facing Australia.
We are involved in wars in at least three countries that we know of, and we are stumbling towards military or economic conflict with China and disaffection with Russia. So the ALP which seeks to be the next government might be expected to want answers to such questions as: why are Australian troops still in Afghanistan with no progress and no end in sight; what are Australian forces achieving in Iraq and Syria; where else are Australian Special Forces operating, at whose request, and why; can Australia avoid being dragged into conflict in the South China Sea or in Korea by the American alliance; can Australia avert or at least stay out of an attack on Iran; will the US ever defend Australia again?
These are questions which the latest Foreign Affairs and Defence White Papers failed to ask. The bromide they offered was the usual, time-worn formula: the United States will remain pre-eminent for the foreseeable future and can be relied on to defend Australia, and other countries must respect the international rules-based order. The ALP could readily expose the inadequacy of such statements and the urgent need for fresh thinking. It could provide the leadership that disillusioned voters of both major political persuasions seek, by picking up ideas from public submissions in advance of both White Papers. More useful suggestions were made about the current foreign influence and espionage legislation. The Asian Century White Paper could even be disinterred. But none of it is likely to happen.
To understand why, take a quick flick through our history. Even before Federation, some Australians were worried that they would be ‘compelled to defend themselves against some power with which they have no quarrel, at the bidding of a few men on the other side of the world’ (DG Ferguson, Centennial Magazine, June 1889). Conservative politicians rejoiced in such a prospect. But as Henry Reynolds recalls in Unnecessary Wars (2016), Reverend JD Lang repeatedly warned New South Wales against being drawn into Britain’s wars in the Crimea and in Africa. Victorian MPs deplored the Sudan campaign: ‘This country did wrong, absolutely wrong, when it offered to send a contingent to such a contemptible, and such an unholy fight,’ declared James Mirams, member for Collingwood (Victorian Parliamentary Debates, 24 June 1885). In Brisbane WH Browne, member for Croydon, said sending young men to the Boer War in which Australia had no interest ‘should be deprecated by every member of this House’ (Queensland Parliamentary Debates, 11 October 1899).
Yet that is what Australia continued to do, repeatedly offering troops, coming to depend more and more on allies for defence, and only once fighting to defend our own continent. For the Director of the Australian War Memorial, a former Liberal Defence Minister, war is ‘who we are and what makes us tick as Australians…Every nation has its own story. This is ours’ (Dr Brendan Nelson, 2015. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/pops/pop63/c01). Not until Vietnam did the Labor tradition of opposing expeditionary wars revive. In 1965, Leader of the Opposition Arthur Calwell said, ‘We oppose the Government’s decision to send 800 men to fight in Vietnam. We oppose it firmly and completely.’ In 2003, when Prime Minister Howard told the Parliament that Australia would join the US-led invasion of Iraq, ALP leader Simon Crean told him ‘Labor opposes your commitment to war. We will argue against it and we will call for the troops to be returned.’ In the last year of his life Malcolm Fraser, who had resigned from the Liberal Party, warned that the US Alliance endangers Australia more than any foreign enemy. In matters of peace and war, he wrote, Australia has ceded sovereignty to the United States, creating ‘a far more powerful linkage than ever existed in the days of Empire’ (Dangerous Allies, 2015. Malcolm Fraser, ‘We no longer have a capacity to stay out of America’s wars,’ Pearls & Irritations, 7 August 2015).
Labor leaders no longer make such statements. Kevin Rudd brought the troops home from Iraq in 2008 and Tony Abbott withdrew many from Afghanistan in 2013, but they were soon redeployed, and went into Syria as well. Julia Gillard embraced Kim Beazley’s enthusiasm for the US ‘Asian pivot’ and Darwin Marine base, to which strategic bombers are being added. After showing initial promise as a Foreign Affairs spokeswoman with some independent views, Penny Wong challenges little, while her Defence counterpart Richard Marles sometimes tries to outdo the government’s belligerence. This may be due to the narrow margins to which governments now cling, to politicians’ fear of appearing soft on national security, to advice from intelligence agencies, to the spreading tentacles of US bases, or even to blind belief in the Alliance. It may also reflect the power of the pro-war Murdoch media. What it does not reflect, if Lowy polling, public commentary, and community activism are any guide, is Australian popular opinion. Nor does it indicate a healthy democracy. At least a former Labor Foreign Minister feels free to speak his mind: ‘…Iraq produced a paroxysm of alliance fervour and rendered the alliance one about war and militarism…America in a distraught, bruised, unhealthy state could be a danger to us’ (Bob Carr, ‘Obsession with foes could make US a perilous friend’, Weekend Australian, 23-24 June 2018: 18, 19).
Militarism has caused Federal Parliament to ‘close ranks’ since 2001 around the deployments in Afghanistan, the online Guardian Australia observed in 2013. On the rare occasions when Afghanistan and Australia’s role in Iraq and Syria have been discussed, bipartisanship of the major parties ‘has obscured the reasons for Australia’s continued deployment there and the nebulous measures of its success’ Yet the moment of choice our leaders always said we didn’t have to face is upon us, brought on by Presidents Trump and Xi. Waiting for the next presidents in hope that stability and security will return is not strategic. Ignoring America’s decline and China’s rise is not rational. Bipartisanship as an excuse for indecision is irresponsible denialism. Let us hope for better from the conference season.
Dr Alison Broinowski, formerly an Australian diplomat and academic, is working very slowly on her next book.