When Paul Keating entered the House of Representatives in October 1969, about a third of the Labor caucus was opposed to the Australian-American alliance. They belonged to the ALP’s Left faction, or what BA Santamaria termed the pro-communist Left.
Keating was the product of the powerful right-wing faction in the NSW Labor Party, many of whom were Catholics. As such, he was a supporter of the Australian-American alliance and opposed to communists abroad and their fellow travellers at home.
Last week, following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, Keating was interviewed by Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30. He used the religious terminology of his Catholic youth to restate his view that Australia should “cut the tag” with the US.
The former Labor prime minister claimed that, to Australians, the alliance had “taken on a reverential, sacramental quality”. He added: “It’s like a sacrament.” Keating alleged that Malcolm Turnbull “was almost saying prayers” to the alliance following Trump’s victory. There was also a reference to “saying Hail Marys to the alliance” along with another comment calling on Australians not to “go back to the prayer-well of the sacrament of the alliance”. It’s not clear what Keating’s reference to the alliance as a sacrament, which is a recipient of prayers, means. But then it’s more than a half-century since his last lesson in religious knowledge from the De La Salle Brothers in Bankstown.
However, Keating’s reference to Australia as “like Uriah Heep” was clear enough. He evoked the Charles Dickens character to suggest Australia was a sycophant with respect to the US. While acknowledging the importance of intelligence sharing between the two nations, Keating wants Australia to “make our way in Asia ourselves with an independent foreign policy”.
Contrary to Keating’s claims, there is no evidence Australia is in a state of “subordination” to the US. Since the creation of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, successive Australian governments have regarded the alliance as an agreement that is in Australia’s national interest.
As historian James Curran documents in his book Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, there was a period during Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in the early 1970s, at the time of Richard Nixon’s presidency, when the continuation of the alliance was at risk. But the tensions between Canberra and Washington settled down under the Coalition governments headed by Malcolm Fraser and John Howard and during the prime ministerships of Labor’s Bob Hawke and Keating.
Yes, Keating. On 7.30 Keating criticised the Howard government’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the coalition of the willing (US, Britain, Australia and Poland). However, Keating said nothing about the fact, when treasurer in the Hawke government, he supported Australia’s involvement in the US-led force that drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait and back to Iraq during the first Gulf war in 1990.
In 2000, Keating’s book Engagement: Australia Faces the South Pacific was published. It contained no call on Australia to cut the tag with the US. Indeed, the first photo in the book is a full-page picture of Keating walking side-by-side with US president Bill Clinton. In any event, over the past decade or so, Keating’s position on the Australian-American alliance has shifted from that of right-wing Labor to close to that of the Greens. Quite a metamorphosis, to be sure.
In an article in Fairfax Media on Wednesday, Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong called on Australians “to carefully and dispassionately consider Australia’s foreign policy and global interests over coming months, and how to best effect these within the alliance framework”.
If Wong were a former politician or a backbencher, her call for a reassessment of the alliance would not matter all that much. However, she is not only Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman but also the leader of the opposition in the Senate. This makes Wong’s comment that the “core values” of Australia and those of the coming Trump administration are at odds of considerable significance.
Wong sees Labor in conflict with the president-elect over “core values” such as “respect and equality for women, racial and religious tolerance and economic and social openness”. This is a big call concerning a president-elect who will not be inaugurated until January 20 next year. Prophecy is for fools. Even so, it seems highly likely that the US during a Trump presidency will continue to uphold equality for women along with racial and religious tolerance. Sure, Trump appears to be an economic protectionist, but Hillary Clinton has been moving in this direction for some time now.
It’s unclear what will be the direction of a Trump administration in the Asia-Pacific. Yet both nations will continue to benefit from intelligence sharing, a reality that is becoming increasingly important at a time of Islamist terrorism. Moreover, Australia will continue to benefit from the protection the US provides with respect to keeping open seaways and airways while the US benefits from access to Australian ports and airports.
What’s of prime importance to the Australian-American alliance is not core values but common interests. In her article, Wong wrote “the alliance is bigger than any one individual” and “must continue to transcend personality politics”. Yet she claims “some of the views expressed by Trump in his campaign stand in contrast” to the principles of “democracy, freedom and human rights”.
This is a needlessly provocative statement, especially since Wong claims “there is strong bipartisan support for the US alliance” in Australia. It’s difficult to see how such bipartisanship could continue if the US abandoned its commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights.
It’s unlikely Australia will follow Keating’s call to cut the tag with the US or come to accept the US’s core values are at odds with those of Australia. The Left’s criticisms of the ANZUS Treaty did not prevail in the 1950s, 60s or 70s mainly because a clear majority of Australians supported the alliance. That remains so today.