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The backlash against US president Barack Obama shows that Australian conservatives were never friends with America as a whole – they were just mates with the American right, writes Michael Cooney.
How can Julie Bishop expect to make real progress in stopping the spread of terrorism while she undermines our alliance with the United States?
Her speech to the United Nations this week was a strong one – and a strong reminder of how valuable to Australia’s national interest a two-year place on the Security Council is proving. Yet within hours, the Foreign Minister was on national television saying she “understands” conservative fury at the American president.
What is going on?
Since President Obama left Australia, the Australian right’s attack on our ally has been astonishing. The Treasurer boasts of having ignored the president’s speech at the University of Queensland and mocks his troubles with an oppositionist senate. (These remarks, as well as failing to understand how important American executive power can be, seemed smarter before the Abbott Government’s own Senate fiasco over FOFA laws.) The Foreign Minister complains that the president doesn’t know enough about what the Government is doing to conserve the Great Barrier Reef. The Queensland Government whinges that it bent over backwards to help arrange the UQ address and this is the thanks it gets. Queensland state MPs are even considering sending a written complaint to the White House. (The Tsar has been warned!)
It’s not only politicians; conservative commentators have also piled in.
Peter van Onselen reports that the Prime Minister was “privately seething” about Obama’s speech – although not completely privately, if PVO has the yarn. Paul Kelly was so disoriented by the whole event that he briefly demanded Bill Shorten act on climate change – “What the hell is Australia doing?” he hounded an understandably perplexed Opposition Leader on Sunday morning TV. (Meanwhile, Greg Sheridan’s contribution on the topic quite defies paraphrasing.)
These are the people who roar treason at any sign of progressive dissent on foreign policy, yet are now utterly exposed – a conga line of hypocrites.
When was the last time an Australian government and an American administration had a relationship this bad?
John Howard was hardly a golf buddy of Bill Clinton’s, and wasn’t delighted with the level of US support to our operation in East Timor in 1999, but he knew where the alliance big picture lay. The MX missile crisis of the mid-1980s was smoothed over by the diplomacy of Kim Beazley and the good relationship between President Reagan and Prime Minister Hawke.
Maybe someone who lived through the Whitlam era (I was three in November 1975) would be able to compare the trans-Pacific tensions of that period. Were they worse than this? Not necessarily. Some argue that despite their obvious political differences, there was some basis of respect between Whitlam and Nixon – Whitlam’s grand China triumph must have appealed to the audacious half of Nixon’s divided heart – but there’s no doubting the period was a difficult one for the Alliance.
In any case, it’s certain right now is the worst moment in Australia-US relations in 40 years, and maybe longer. What’s more, and for surely the first time in our shared history, the personal relationship between the Prime Minister and the president is making it worse, not better.
I was in the galleries of the Parliament in November 2011 to watch President Obama speak on the future of democracy in Asia and the future of our alliance. One of the striking memories of that day was then opposition leader Tony Abbott’s “weird and graceless” speech: rather than sincerely welcoming our friend, he attacked the Gillard government, not only for its handling of uranium sales to India, but over the tax on mining rents and economic policy in general. This was a big clanger, with newspapers reporting his own backbench complaining they were “squirming in their seats” and commercial television hosts quizzing Tony Abbott the following day about his lack of respect.
Our visitors noticed too.
In office, Tony Abbott hasn’t got any better. As PM, he wrapped his first visit to the US in other travel, to France and Canada, and made great play in advance of his arrival in Washington of his plans to ally with conservative, coal-fuelled Canadian PM Stephen Harper against our ally’s goals for climate change action. Then, ahead of the president’s visit to Australia for the G20, Australian Liberals repeatedly spoke, on the record and off, about “the lamest of lame ducks”. Put aside for the moment the Australian Government’s own inability to pass budget measures, and put aside that the next Australian election is likely to come before the next US poll. Doesn’t the Australian national interest require a strong US and a strong president?
The reality of climate change policy is that the policies of Australia and the US have never been so far apart in an international forum as they were in Brisbane this month.
In turn, the reality is that six decades of conservative mythology about their support for the Australia-US alliance is just that.
It turns out Australian conservatives never were friends with America as a whole – they were just mates with the American right.
With a liberal Democratic president in the White House, they are putting partisanship ahead of patriotism – and this doesn’t just threaten the Great Barrier Reef, it weakens the fight against terrorism as well.
And worst of all, it’s not a problem which will expire with the end of President Obama’s second term. Imagine what the next President Clinton will say when she visits.
Michael Cooney is executive director of the Chifley Research Centre, the ALP’s think tank. He was speechwriter to prime minister Julia Gillard. View his full profile here.