Australia Then and Now


Hardly anyone, as they grow old, is immune from the tendency to think that the world, or their own country, is going to the dogs. I’m not immune from this myself, deploring for example the decline in literacy and in civility. But Richard Woolcott seemed to me to carry it all too far in his ‘Democracy Diminished’ piece in New Matilda 74.

He says that the country he served, ‘mostly with pride and always with dedication’ is failing to live up to the promise he saw. His own version of his service differs from the view of others and, in places, from the historical record. But I think many of us who served Australia in its Foreign Service through that period have reservations about aspects of Australian foreign policy since 1996, and about aspects of Government policy on the definition of the national interest and character. The republic issue comes immediately to mind and I share Woolcott’s views on that.

However those who think, as I do, that it should be a primary goal of Australian foreign policy to engage with East Asia should not seek to blame government for the cooling of relations between Australia and the region which occurred between 1998/9 and a couple of years ago. Given the fall of the Suharto regime, the events in East Timor, and the East Asian financial crisis, no Australian government would have been able to sustain the engagement policy which the Howard Government inherited and at first sought to continue.

But in the last couple of years, the present Government has made a serious effort to re-engage.

The atmospherics are different, and the Prime Minister’s rather old-fashioned dedication to the symbols of present Australia’s British origins is grating. But Mr Howard has made a major effort to establish a close rapport with President Yudhoyono of Indonesia. I was told late last year that he had met with President SBY eight times and had had many phone conversations with him. It seems to have been a successful effort, although the application for asylum by 43 West Papuans might be about to subject this new-found rapport to one of the periodic strains and stresses in our relationship with our neighbour.

Australia’s failure to obtain a seat on the UN Security Council is presented by Woolcott as evidence against Howard’s claim about our standing abroad. No doubt the Prime Minister exaggerates Australia’s importance and standing. But so did all his predecessors.

The failure of the 1996 campaign to get onto the Security Council, which was launched and mostly conducted under the Keating Government and involved, for example, sending Malcolm Fraser to Africa to lobby for support is hardly indicative, given the voting blocs and where we fit. The 1996 failure was a rude blow largely because the (Labor-appointed) Australian Ambassador to the UN, had built up hopes with some very optimistic assessments of the likely outcome. Later, it emerged that even some of our regional associates such as South Korea had not voted for us. I cannot see that there was any case for having another go in the last few years. Nor do I think that is a sign that our international standing has declined.

Woolcott thinks our failure to be elected to the UN Security Council for twenty years is due to ‘a darker side to our image.’ Certainly the Hanson phenomenon was shameful and totally regrettable. But in much of the media outside Australia it was grossly exaggerated. In Thailand, for example, people who should have known better portrayed it as threatening to return Australia to its White supremacist past. Where in the world is there not a potential for ethnic or anti-immigrant friction? Because of where we live we can afford it less than most. But all the indications are that it is less prevalent here than almost anywhere else. We have been taking in tens of thousands of immigrants from Asia every year. They and their descendents are a rapidly increasing, though still small, percentage of our population.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

We have trouble with strident Muslim elements from Lebanon especially and a serious effort needs to be made to overcome that. But the very large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese and others are settling in with no more difficulty than, at an earlier stage, the Greeks and Italians did.

There are many thousands of Asian Australian children back at school this week speaking with an unmistakable Australian accent. My grandsons have friends whose parents came from various parts of the region. No doubt, many of them will go on later to win university honours and prizes and be top professionals, business people, and probably also political leaders in this country.

When I was young Australia was a provincial, deeply racist place with a pronounced cultural cringe. Of course, not all the changes have been for the better. But Australia was then a vastly more prejudiced and less liberal society than it is now. There was also far more unemployment, poverty and distress. We have come a long way and if you look around the world you won’t see many other places with as good a balance of rights and obligations, or freedoms and restrictions, as we have here, even with the recent ‘draconian laws’ against terrorism, which most people accept.

And hand-wringing about our being excessively deferential to the US comes oddly from one who was instrumental in setting up, in Melbourne, an entirely Australian-funded branch of the Asia Society of New York when that organisation had to close its Hong Kong office. The Iraq war now appears a mistake. But our participation has been very small and we could hardly have done less when requested by the US, the ally without whose extensive and varied help we could not have undertaken the INTERFET intervention in East Timor.

Our relationship with the United States, as I know from personal experience, is not easy to manage. Of course, we should not be ‘excessively deferential,’ and there is no denying that that impression would be justified by some of the present Government’s statements. But neither is it appropriate to think we are doing them a favour when we accede to some request that might not be very convenient.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.