Australia, Penny Wong and the UK: shades of empire?

Feb 10, 2023
Australia and the Kingdom flag together relations textile cloth fabric texture.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong invoked the power of shared colonial histories in a speech during her recent visit to the United Kingdom.

The statement was clearly carefully prepared and framed but, judging from her recorded comments, it seems that she has not thought through the implications of the adoption of radical post-colonial diplomacy. Rather, she promises stale continuity that has little prospect of achieving her goal of “reshaping the region”.

In her speech at Kings College London on 31 January, Wong described how Australia’s relationship with the UK had changed over the last century. She stressed the importance of our being a “modern, multicultural country…in the Indo-Pacific” and she described her family connection with Borneo and the British North Borneo Company, which employed Indians and Chinese in forestry and mining, that is, a shared history in British colonialisation. Later in a press conference, she elaborated this, describing the relationship between Australia and Britain as “historic, part of who we are, but more importantly, it’s part of our future.” She also said that, as multiculturalism now characterised both countries, our multi-faceted history “does give us a greater capacity to engage with the countries of our region.”

Wong’s remarks attracted considerable press attention in both countries. In Canberra, the UK High Commissioner Victoria Treadell followed up swiftly, elaborating her government’s position on ABC Radio National on 3 February. She emphasised that both countries would soon undertake joint exercises in the Pacific and would collaborate in programs to enhance maritime security, capacity building and the introduction of new technology. Addressing Wong’s references to a shared colonial past, she pointed out that she herself had been born in Malaysia, and that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had family links with India and Africa. Treadell said that it was necessary to address the past so as to build nations of today. “Britain has reconciled with history,” she stated. The British Commonwealth represented a “colonial past with a contemporary agenda” and was expanding its membership. Britain and Australia “share history, also interests, values, sense of purpose and a modern partnership.” The two countries thus appear to be firmly hitched to each other.

Unfortunately, dealing with the imperial past is not so simple and the way ahead is likely to be complicated by such a firm commitment to historic causes and concerns. Sure, in both countries, multiculturalism is to be applauded and the cross-cultural skills of diplomats and ministers should be properly utilised, but the resolution of historical issues is not simply a matter of joining hands and attending cultural sensitivity courses. No consideration appears to be given to how this extension of our colonial past will be received in the region.

The death of Queen Elizabeth, the ascension of King Charles, and the television appearances of Prince Harry, together with his international best-selling book, have provided many opportunities for reflection on the legacy of British colonialism. One might refer for instance to a succinct article by Anisha Kohli in Time magazine, then move on to Tim Adam’s review for The Guardian of Caroline Elkins’s history of the British Empire titled Legacy of Violence. This meticulously-researched book gives chapter and verse of British atrocities in the Boer War, the Irish war of independence, uprisings in India, Iraq and Palestine and British rule in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya, all of which were based on moralising British superiority that enforced on the colonies a David Livingstone-style paternal despotism of “Christianity, commerce and civilisation”. Underlying the commercial and political empire there was an enormous self-righteousness.

The modern nation of Australia came into existence through British imperialism. It was not only a convenient dumping ground for convicts. It was also established to be an outpost of empire in an age of British/French rivalry. For most of our history, we were a loyal part of the British Empire, fighting imperial wars and benefiting from imperial protection. Later that loyalty transferred relatively smoothly to the United States. In many respects we are now part of an American empire, benefiting from American investment, American technology and American culture. The economic and defence links that now prevail have too easily given rise to a pervasive American style of thinking, which believes that American civilisation, American-style democracy and American-style government are all superior to the unwashed heathens of outer lands.

The appalling condescension, and insistence on conformity with oh-so-British, or with awesome American, conventions, are the legacy of empire. This year in Australia, politicians, the press, and the public, are debating the need for a Voice for our Indigenous peoples, the proud owners and keepers of this land. A Voice would require others to accept that their culture has value alongside imported European culture. It will be a hard lesson for many non-Indigenous people. Equally, when we engage with our neighbours in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Pacific and beyond, we must abandon our assumption of unique access to truth and justice, and renounce the temptation to be missionaries.

Gamers will recognise a reference in the title to my piece to a rather bloody novel in the video game Warhammer series. Book reviewers comment that it is “rather graphic” and “not suited to the younger reader”. I hope this does not turn out to be a prediction of the future. In fact, I offer it in the spirit of peace and reconciliation.

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