IT’S the case of a presidential address in two cities. Last Saturday, President Barack Obama spoke to an audience at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. He covered many issues but the big news from the event was that the US President used a public occasion in Australia to criticise the Australian government on climate change.
Compare and contrast Obama’s public address at Cairo University in Egypt on June 4, 2009. Here the US President effectively apologised for “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” The only government in the region which the US President specifically criticised was his nation’s ally — Israel.
Clearly, Obama enjoyed his time in Australia. His speech in Brisbane resembled the “yes we can” rallies in the lead-up to the Democratic Party’s triumph in the November 2008 presidential election. According to reports, the White House asked for students to be present at the Brisbane address. There were young men and women from the University of Queensland along with some others from Brisbane-based tertiary institutions and some secondary schools.
Needless to say, the primarily young attendees just loved the celebrity President. So much so that he received a standing ovation even before addressing the audience. The speech had gone less than a minute when Obama referred to climate change — declaring that he had tweeted a University of Queensland study on this issue to his “31 million followers”.
So the audience was primed when the US President returned to the topic towards the end of the speech. There was instant applause when Obama advocated “the need to lead on the global fight against climate change”. Then the US President made an intervention into Australian national politics. He declared that “here in the Asia Pacific nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change” than Australia.
Ignoring the fact that world temperatures have not risen for close to two decades, Obama said that “a climate that increases in temperature … means longer droughts, more wildfires” and a threat to “the incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef”. He went on to embrace the catastrophic cause, stating that “if China, as it develops, adapts the same per capita carbon emissions as advanced economies like the United States and Australia, this planet doesn’t stand a chance”.
The audience just loved it. It seems that few, if any, wanted to acknowledge that under the agreement negotiated between Obama and President Xi Jinping at the recent APEC conference in Beijing, China’s carbon emissions will continue to grow until 2030. They just shared Obama’s hyperbolic wish that the Great Barrier Reef will exist “50 years from now”.
It was clear to those present at the University of Queensland, or those following Obama’s speech on the electronic media, that the US President was criticising his hosts, Tony Abbott and Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. This despite the fact that the Abbott government’s ”direct action” commitment is similar, in likely outcomes in reducing emissions, to the approach of the Obama administration.
Certainly Abbott’s many critics in the ABC and Fairfax Media welcomed Obama’s message. ABC news bulletins gave prominence to the dressing-down on Saturday.
As did the front pages of the Fairfax Media’s Sunday papers. In Sydney, The Sun-Herald’s lead story was titled “Obama fires both barrels”, while in Melbourne The Sunday Age ran with “Obama turns up the heat”. Both reported that the US President had told Australia to lift its game on climate change.
It was much the same on social policy. Obama knows that in Australia the Coalition as well as many Labor MPs are opposed to changing the long-time legal definition of marriage to include same-sex partners. Yet Obama, a recent convert to this particular cause, used his Brisbane address to state that the US “will stand up for our gay and lesbian fellow citizens because they need to be treated equally under the law”.
Gays and lesbians enjoy wide-ranging rights in Australia. Unlike in many Muslim/Arab nations where homosexuality is a crime and gays are persecuted. Yet Obama chose to lecture about gay rights in a democratic, tolerant Australia — having remained silent on this issue at Cairo University some years earlier.
Obama’s popularity is fading in the US and the Democratic Party got trounced by the Republicans in the November mid-term elections. Many Democratic candidates effectively walked away from their President. In Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to say whether she had voted for Obama in 2012 or 2008.
Little wonder that the US President enjoyed his rock-star reception in Brisbane.
There may have been a more subdued response if the audience had included a number of mineworkers, or manufacturers who suffer from high energy prices or pensioners who resent subsidising the well-off to install renewable energy systems.
But such groups were not on the White House’s wished-for attendance list.
Obama’s Brisbane oration was overwhelmingly self-indulgent. The Abbott government has been among the strongest supporters of US military action against the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East. Abbott has continued the policy of the governments headed by John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard by backing US policy in the Asia Pacific.
The Coalition is strongly supportive of the Australian-US alliance. So is a clear majority of the Labor Party.
But sections of the Labor Left are not so supportive of this alliance. Moreover, the Greens’ foreign policy is close to a neutralist/pacifist position. And then there are influential public figures such as former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating, along with prominent academics such as Hugh White, who want Australia to tilt more to China than to the US.
Those who understand the history of the Australian-US alliance realise that it requires constant maintenance.
It’s never smart to publicly denigrate your friends. US interests would have been better served if Obama had been as courteous to his Australian hosts in Brisbane as he was to his Egyptian hosts five years ago.