DAVID STEPHENS. Is this the most sycophantic speech by an Australian prime minister? Julia Gillard’s address to the United States Congress, March 2011

‘All the way with LBJ’ has become the cliche that associates Conservative dependence on the US alliance.  But Julia Gillard’s address to the US Congress is hard to beat!  John Menadue.

Richard Butler AC, former diplomat, former United Nations weapons inspector, former Governor of Tasmania, said recently on Pearls and Irritations that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech to a Joint Session of the United States Congress in March 2011 ‘reached unprecedented heights of sycophancy’. Is Butler correct?

Julia Gillard is not the first Australian prime minister to crank open the sycophancy valve when talking to American trumps (no anticipatory pun intended). There was Harold Holt to President Johnson (‘All the way with LBJ’) and John Gorton to President Nixon (‘we will go Waltzing Matilda with you’). Way back in 1950 and 1955, Robert Menzies twice addressed the Congress and got in some subtle buttering-up: ‘Great or small, we can and must trust each other … [W]e of Australia are proud to call ourselves your junior partner in a great and continuing adventure toward human liberty.’

In 1988, Prime Minister Hawke gave a slightly grumpy speech to the Congress – there were trade negotiations under way – but still concluded that

when all is said and done the United States of America is a great and a good country; that the people of the United States of America are a great and a good people; and that in Australia you will have in the years ahead the best kind of friend, independent to be sure, forthright in defence of our own interests certainly, but also firmly supportive and deeply proud of our rich and enduring relationship.

Then there was Prime Minister Howard, who spoke to Congress in 2002. He talked about shared values, the importance of families, liberty and voluntarism, strategic challenges in the Pacific, globalisation and trade agreements, and lodged a complaint about a recent Farm Bill. But his rhetoric was low-key, almost pedestrian:

America has no better friend in the world than Australia. Australians and Americans enjoy each other’s company. We share a love of sport and are fierce competitors in some. And from time to time we even share the Academy Awards.

Prime Minister Gillard, on the other hand, began on the Moon and worked back from there. For her generation, the ‘defining image’ of America was the moon landing in 1969.

I’ll always remember thinking that day: Americans can do anything.  Americans helped free the world of my parents’ generation. Americans inspired the world of my own youth. I stand here and I see the same brave and free people today. I believe you can do anything still. There is a reason the world always looks to America. Your great dream – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – inspires us all.

Australians, she went on, were ‘not given to overstatement’, they were ‘laconic speakers’ and ‘realistic thinkers’.

In both our countries, real mates talk straight. We mean what we say. You have an ally in Australia. An ally for war and peace. An ally for hardship and prosperity. An ally for the sixty years past and Australia is an ally for all the years to come … This is why in our darkest days we have been glad to see each other’s face and hear each other’s voice.

She talked about fighting side by side in World War II, the subsequent ‘ultimate expression of our alliance’, ANZUS, and later theatres where ‘we have stuck together. In every major conflict. From Korea and Vietnam to the conflicts in the Gulf.’ And Afghanistan. ‘Australia will stand firm with our ally the United States. Our friends understand this. Our enemies understand this too.’

She went on to talk about economic policy and the G20, education, technology, free trade, the Middle East and China, while never straying far from the parallels between Australia and the United States. After all, the occasion for her appearance before the Congress was the 60th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty.

So, conceived in the Pacific War and born in the Cold War, adapted to the space age and invoked in the face of terror, our indispensable alliance is a friendship for the future … An alliance which was strong in the Cold War … an alliance which is strong in the new world.

She retailed a couple of anecdotes about Australians and Americans working together to ensure security at the Sydney Olympics and training together in the New York Fire Department prior to 9/11.

Together in the hardest of times [she began her lengthy peroration]. Friends for the future. When our alliance was signed sixty years ago, the challenges of the space age were still to come. The challenges of terrorism were still to come. For sixty years, leaders from Australia and the United States have looked inside themselves and found the courage to face those challenges. And after sixty years, we do the same today. To protect our peoples. To share our prosperity. To safeguard our future. For ours is a friendship for the future. It has been from its founding and remains so today.

You have a friend in Australia. And you have an ally. And we know what that means. In both our countries, true friends stick together … in both our countries, real mates talk straight. So as a friend I urge you only this: be worthy to your own best traditions. Be bold.

In 1942, John Curtin – my predecessor, my country’s great wartime leader – looked to America. I still do. This year you have marked the centenary of President Reagan’s birth. He remains a great symbol of American optimism. The only greater symbol of American optimism is America itself. The eyes of the world are still upon you. Your city on a hill cannot be hidden. Your brave and free people have made you the masters of recovery and reinvention.

As I stand in this cradle of democracy I see a nation that has changed the world and known remarkable days. I firmly believe you are the same people who amazed me when I was a small girl by landing on the moon. On that great day I believed Americans could do anything. I believe that still. You can do anything today.

So, on those comparisons, Gillard is hard to beat. It includes slabs of practical policy like Hawke’s and Howard’s Washington speeches but it lacks Hawke’s caveats and sails far above Howard’s sober tones: it is gushing, embarrassing, and fawning; if ‘real mates’ may ‘talk straight’ to each other then large sections of this speech are sidling, circumlocutory and cloying.

Only a Washington audience recently starved of brown-nosing could have lapped up Gillard’s speech. Phil Coorey in theSydney Morning Herald said listeners in Australia would have thought it ‘sounded at times fawning, even a little obsequious’. ‘To Australian ears’, said the BBC’s Katie Connolly, ‘the flattery seemed heavy-handed. A bit desperate. Aussies might have called it crawling, or sucking up – not a desirable trait.’ But there were six standing ovations and ten seated rounds of applause.

One can imagine a future American President, on being ‘talked straight to’ by an Australian prime minister, responding, only half in jest, ‘But Julia Gillard said in 2011 that the United States can do anything!’ The type of alliance that can generate this sort of hyperbole does not sound like one where allies regularly talk straight to each other – or at least where the smaller ally talks straight to the larger one and keeps at it.

We should cringe at phrases like ‘an ally for all the years to come’. For a nation which claims to be egalitarian, straightforward and ‘laconic’, a speech like Julia Gillard’s of 2011 should be called for what it is: saccharine, sentimental tosh. Richard Butler’s reference to ‘heights of sycophancy’ is certainly justified; ‘unprecedented’ is a more difficult call but Butler would have heard and read more of the genre than us and we respect his judgement.

We were going to add that Gillard’s speech was ‘ill-judged’ but it did help lay the groundwork for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which we are told is a ‘good thing’ for Australia. Perhaps when small talks to great that is how we have to do it: brown-nosing, embarrassing rhetoric seems to come with the territory when you persist with asymmetric ‘alliances’.

David Stephens is secretary of the Honest History coalition and editor of its website (www.honesthistory.net.au). The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History. A longer version of this article (with links) is here. Videos of Hawke, Howard and Gillard’s speeches are available on the internet.

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One Response to DAVID STEPHENS. Is this the most sycophantic speech by an Australian prime minister? Julia Gillard’s address to the United States Congress, March 2011

  1. Tony Smith says:

    And perhaps PM Gillard’s speech to her first press conference after assuming the leadership was the most disappointing by a Labor leader. I waited in vain to hear any mention of looking after the most vulnerable members of society.

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