Morrison's tanking of the Australian-French submarine deal in favour of the AUKUS pact signals to the world that Australia is not interested in being a real sovereign nation, writes Peter Henning.
AUSTRALIA AS a prospective “nation for a continent” is no more.
At the time of Federation in 1901, there was a tantalising notion that one day Australia could emerge from dominion status within the British empire and stand on its own two feet, but much of that hope was bled to death on the killing fields of Gallipoli and the Somme, as Australia decided that king and empire should then control the 1920s and 1930s.
After 1945 there was some renewal of hope, but the creation of the Domino Theory – the notion that monolithic communism orchestrated from Moscow and flowing south from China, through Malaysia and Indonesia to Australia like a tidal wave – meant Australia handed Washington control over its foreign and defence policies as fast as Harold Holt could say “all the way with LBJ”.
Maybe there was a glimpse of optimism again after the end of the Vietnam War, encapsulated in the title of Russel Ward’s history of Australia from Federation to 1975: A Nation For A Continent: the history of Australia, 1901–1975.
Engagement with Asia showed some signs of emerging maturity and lessening of xenophobia from the time that Gough Whitlam visited China in 1971 as Opposition Leader.
The 50th anniversary of that event passed in July this year, in the main being deliberately ignored. Such is the gulf in stature between Whitlam and the current leadership of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) that it is entirely impossible to imagine Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese ever contemplating such a thing, now or in the future, or indeed in the past if he had been in Whitlam’s shoes in 1971 and 1972.
From 1996, John Howard snuffed out engagement with Asia as he sought to strangle everything which threatened his views about the “white armband” of British imperial achievement in Australia — which meant opposing the republican movement, trade unions, Mabo and Wik and reconciliation, as well as reinventing Holt’s “all the way” logo on a grander scale as U.S. “deputy sheriff”.
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It was all called the “culture wars”, since perpetuated by Tony Abbott’s attempts to reinstate British imperial honours, giving a knighthood to the husband of the British Queen and surrounding himself with a pantheon of Australian flags whenever he made a speech, in stylish imitation of an American president.
Now, Joe Biden’s new “pal”, that "uh, fella down unda” – at another time more fondly ensconced as Trump’s soulmate and acolyte in a range of political matters, notably a liking for pork and showy public performance and a distaste for transparency – has dramatically outdone all previous attempts to sabotage Australia becoming a real nation-state.
PM Scott Morrison has gone further than just placing the prospect of independent nationhood on hold or delaying it for fear of adult responsibility, but has taken a wrecking ball to it — to use his own word, “forever”.
Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s main messages to the world at large are threefold. First, as the French reaction indicates so powerfully, Australia cannot be trusted in bilateral international agreements. Australia will be confirmed in the international community as a negotiator in bad faith, not to be believed.
The fact that French President Emmanuel Macron was treated so shabbily by Morrison in June this year, misleadingly conveying the impression that nothing had changed in relation to the Australian-French submarine deal, has been regarded as deeply offensive, a betrayal tantamount to contempt, which will resonate throughout non-Anglo Europe as a warning to be wary of Australia. Morrison’s dismissal of the French reaction by basically saying “they’ll get over it”, adds a further level of oafish ignorance which will be remembered long after Morrison and Dutton have left office.
Second and disastrously, Morrison’s behaviour will have alienated most of East Asia as well, from Japan to Indonesia, with the probable exception of Taiwan. He has effectively told them that Australia’s role in the region is determined in the White House and the Pentagon — “forever” into the future. The message to Indonesia and Malaysia, in particular, is that Australia has excluded itself from meaningful relationships in the region, and is more interested in being an outpost of Anglo-American interests.
If it has often been difficult in the past for countries throughout East Asia to take Australia seriously as an independent voice in any forums — that difficulty, in any discussions about a range of issues, has now been substantially increased. Morrison’s secret deal means that any East Asian country would now be much more aware of the need to consider Australian views or participation in regional activities as based on instructions from Washington or as representing American interests.
Third, explicit in the whole bizarre shemozzle is that the submarines have no relevance to the defence of Australia whatsoever and are a complete waste of money from that perspective. Their only realistic purpose lies in long-range operations in combination with U.S. naval forces — meaning use in U.S. interests totally under U.S. control as if Australia was a non-voting U.S. territory.
Morrison and Dutton have now ensured, by this arrangement and less publicised commitments alluded to by Dutton about Australia becoming a more permanent U.S. army and missile base, that an American war with China – if it comes to that – will automatically and immediately involve Australia. As it did for Australia as a British dominion in 1914 (“to the last man and the last shilling”) and again in 1939.
This might seem a little different to Australia’s willing involvement in American wars since the 1960s. But until now Australia has had a say, albeit invariably in “all the way” forelock-tugging mode of “mutual agreement and cooperation”, or whatever. This has now been replaced, as Morrison sanguinely informs us, by handballing the whole box and dice of Australia’s future into whatever the U.S. decides is best for them, with no room for manoeuvre.
A war with China won’t be some excursion to Beijing as in the 1900-1901 Boxer Rebellion. Nor will it be the establishment of a military base in a province, such as Phuoc Tuy in Vietnam or Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan. Nor will it be like fighting the Japanese in Malaya and New Guinea, or the Germans and Italians in North Africa during World War II.
Potentially, this would be a war involving death and destruction on Australian soil of much greater consequence than Japanese raids over the Northern Territory in World War II. It won’t be some fly-in and then fly-out operation where all the death and destruction is carried out on foreign soil.
Morrison has not only trashed Australia’s ability to act independently within the U.S. alliance; shown the world that it cannot be trusted and wrecked any remaining shreds of credibility as a genuine participant in its region, but he has also advertised broadly at home and abroad that Australia is not capable or interested in being a real sovereign nation, and has simply given up on that idea.
It remains to be seen what the internal response will be to returning Australia to a type of pre-Federation mentality of colonial subservience, where any hope of forward-looking independent nationhood is all thrown away. The initial response of the ALP suggests they are quite happy to go down a road that “forever” turns off the light of becoming “a nation for a continent”.
Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian and author.
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