Like many successful entities, the Australian-American alliance has numerous parents. Interviewed on The Bolt Report this month, the ALP operative John Della Bosca declared: ”The Labor Party created the US alliance.” But in Canberra last week Julia Gillard referred to the 60th anniversary of the alliance – which takes us back to 1951, when the Coalition’s Robert Menzies was prime minister.

The fact that ownership of the alliance is contested between the two main parties demonstrates that it has become a bipartisan political fact of life. In truth, it has a bipartisan background. Joseph Lyons, who led the conservative United Australia Party government, first raised the issue of a Pacific pact – involving Australia and the US – at the 1937 Imperial Conference in London. The proposal did not get very far, but the Lyons government began proceedings to set up an embassy in Washington. This was created in 1940, shortly after Lyons’s death in office, by his successor, Menzies.

Labor, led by John Curtin, came to office in October 1941, shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific war in December. In the Melbourne newspaper The Herald on December 27, 1941, Curtin famously stated that ”without any inhibitions of any kind” he wanted to make it quite clear ”that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom”.

Curtin’s article has been cited by many on the ALP’s right wing as evidence that Labor founded Australia’s military alliance with the US. But it’s not as simple as this. In that article Curtin also said, ”Australia’s external policy will be shaped towards obtaining Russian aid, and working out, with the United States, as the major factor, a plan of Pacific strategy, along with British, Chinese and Dutch forces”.

By Russia, Curtin meant the Soviet Union – led by Joseph Stalin. It was naive to believe the Soviet Union could be a partner with Australia in establishing peace in the Pacific. Moreover, Curtin’s attitude to Britain in his article was insensitive and unwise. There was nothing inconsistent in Australia looking to both the US and Britain.

Throughout the 1940s, during the prime ministerships of Curtin and Ben Chifley, Labor’s foreign policy was driven by the external affairs minister, Bert Evatt. Evatt was essentially an internationalist who believed in the United Nations. His emphasis on the UN led to a scaling down of Australia’s relationship with the US after the end of the Pacific war.

When Menzies became prime minister in December 1949, he adopted a more practical approach to foreign policy, with a focus on a national rather than an internationalist agenda. Yet Menzies’ essential foreign policy interest was in the relationship with Britain. It was Percy Spender, Menzies’ external affairs minister, who was the prime driver behind the creation of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951.

In his 1967 book The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy, the former diplomat Alan Watt wrote that the treaty ”was negotiated, signed and ratified . . . largely through [Spender’s] efforts”. Addressing the Sydney Institute last week to launch his memoirs Dancing With Warriors, the former diplomat Philip Flood described Spender as one of Australia’s best two foreign ministers – along with Labor’s Gareth Evans.

Until Bob Hawke became prime minister in early 1983, there was always some ambivalence within the ALP about the Australian-American alliance. About a third of the caucus, comprising the ALP Left, opposed the ANZUS Treaty. Indeed in September 1976, when he was secretary of the ACTU, Hawke signed an advertisement in The National Times that opposed foreign military bases on Australian soil and the Australian-American alliance. The signatories used the code favoured by the left at the time – declaring they supported an ”independent and non-aligned Australia”.

By the end of the 1980s there was almost universal support for the alliance within the Labor caucus. Hawke’s successors – Paul Keating, Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Kevin Rudd, though not so much Mark Latham – supported the alliance.

During a media conference on January 20, 2005, Julia Gillard repeatedly called for Australia to adopt an independent foreign policy. That was before her first visit to the US later that year. By the time she was elected Labor deputy leader and then leader, Gillard had become a strong supporter of the alliance, as was evident during Barack Obama’s visit last week. The problem with the current state of the relationship does not turn on policy but rather that it may be unnecessarily effusive.

Only the Greens and the far left query the alliance. Yet last week, senators Bob Brown and Lee Rhiannon, along with the Greens MP Adam Bandt, joined the adoring Labor and Coalition throng around the US President. For the Greens it was a case of: ”Don’t talk about Guantanamo Bay or the lack of US action on climate change.” It’s a long time since Lyons thought getting closer to the US was a good idea.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.