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The meaning of John Howard’s ten years as Prime Minister of Australia – how Australia has been changed, how the era will eventually be seen – can most easily be grasped if it is accepted that the period of his rule can be divided into two almost equal halves.
The first half of Howard’s prime ministership came to its end with the Tampa crisis of late August 2001. Tampa was no mere incident in the life of the government. It brought to a definitive conclusion the time in which the government – under the shadow of the Hanson backlash against multiculturalism, Asian immigration, Aboriginal land rights and globalisation – had first slowed and then reversed the cultural trajectory of the Hawke and Keating years.
During these years the Howard government abandoned the ambitions to foster in Australia what was called a ‘multicultural society’; to create a republic; to integrate more deeply with the countries of South-East Asia; to find a basis for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Howard saw multiculturalism as a project for demeaning the achievements of the British settlers and turning Australia into a nation of tribes. He believed that during the Hawke and Keating years, in the cause of Asian integration, Australia’s ties with the West and the US had been dangerously diluted. As he put it, time and time again, he did not believe Australia had to choose between its history and its geography. During the preparations for the 1999 Australian-led UN East Timor engagement, what Howard regarded as the sycophantic pro-Asian tilt of his predecessors was rapidly discarded. Under Howard’s leadership and inspiration, the republic was rejected in November 1999 at a national referendum. And, because of his government’s unwillingness to offer a formal apology to the Aborigines or to countenance the hitherto uncontroversial idea of Aboriginal self-determination, the decade-long quest for a symbolic act of reconciliation, at the moment of the centenary of Federation, was nonchalantly scuttled at the Sydney Opera House in May 2000.
The re-imagining of Australia on the basis of multiculturalism, Asian integration, republicanism and reconciliation was associated, in Howard’s mind, politically with the Keating government; socially with those cosmopolitan left-leaning elites, who still treated ‘little Johnny Howard’ with considerable contempt; ideologically with the mindset now almost universally known as ‘political correctness’. In order to conquer Keating, the elites and political correctness, as is now evident in hindsight, only one decisive blow was needed. It was delivered in the government-manufactured Tampa crisis of late August 2001, where the Royal Australian Navy, assisted by crack SAS troops, mounted a successful two-month military campaign whose purpose was to prevent fishing boats with refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia reaching Australian territory.
In striking this blow Howard transformed Australian politics. By exposing the moral gulf between its working-class and left-leaning middle-class supporters, Tampa completely destabilised the Labor Party. By exciting Hanson enthusiasts, with the military repulsion of refugees, Howard destroyed One Nation almost overnight, by satisfying the political appetite on which it had fed. And by treating the humanitarian considerations of old-style liberals with such complete disdain, he converted the party of Deakin-Menzies-Fraser into the party of economic rationalism and populist conservatism that it remains to this day.
By the spring of 2001, Howard had, then, comprehensively routed the grand Keating cultural vision. Yet at this time he seemed to have no alternative vision of Australia’s future to put in its place.
As it turned out, this was not so. If the first half of the Howard era concluded with Tampa, the second half began a mere fortnight later, with the government’s response to the terrorist atrocity of September 11 and America’s declaration of its War on Terror. From this moment Howard worked conscientiously to create a new vision of the future: of an Australia deeply integrated – strategically, economically, socially and culturally – into the most formidable empire the world has ever seen, the new hegemon, the world’s first ‘hyper-power’, the US.
John Howard had been, throughout his political life, a conventional ANZUS and American-alliance enthusiast. As Leader of the Opposition he had been highly critical of the smallest hint of any Labor government deviation from the US foreign policy line. Yet in the first half of his prime ministership, which coincided with the last five years of the Clinton presidency, relations with America were not nearly as close as he might have hoped. In 1997 his government felt obliged to reject a US offer to negotiate a bilateral free trade pact. In the same year, in the prelude to the Kyoto conference, the Clinton administration expressed some irritation with Australian recalcitrance over global warming. In a telephone link-up on 23 July Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, Timothy Wirth, was puzzled at the Howard government’s notion of ‘differentiation’ in national emissions and wondered aloud about what exactly the government’s economic modellers “had been smoking”. In 1999 the Howard government was astonished when the US took a small Melbourne leather exporter to court, and outraged by a US ban on Australian lamb. John Howard did not neglect to praise President Clinton for his country’s diplomatic and logistical support before and during the East Timor deployment. Nonetheless, because of Canberra’s disappointment with the absence of US troops and Washington’s irritation with the incompetence or reticence of the Australian intelligence agencies concerning the terrible Indonesian massacres that followed the independence ballot, US–Australian relations over East Timor were, in private, very tense. It was a sign of American coolness or indifference that when John Howard visited Washington in 1999 all he got with Clinton was a brusque twenty-minute chat.
It was only with the election of George W Bush that Australian–American relations warmed. John Howard was in Washington on 10 September 2001 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the ANZUS alliance. A barbecue arranged by the Australian Embassy was attended by no less a crew than the Vice President, Dick Cheney; the Secretary of State, Colin Powell; and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. At a separate ceremony, President Bush and Prime Minister Howard proposed effusive, apparently heartfelt toasts. Had it not been for the terrorist attacks the following day Howard would have addressed a joint sitting of Congress. Even before the beginning of the War on Terror, then, it was clear that the Bush administration was far more interested than its predecessor in close American–Australian relations.
John Howard was both deeply shaken by September 11 and deeply moved by the nature of the American public response. “I was there,” he explained to Robert Garran, “and having been there I experienced, I absorbed, the sense of disbelief and dismay.” He had witnessed no event more stirring, he told a Congressional committee in 2002, “than the appearance of all of you on the steps of the wonderful Capitol Building the day after the attack and singing ‘God Bless America’.” Although Howard was not by nature an expressive man, when he encountered Tom Schieffer, the US ambassador, shortly after the terrorist attacks, he embraced him warmly in a bear hug.
On 12 September Howard flew back to Australia with Schieffer on Air Force Two, the Vice President’s aircraft, which had been made available to him. After a telephone conversation with his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, while “high above the Pacific Ocean”, as he later put it lyrically, Howard informed Schieffer that, for the first time in 50 years, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked. In America’s hour of need Australia would not stand idly by. Shortly after, President Bush announced the War on Terror and signalled that a war with Afghanistan was not far off. According to the US National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, Australia “clamoured”, as it turned out successfully, to be invited to participate in the invasion force. The moment John Howard had been waiting for during his entire political life had finally arrived.
The “legally nonsensical” – to use Robert Garran’s phrase – but symbolically rich decision to invoke the ANZUS Treaty resembled more a romantic, feudal oath of fealty than a coolly considered diplomatic act. From that moment until the present day, during the war on Afghanistan and then the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Australia would prove itself to be, in company with the UK, the most impeccably faithful ally of the US in the War on Terror. In the words of the Book of Ruth, wherever America would go, so would we.
There was not a song composed in Washington on the road to Baghdad – Iraq’s vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; Iraq’s well-developed nuclear plans; Saddam’s links with Osama bin Laden; the Saddam–Hitler analogy; the irrelevance of the UN; the perfidy of the French; the futility of weapons inspections – that Canberra did not instantly sing. From that moment Australia embarked on a kind of foreign policy course of mimicry or, better still, of automaticity, not seen in this country since the days of appeasement in the 1930s, when Australia proved itself to be the most loyal and predictable dominion in the British Empire. So far as I can tell, once the decision to invade Iraq was taken, the only time when Australia was called upon to exercise independent judgment was when Washington and London slightly disagreed. Twice Blair was determined that the allies should take their case to the UN, at least for the sake of appearances. On both occasions Howard sided with Blair.
Insofar as perceptive observers have noticed Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq, they have treated it with heavy sarcasm. The following passage from Gwynne Dyer’s superb new book Future Tense is typical: “Australia’s defence policy consists primarily of sending Australian troops to every American war, in the hope that if one day Australia needs to have the favour returned, Americans will feel grateful enough to come and help. If the United States invaded Mars, Australia would send a battalion along.” Well-judged mockery of this kind is painful for an Australian citizen to read.
In his Dealing with America, John Langmore points out that during his time at the UN he met many well-informed foreigners who were puzzled by the new Australian foreign policy. I am not surprised. This 1930s-like defence dependency on an imperial protector was unlike that shown even in the days of the Vietnam War, where Australia’s uncritical support for the US was founded on a calibrated assessment of the national interest. We wanted to encourage America’s engagement in the security of South-East Asia. Since then Australia has been a pro-American but independent middle power. How is the Howard-era reversion to be explained?
The most common suggestion is the one found in the passage from Dyer quoted above: Australia has supported the War on Terror as a kind of down payment on its insurance policy with the US. This is a rather naive and cynical account. International relations generally operate on the basis of national interest, not debt and gratitude. For our continued security insurance policy it is not so much Australian taxpayers as innocent Iraqis who have paid. Dyer’s account is, however, plausible. Even Howard “made no secret of the fact that the alliance relationship was a factor in the Government’s decision to join the US-led campaign in Iraq.”
I am not convinced. At the time of the onset of the War on Terror, Australia faced no conventional military threats of any kind in the short- or middle- term for which we needed American protection. The only real security threat we faced – from an Islamist terrorist group – was obviously increased rather than diminished by our participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is far-fetched to argue that our security alliance would have been imperilled if we had not volunteered so eagerly for service. Most American allies did not. Nor is it true that the alliance is a one-way street. The US is reliant upon communications bases in Australia and on the availability to their navy of our ports. They are far more important to the US than the participation of an Australian SAS battalion in one of their many expeditionary wars. It would think very carefully indeed before imperilling or discarding the alliance with Australia. To explain Howard’s enthusiasm for the alliance, then, a different explanation seems to be required.
In my view, John Howard’s decision to commit Australia to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is grounded far less in rational calculation and far more in sentimental dreaming than he or his supporters either understand or would be willing to admit. In preparing for this essay I have read dozens of Howard’s speeches on the US alliance. Unless he is an extraordinary deceiver, what emerges most clearly is romantic attachment to American civilisation and a vision of Australia’s future as ally of the great American Empire. Because of his hostility to republicanism and his love of cricket, Howard is often portrayed as an Anglophile. This seems to me quite wrong. He is an Americanophile. Howard feels attached to the contemporary US in the way his great hero, Sir Robert Menzies, once felt attached to the British Empire.
What follows is a brief account of what Howard thinks and feels about America. In his view, the present century will belong to the US. This is ground for hope. The US “is the only nation that actually has the power to change the world for the better.” The virtues of American civilisation are clear. It is grounded in democracy, the rule of law and individual freedom. It upholds the core belief that “the individual is more important than the state.” America has shed Old-World divisions and prejudices. It is a civilisation that encourages “robust but ethical capitalism” to generate new wealth. It is a civilisation where “decency and hard work define a person’s worth, not class or race or social background.” It has benefited from the fact that it has grown from a pioneer society where adversity has been overcome and dreams pursued. It is a land of opportunity where effort is rewarded and where migrants from the four corners of the world have found a home. American civilisation believes in the family, “the greatest social welfare system the world has ever devised.” It believes, too, in calling out from its people the spirit of ‘volunteerism’, in groups that Edmund Burke called “God’s platoons”.
Although he acknowledges minor differences between the American and Australian characters – we are ‘practical’ and believe in ‘mateship’ and the ‘fair go’ – to a quite remarkable and felicitous degree, all the qualities that Howard admires in American civilisation are found here, too. Our values are almost identical: “We are warmed by the same fires.” Relations between America and Australia are indeed so close and natural – we like each other and are not afraid to say so – that he believes that for Australians “nothing comparable can be found in any other relationship.”
As so often with Howard it is the military dimension of the relationship that goes most deep. Time and again he reminds his audience of the Battle of Hamel in 1918, where American and Australian soldiers first fought together under the command of Australia’s greatest ever general, John Monash. Often he refers to the Australian and American airmen who were shot down together in New Guinea and who, because their bodies could not be separated, now share a common grave at Arlington cemetery. According to Howard, since World War I, “There’s never been a significant military conflict in which we haven’t fought side by side.” And there has never been a time – not in Vietnam, not in Iraq – when the cause for which we fought together has not been unambiguously good and just.
As Dr Johnson understood, old friendships need constant tending. Howard makes no secret of the fact that one of the most important achievements of his prime ministership has been to breathe new life into ANZUS and the American alliance. No mere “legalistic document”, ANZUS is “the outward manifestation of a very deep and abiding relationship between our two societies.” America represents for him a shiningly positive country. Integration with it is his vision of our future. It was for these reasons, rather than as a matter of cool calculation – before we joined the Iraq invasion force Howard did not even bother about a Cabinet submission setting out the pros and cons – that his government sent Australian troops into Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was unfortunate that the Howard government should have decided to swear its oath of fealty at the precise moment when the US was about to embark on the greatest foreign policy disaster in its history. It is estimated that the war in Iraq will eventually cost, at a minimum, US$500 billion and, at a maximum, according to the Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, US$2 trillion. Even the lower figure is almost twenty times what the Economist believes Iraq’s entire gross domestic product to have been in the year of the invasion. After three years of inconclusive war many tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than two thousand American troops have been killed. The struggles against the US occupation have provided for the second generation of Islamist terrorists the kind of battleground for hardening that the struggles against the Soviet army in Afghanistan provided for the first. As a consequence, in large part, of the war in Iraq, throughout the Middle East the force of Islamist radicalism is everywhere on the rise, the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territory being only the most recent and conspicuous example. Central Iraq, where Sunnis and Shias coexist, is a tinderbox almost certain to ignite into civil war when the Americans eventually depart. The streets of Baghdad are among the most dangerous in the world. Despite the expenditure of billions of development dollars, supplies of electricity and clean water have not improved from the unsatisfactory standards of pre-invasion times. It is with the folly of this nature that Australia’s name will forever be associated.
The most penetrating explanation of America’s Iraq disaster I have encountered is Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism. In part Bacevich explains the disaster through an unusually lucid and sophisticated analysis of the growing influence of neo-conservative intellectuals, Christian evangelicals, and insider military strategists and planners like Albert Wohlstetter and Andrew Marshall. In part he explains it as the logical end point of America’s deployment of military power in the Middle East since the early 1980s, to gain control of the oil-producing region on which future American prosperity depends. But in part – and this is what has most relevance for Australia – he explains it through his demonstration of how all these disparate forces have reshaped American political culture into what he calls “the new militarism”.
The spirit of new militarism helps justify the vast American military expenditure. According to one way of counting, the US currently spends on its armed forces as much as the rest of the entire world. As a dimension of this new militarism, America believes, as never before, in the justice and the efficacy of solving its international problems through the use of armed force. During the 45 years of the Cold War the US became involved in six wars. In the 15 years since its end it has been involved in 11. New militarism produced the hitherto unthinkable doctrine of preventive war. Inside the culture of the new militarism, politicians routinely genuflect towards generals; presidents are eager to don military dress and appear at military gatherings; soldierly values become central; criticism of military adventurism becomes an unpatriotic failure ‘to support the troops’.
In recent years shrewd Australian observers – Mark McKenna in his caustic chapter in Raimond Gaita’s Why the War Was Wrong; John Birmingham with surprising fondness in ‘A Time for War’, the recent Quarterly Essay – have noticed that, in both material and ideal form, aspects of the culture of new militarism have taken root in our soil. In 1996 the defence budget was quarantined from all cost savings. In 2000 Howard announced that, over the next decade, Australia’s defence budget would rise in real terms by 3% each year. In the excitement following the East Timor intervention, John Howard allowed Australia to be labelled America’s regional ‘deputy sheriff’. So enthusiastic was his government about Washington’s new doctrine of the ‘pre-emptive strike’, that the Prime Minister even applied it – clumsily, purposelessly and at considerable diplomatic cost – to a hypothetical presence somewhere in South-East Asia of an anti-Australian terrorist cell. In the decade since the election of the Howard government, Australian troops have been dispatched on different kinds of missions to East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands, Aceh and Kashmir. At the end of 2005 John Howard not unjustly called attention “to the extraordinarily expanded role that the Australian Defence Force has assumed” in recent years. Nor is it merely a question of the number of deployments. Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia’s SAS battalions have won a reputation throughout the English-speaking world for discipline, toughness, resourcefulness and courage; for the kind of fighting qualities the Gurkhas in the British imperial forces were once thought to possess.
It was Mark McKenna who first pointed to the political significance of the number of occasions – forty at last count – where John Howard had farewelled Australian troops or visited them in the field or welcomed them home, personally, effusively and in front of television cameras. And it was Tony Kevin who first called attention to the increasingly common custom of beginning rugby or football finals with spectacular military displays. Indeed, once you begin to look it is possible to find many instances of the deepening influence of the military upon the culture. Following his return from duty as commander of the UN force in East Timor, the genial Peter Cosgrove became probably the most popular military figure in the history of Australia. When Howard’s first choice of governor-general, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, felt obliged to resign, the Prime Minister turned to a former general, Michael Jeffrey, to replace him. On every conceivable occasion military honour rolls or military supplements are published throughout the Murdoch press. The deaths of the last surviving diggers from World War I have been followed by state funerals and turned into major media events. Most importantly, during the Howard years, the commemorations on Anzac Day of the Gallipoli landings, almost universally acknowledged now as the sacred moment of Australian history, have grown steadily in significance and solemnity.
Howard is both the product and articulator of the Australian version of the new militarism. Despite the repetitions and the platitudes, it is instructive to attend closely to what he has had to say on the many occasions he has spoken to the troops or addressed Anzac Day parades. Howard’s most important theme in these speeches is something he calls “Australia’s great military tradition”. What he means is that, while in every generation Australians have served abroad, in no instance have they sought to impose their will. According to him, ours is “not a tradition of brutality or triumphalism, it is a tradition of being willing to sacrifice all to do the right thing in the cause of freedom.” Within this tradition “the culture of militarism”, he insists, has never taken root.
Soldiers are for him “an emblem of what this country stands for”. Howard sees in them an expression of the kind of enterprise culture he hopes to foster, what he called in one Anzac Day address “proud self-reliance and personal initiative”. Even more importantly he sees in our military history the most moving instances of ‘mateship’, for him unquestionably the primary Australian moral virtue. In one speech John Howard referred to the writing of a soldier who had experienced the senseless cruelties of the Japanese as a prisoner of war. “He recorded that he couldn’t remember a single Australian dying alone. There was always someone there to look after him in some way. That expressed our mateship.” But it was not only that the virtues of Australians were most powerfully expressed in the experience of war. It was out of the shared suffering of the soldiers in the trenches of World War I that the martial soul of Australia was born. On the passing of the last digger, Alec Campbell, Howard put it like this: “The spirit bequeathed by Alec and his generation though born of war’s adversity still slumbers within a people, ready to rise and draw new breath when disaster strikes or danger threatens.”
In Howard’s view Anzac Day is the most important day of the Australian calendar. It represents “a great silent summons to repay the debt of the past”. Nations who forget their past are doomed. In the course of his public life nothing has moved him more profoundly than the ceremony he attended in 2000 at Gallipoli, Australia’s sacred soil. Nothing has surprised and delighted him more than the mood of reverence for Anzac and Gallipoli that he had seen growing steadily, especially among the young. Howard is not by nature a poetic man. But on each Anzac Day he struggles to elevate the occasion with the kind of Edwardian poetic cadences he must have encountered in his youth. “Soon the fire struck here will be ours to tend. Soon its record once written on pages wet with tears will be ours alone to guard, ours to cherish, ours to live.”
Howard’s prime ministerial predecessors spoke sparingly about the Australian military tradition. In the second half of his prime ministership, it was one of Howard’s most persistent themes. The sentimentalised version of the new Australian militarism provided a fitting atmosphere for romanticising the Australian involvement in the invasion of Iraq, for turning all Australian soldiers into instant diggers, and for legitimising all new military spending. Howard had encouraged the Australian political culture to become increasingly and unprecedentedly militarised, to accompany the commitment of his country to faithful service alongside the Americans in the War on Terror.
Following the election of President George W Bush in November 2000, the Howard government made a historic decision: to approach Washington about the negotiation of a bilateral so-called ‘free trade’ deal. It was a puzzling decision. For the past forty years all Australian governments had been strong supporters of the cause of multilateral trade agreements. Since the Uruguay Round of trade talks in the early 1990s Australia had been a leader of the Cairns Group of countries, struggling against the high levels of agricultural protection supported by Japan, the EU and the US. On three previous occasions – in 1985, 1992 and 1997 – the US had raised the possibility of a bilateral free trade deal with Australia. On each occasion the offer had been resisted on the ground that it was not in the national interest. Yet now it was Canberra that approached Washington.
In his Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann points out that while neo-liberals in the US support the idea of multilateral free trade, the neo-conservatives are muscular bilateralists. When Canberra put out feelers Bush’s Washington was, accordingly, responsive. Mike Delaney, the member of the State Department who was given responsibility for the talks, recalls that when in 2001 the Australian Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, presented a petition from Australian business, one guest at the dinner, Donald Rumsfeld, dropped his fork and exclaimed: “This is something we should have done a long time ago.” On the day before September 11, Bush and Howard agreed that talks should begin. The process would be led by Mark Vaile and the US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, an affable but hardline neo-conservative who had signed the famous Project for the New American Century letter in 1998 urging President Clinton to go to war against Iraq.
Serious negotiation began in March 2003, the month of the Iraq invasion. Both sides hoped that, because of the US electoral cycle, they would be concluded by the end of the year. This ambition narrowly failed. Howard was determined that the “window of opportunity” not be squandered. What Mark Vaile described as “challenging, exciting and gruelling” talks took place in early 2004. From the Australian point of view they did not go well. US agricultural protectionism remained the greatest difficulty. One insider was surprised to discover that to the Americans “the relationship wasn’t worth thirty thousand tonnes of beef.” On 7 February, according to reliable reports, the Australian negotiators wanted to walk away. Vaile phoned Howard. The Prime Minister dug in. On 8 February 2004 the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement was duly signed.
Although the text was exceedingly complex and would take months for its full meaning to be digested, from the moment of publication no amount of government spin could disguise the fact that from the Australian perspective it represented an exceedingly disappointing deal. Australian government ministers had always insisted that without major American concessions over agricultural exports – or even, as Alexander Downer heroically suggested in March 2001, genuine free trade – no agreement would be possible. A comment of the Prime Minister’s on talk radio in November 2003 was typical: “It stands to reason that if we can’t get something by on agriculture then we won’t have a free trade agreement. We won’t.” As Australia’s chief negotiator, Stephen Deady, made public at the same time, American concessions over beef, dairy produce and sugar were most important.
The trade deal did deliver a modest, although still disappointing, increase in dairy exports. Beef exporters, however, discovered that it would take 18 years before quotas would be dropped, that the beef they would be allowed to sell in the American market was at the low end of the market – suitable for hamburgers and pet food – and that even when quotas were eventually removed, if the price of beef fell 6.5% below its average price, which it did in one year out of two, quotas would be restored. It has been estimated that Australian beef exporters gained A$600 a year from the deal or, as one wit put it, half a cow.
Yet over sugar the result was even worse. In January 2004 the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, had described a free trade deal without sugar as “un-Australian”. Un-Australian it was. Sugar was excluded altogether from the agreement. To calm the anger of the sugar producers the Howard government offered a $444 million subsidy. This represented a gift of $70,000 for each of Australia’s 6500 sugar growers. The New York Times and the Washington Post were more outraged by exclusion of sugar from the free trade agreement than Australia’s own Murdoch press. The Bush administration had once more caved in, they editorialised, to the powerful US sugar lobby.
In general, then, as the result of the agricultural agreement, American farmers could export to Australia without impediment. The overall agricultural tariff for Australian goods to the US was 34%.
The situation was only marginally more favourable to Australia with regard to the trade in manufactured goods. Before the free trade agreement the US general tariff on manufactures was a mere 3% and Australia’s 5%. The agreement lifted the 25% American tariff on utility trucks to the benefit of Australian producers, while lifting the lower tariff on Australian automobiles and auto parts for the benefit of the Americans. It changed little else. Australia had once anticipated that it might be permitted, under a supposedly free trade agreement, to export to America its excellent high-speed ferries, totally banned under the US Congress’s Jones Act. As early as October 2003 the managing director of the Tasmanian firm Incat was advised to abandon hope. In theory Australia gained access to the large US federal government procurement market in return for giving American companies access to ours. Yet once again the agreement was lopsided. Both sides were allowed to offer some advantages to their small businesses. Concessions to Australian small businesses were optional but to the American ones obligatory. Australia defined a small firm as one with 200 employees. A small firm in the US had 1500. America had developed a sophisticated protectionist culture in the area of government procurement, in which the 30 countries already legally able to bid for contracts held a 2% market share. By contrast, Australian economic culture ensured openness to outsiders. The chances of Australia making inroads into the American government procurement market were negligible. American chances of penetrating into ours were excellent.
So extravagant were the claims about the benefits to Australia made by the government’s chosen modellers, the Centre for International Economics, and so preposterous were the assumptions on which their predictions had been based (in its first report it thought that sugar exports to America would increase by 2550%), that one of the agreement’s most trenchant neo-liberal critics, Professor Ross Garnaut, argued memorably that they failed what he called the economists’ “laugh test”. Yet even CIE did not expect any improvement in Australia’s A$12 billion trade deficit with the US. This was not wrong. At the end of the first full year of the agreement, while America’s exports to Australia had risen by almost 6%, Australia’s exports to America had fallen by almost 5%.
Yet it was in the area of traded goods that the deal was most uneven. Despite its rather over-dramatic title, How to Kill a Country by Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thurbon and John Mathews is the best analysis of the details of the free trade agreement yet written. In essence what its authors show is that the US has used the deal to challenge Australian institutions and undermine our sovereignty.
Despite their almost unhindered access to the Australian market, American farm lobbyists have long characterised Australia’s quarantine procedures as a form of disguised protectionism. The high quality of our quarantine procedures is critical to Australia’s ‘clean and green’ export reputation. The World Trade Organization investigated the system and found it did not involve any element of quasi-protectionism. Yet under the terms of the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement new joint quarantine working groups and committees have been formed in Australia, through which the Americans will, almost certainly, work to dilute Australia’s quarantine procedures. After the agreement was signed Zoellick was pleased. “Food inspection procedures that have produced barriers in the past,” he argued, “will be addressed.” In this way the free trade agreement has increased the risk of the introduction for the first time of some pests and animal diseases, including mad cow disease.
Another institution that the authors of How to Kill a Country believe to be under threat is the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, a long-time target of the ruthless and enormously profitable US pharmaceutical industry, which sees in the lower prices paid by Australians for their prescription drugs – three or four times less than Americans pay – a case of Australians taking a free ride. As a consequence of the free trade agreement, the pharmaceutical giants have won the right to mount legal challenges to the decisions of Australia’s Pharmacy Benefits Advisory Group. In addition, a joint Medicines Working Group has been established as a means of injecting the US pharmaceutical industry’s viewpoint into the decision-making process of Australia’s highly successful PBS scheme and of wearing Australian resistance down. It was no accident that, after the signature of the free trade deal, Robert Zoellick was praised in Congress by Senator Kyle for “having secured an agreement that would deliver higher prices paid by the PBS for US-patented drugs”.
At the very heart of contemporary US trade strategy is the creation of a system to advance the interests of its globally dominant corporations in entertainment, information technology and pharmaceuticals, whose profits rely on the most rigorous protection and expansion of intellectual property rights. From the American point of view, the most pleasing aspect of the agreement is Australia’s total compliance here. In each of its last six ‘free trade’ agreements the US has signed, the intellectual property chapters have been central. They have an accelerating, precedential function; each piggybacks on the last. The agreement with Australia was no exception. In it, despite our own tough laws, US ambitions were satisfied and US legislation written into the treaty almost verbatim. As a consequence, Australia agreed to extend copyright from 50 to 70 years (known affectionately in the US, because of the Disney corporation’s lobbying, as the ‘Mickey Mouse’ law); to criminalise gadgets used to overcome American technology aimed at preventing reproductions of CDs and DVDs; to ban imports to Australia of US goods from countries where they are cheaper (in jargon, parallel importation); to freeze our local content rules for free-to-air television at present levels and to prohibit for all time local content rules on all forms of new media. It is astonishing that a protectionist regime of this kind has been smuggled into a supposedly free trade agreement. It is dismaying that Australia has abandoned its national sovereignty and its capacity to develop a national cultural policy, almost without consideration or debate.
It is possible that the Howard government hoped that its role in the War on Terror would be rewarded with special concessions in the free trade negotiations. If so, it had altogether underestimated the power of special interests in Congress and the determination of the US trade department. All Bush could offer Howard was a shorter wait in the bilateral free trade queue. Why, then, did the Howard government agree to sign so unequal an agreement?
One answer is political. As the treaty was sold by the government to the public as “an historic achievement” and a “once in a generation opportunity” even before it was signed, and as the public was led by the government to believe that it would represent a dividend for Australia’s faithful service in Afghanistan and Iraq, to have walked away from the agreement would have been widely interpreted as signifying the failure of the government’s entire American strategy.
Yet there is a more important reason than this. The lobbyist chosen by Australian big business to lead the push for the free trade agreement was Alan Oxley, a man who had previously worked to undermine Australia’s involvement in the international movement against global warming. In his frequent public appearances, Oxley dismissed the trade dimensions of the agreement as trivial. He described such matters as quarantine, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and intellectual property law as “dross”. What excited him about the agreement was that it would eventually bring about what he called the total integration of the Australian economy into the more dynamic, more innovative, more productive American one. He insisted that what Australia had signed was not a free trade but an integration agreement.
This was precisely the Prime Minister’s view. When Howard spoke of the free trade agreement he spoke not so much of specific trade or investment benefits but, in rather lofty generalisations, of the way in which, through the agreement, the vast economy of the US and the small economy of Australia could now become – and here he self-consciously chose the word Bob Hawke had used to outline Australia’s future relations with Asia – thoroughly “enmeshed”. John Howard also described the free trade agreement as “an expression of optimism about the future … a remarkable, far-sighted contribution … to relations between” the peoples of the US and Australia, and as adding “a stronger economic dimension to the very deep bilateral ties that are already there”. On this matter his Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, spoke even more plainly. He described the free trade pact as “the commercial equivalent of the ANZUS Treaty”. Howard was, in short, willing to sign an unsatisfactory free trade agreement because he saw it as part of something very much larger: nothing less than his vision of Australia’s future.
Ann Capling is Australia’s pre-eminent student of Australian trade policy. In her elegant recent book All the Way with the USA she argues, entirely persuasively, that the negotiation of the Australia–US agreement was the first occasion since imperial preference in the 1930s that the trade policy of an Australian government has placed political and strategic considerations ahead of the nation’s commercial interests. The political-strategic purpose was, in my opinion, more than the strengthening of a security alliance. It was to complete the process of Australia’s in-depth integration with the US.
By 2004 it was not only defence and economic relations between the US and Australia that had been harmonised. So, less formally, had foreign policy.
Time and again, on fundamental questions, Australia now followed America’s lead. Australia was one of the first and most enthusiastic supporters of the revolutionary 2002 American strategic doctrine of pre-emptive strike, a doctrine that, if generalised, was certain to destroy the entire post-war framework of international law on questions of war and peace. Alongside the US, Australia became a major critic of the UN, over the unwillingness to licence the invasion of Iraq in particular, but also in general. Our ambassador to the UN, John Dauth, was scathing about the UN’s human rights and social justice committees, and even of the General Assembly, describing them as “moribund”. Alone among the nations Australia gave US policy in the Middle East total support. Only Australia and America refused to condemn Israel when it constructed its West Bank security wall. Australia signed on to the American fantasy of total security through a system of missile defence, an updated version of Reagan’s Star Wars. And, most consequentially, of all the nations on Earth (apart from Liechtenstein and Monaco), only Bush’s America and Howard’s Australia refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the international treaty for joint action to tackle by far the most serious long-term problem humankind faced at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
It is indeed possible to argue that, at the time of the signature of the free trade agreement, Australia had become America’s most compliant ally. Israel was utterly dependent on the US but frequently defiant. Canada was much more integrated economically and culturally, but had refused to join the Iraq adventure. Even though they were closest of allies in the War on Terror, the UK disagreed with US policy over the Middle East and was deeply opposed to US policy on global warming. Apart from a slight difference of nuance over China and Taiwan, it was only Australia that the US could rely on across the board for uncritical and total support.
In early 2004 there was, in fact, only one ghost at the American–Australian banquet, the newly elected leader of the Labor Opposition, Mark Latham. Although Latham’s interests had never been foreign policy or defence, it was quite clear that on the question of the American alliance he was anything but sound.
Two earlier incidents had been troubling. In July 2002 in a Bulletin interview, Latham had described John Howard as “an arse-licker”. All hell had broken loose. Latham told his diary that, if anything, his comment was “restrained”. Seven months later, as the invasion of Iraq approached, while a junior shadow minister, Latham described George W Bush as the most dangerous and incompetent US President in recent history and the Australians who followed him as “a conga-line of suck-holes”. By now relations between the US and Australia had become so close and one-sided that Tom Schieffer had begun to behave more like an imperial viceroy than an ambassador, feeling free to intervene in domestic politics without even a pang of inhibition. Following Latham’s intervention in the Iraq debate, Schieffer publicly condemned Labor’s “rank appeal to anti-Americanism” and laid before the Leader of the Opposition a formal complaint. Crean described the ambassador’s conduct as an “unacceptable and unprecedented interference into the domestic politics of Australia”. While the Prime Minister defended the ambassador’s behaviour, at this time even the Murdoch press did not. To make amends, Schieffer made clear that it had never been his intention to intrude in Labor affairs and generously accepted Crean’s assurances that Labor would “always support the American alliance”. He even offered a sort of apology in Howard-speak. “I just wouldn’t be a good mate of George Bush if I didn’t defend him.”
Ten months later, Latham was unexpectedly elected leader of the Labor Party. Schieffer sent his congratulations. Latham announced: “I believe in the American alliance.” His staff let it be known that he was seeking a meeting with Schieffer. When Latham appeared at a media conference three days after his election, a large American flag was hung as background. Even in Howard’s Australia, was this not taking things a bit far?
As it happens, Latham’s problems on the American front were far from over. In March 2004 he informed Mike Carlton on Sydney radio that if Labor were elected later in the year the small contingent of Australian troops in Iraq would be “home by Christmas”. By coincidence Latham’s remark occurred shortly before the terrible Al Qaeda train bombings in Madrid and the decision of the newly elected socialist government to withdraw all Spanish troops from Iraq. Spain had been one of the most solid supporters of the Anglo-American invasion. Another politically motivated withdrawal by an even more unquestioning member of the coalition of the willing had the capacity to do real damage to the American position in Iraq. Schieffer re-entered Australian politics with open criticism of Latham: “If people believe the bombings can occur and then pay political dividends at the end of the day, I am afraid that just invites more political bombings.” For its part, the Murdoch press went ballistic.
Latham had accepted an invitation for the June meeting of the United States–Australia Leadership dialogue in Washington, the forum where Australian politicians, business people and journalists regularly travelled to the imperial capital to pay homage. Among this elite group Latham was by now almost the only important dissident on the question of the American alliance. Not wanting to be berated or humiliated, he was now very eager, as he explains in his diary, to find an excuse to cancel the trip. He cancelled on the grounds of a possible early election. His decision was wise. On 5 June, on the lawns of the White House, in the company of John Howard, President Bush described Latham’s troops-out policy as “disastrous” and as likely “to embolden the enemy” and “dispirit those who love freedom”. Bush was not alone. Of all the senior figures in the Bush administration none took a keener interest in Australian affairs than the Under Secretary at the Department of State, Rich Armitage. In a lengthy interview with one of the dialogue’s key participants, Paul Kelly of the Australian, he warned that if Latham were elected the very future of the ANZUS alliance would be put at risk. Soon Armitage went even further. On the basis of what he had learned in the confidence of the dialogue discussions, Armitage told Australian journalists that the ALP was “rent down the middle over its Iraq policy”. Paul Keating called this “a thuggish intervention”. Even the mild-mannered Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, who had attended the dialogue, let it be known that he was shocked by Armitage’s unprincipled behaviour.
In early June Latham was still confident that he could challenge the Howard government’s vision for Australia. “If it’s still the Australian way I will win the election,” he wrote in his diary on the day of Bush’s intervention, “If not, what the people are saying is that they don’t mind being a colony under John Howard.” In truth, by mid-July his confidence had been destroyed. To neutralise the American issue, Latham convinced Kim Beazley to return to the shadow frontbench as spokesperson for defence. Schieffer duly praised Beazley as “a great friend of the United States”. In a major public speech Latham acknowledged that “overwhelmingly the international role of the United States” was “a force for good”. Even the Australian was conciliatory: “Mr Latham is not the extreme enemy of the US he is often portrayed.” Latham had by now conceded that his troops-out policy had been a failure. When he officially launched the Labor Party’s federal election campaign in late September, of this policy he mentioned not one word. Although, as his diaries published in the following year revealed, Latham was privately extremely hostile about what he thought of as Howard’s slavishly neo-colonial American policy, in public he had been brought into line.
Following the October 2004 election only two questions muddied the waters regarding the future of the relationship between Australia and the US. One might be called the problem of the asymmetry of interest. Australia was preoccupied with America. In Washington we still hardly ranked. The President’s visit to Australia in November 2003 was over in 21 hours. Tom Schieffer left Australia in November 2004. Fifteen months later no replacement had been announced. In January this year, as Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice planned a visit to Sydney to initiate an alternative movement on global warming. She nonchalantly cancelled when Ariel Sharon fell ill.
Stranger still was the question of public sentiment. In 2005 the Lowy Institute published the most comprehensive study ever undertaken into Australian attitudes about foreign affairs. The survey discovered that while, as always, about 70% of Australians supported the ANZUS alliance, only 46% supported our involvement in the occupation of Iraq. Other findings were even more revealing. Sixty-eight per cent of those surveyed thought Australia paid too much attention to America. Thirty-four per cent believed that the free trade agreement was good for Australia. Fifty-seven per cent of people believed American foreign policy posed a danger to the world, precisely the same number as were concerned about Islamic radicalism. Most unexpected was the question of affection. Ninety-seven per cent of those surveyed had, on balance, positive feelings about New Zealand; 86% about the United Kingdom: 84% about Japan; and 69% about China. Only 58% were positive about the US. After years of pro-American policy and propaganda from the Howard government and the Murdoch press, Australians had more positive feelings about a wartime enemy, Japan, than they had for the country that had saved us from the threat, the US. One thing at least was clear. The trajectory of American policy under Howard had been unconnected to what ordinary people believed.
For some time I thought of the process I have outlined in this essay as the Americanisation of Australia. I now think this label wrong.
Americanisation is a highly ambiguous idea. In some contexts it is used merely as a kind of synonym for modernisation, the inexorable rise of an individualistic, consumerist capitalist culture. This kind of Americanisation is not, of course, peculiar to Australia. It represents the general trajectory of the Western and, in part, of the non-Western worlds. In other contexts Americanisation is used as an intellectual boo-word, revealing little more than the deep layers of political hostility to America on the Left or the anti-American social snobbery still found among parts of the Right. Because of the ambiguity of the term and the pejorative baggage it so frequently carries, to speak of the Americanisation of Australia under Howard probably does more to cloud than to enhance understanding.
For the Howard vision of an Australia deeply integrated with the new American Empire, there is, I think, a more illuminating term. As I have argued, the political character of Australia since September 11 shows certain curious similarities with that of another period of our history: the 1930s. During the uneasy 1930s, with the military expansion of Germany and Japan, Australian governments offered London automatic and entirely reliable defence and foreign policy support. Menzies’ announcement that “as a result” of the British declaration of war on Germany, Australia was also at war was, at the time, completely uncontroversial. Since September 11 and the beginning of the War on Terror, for the first time since the 1930s, the Australian government, in its support for every word and action of the US, has reverted to a foreign policy stance of invariable loyalty. In the 1930s Australia was offered a form of foreign policy independence within the framework of the British Empire, on the basis of the Statute of Westminster of 1931. The government was uninterested. Under Howard, since 2001, the Australian government has displayed a rather similar conspicuous indifference to mounting even the appearance of a foreign policy independence vis-a-vis the US. In 1932, at Ottawa, after the coming of the Great Depression, Australia willingly joined a not obviously beneficial British-sponsored system of preferential imperial trade. Under the government of John Howard, in 2004, as part of our integration into the American economy, Australia signed on to an unequal bilateral preferential trade treaty with the US, with no obvious economic benefit and at the expense of our longstanding commitment to the cause of multilateral free trade.
For Robert Menzies, England of the 1930s was a powerful country of the mind – a treasure trove of tradition, a source of values and meaning, a site of charm. John Howard has a similarly romantic relationship with the idea of the US. Menzies was thrilled to be welcome in the London of Stanley Baldwin or at Buckingham Palace. John Howard is no less thrilled to be welcome in Washington or at Crawford, George W Bush’s Texan ranch. Menzies and his generation saw in the cultivation of the closest links with the British Empire, economy and culture a vision of Australia’s long-term future. Howard has a similar view about the long-term relationship between Australia and the US. And just as a questioning of Australia’s links with the British Empire was regarded in the 1930s as close to treachery, so has the Howard government and the Murdoch press since September 11 come to think of criticism of American foreign policy or the ANZUS alliance or the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement not merely as anti-American but also, in the phrase that first made an important appearance in the late 1990s, as ‘un-Australian’.
During the 1930s Australia was no longer a colony of Britain but a strategically, economically, culturally and politically dependent self-governing dominion. What has been so strange and dispiriting about the Howard government’s trajectory since September 11 has been the reversion to this kind of dependent relationship with the new global imperial power, the US. With regard to the latter half of the Howard years, what has happened is a process best described not as the Americanisation but as the dominionisation of Australia.
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