Leading article Australia

Two cheers for Mr Fraser

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

Many Liberals and conservatives have been disgusted by Malcolm Fraser’s lurch to the Left since he lost office in 1983. But not everything the former prime minister espouses is outrageous. And so when, in his new book Dangerous Allies (which James Curran reviews on page ix), he warns of the dangers of being a lick-spittle to Uncle Sam, and too uncritical of the poses that Washington strikes in the world, he deserves a respectful audience.

That’s not to say Australia should jettison the 63-year-old security treaty with what Sir Robert Menzies called ‘our great and powerful friend’. The alliance is so deeply embedded in the national psyche, so popular with middle Australia and so important to the national security that it will remain the centrepiece of our foreign policy.

But it would be churlish to dismiss Mr Fraser’s thesis entirely. We are the only nation to have joined America in every major military intervention in the past century. Notwithstanding our disagreements over Suez in 1956, west New Guinea in the early 1960s and trade since the 1980s, Australia has never really deviated significantly from the US position on any major issue.

Thus during Vietnam did Harold Holt pledge to go ‘All the Way With LBJ’ and John Gorton promised a possibly bemused Richard Nixon that Australia would ‘Go Waltzing Matilda With You’. And following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, John Howard said ‘this is no time to be an 80 per cent ally,’ declaring Australia would ‘provide all the support that might be requested of us by the United States in relation to any action that might be taken’ (our italics). It was an astonishingly unqualified commitment made at a time when the nature of the Bush administration’s response, and the demands on Australia it might involve, were completely unknown.

But as every honest erstwhile hawk now concedes, and as Mr Fraser among others predicted at the time, the Iraq invasion turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Leave aside the costs in blood, treasure and credibility, Iraq has slid into chaos and internecine conflict. From a security perspective, what did Saddam Hussein do to us other than buy our wheat? Yes, we have an alliance, but other US allies — from Canada to Germany — opposed the war.

When critics of Mr Howard’s stance over Iraq such as Mr Fraser warn that Canberra should not automatically sign up for any US campaign to contain China, our largest trade partner, bear in mind that such scepticism enhances rather than diminishes Australia in the eyes of Washington. But we should not rethink our alliance with the US, as Mr Fraser suggests; we should rethink how we approach it. We need to use our close relations with the US to counsel caution and restraint. Far from putting our trust in a ‘special relationship’, we should act with more discrimination, selectivity and prudence. If that means staying on the sidelines in the event of a Sino–American stoush in the Taiwan straits or East and South China seas, so be it. Many Australians would agree.


Joe the lion


Joe the surgeon clutching bloodied scalpel. Joe the butcher in blood-stained apron. Joe the cigar-munching high roller. It’s perfectly understandable that cartoonists, satirists and

editors rely on personifying the Treasurer to make their point about the perceived rights or wrongs of his 2014 budget. (We ourselves had Joe the boxer landing a knockout blow on our cover two weeks ago.)

But it’s a far cry from such simplistic caricaturing to the sneering attacks on the nation’s CFO that many in the media have indulged in. Take the veteran
Canberra press gallery journalist Laurie Oakes on the Nine Network. He cheapened both himself and his programme with a snide and patronising riff about Joe Hockey dancing in his office celebrating ‘the best day of his life’ while the sick, the unemployed and others suffer. The reality — that the Treasurer was enjoying a bit of fun with his eight-year-old son, whom he hadn’t seen for several weeks — was of little interest
to Mr Oakes and his innuendo-laden agenda. Mr Oakes was hardly alone in unleashing the crassest of class envy with his coverage.

There are sound reasons to criticise the government’s budget — from broken promises to tax hikes — and we ourselves will have more to say about the economic debate in coming weeks. But the point here is that one can disagree with Joe Hockey and subject him to scrutiny without getting personal and, frankly, nasty. Like his predecessors, he is merely thinking of the national interest.

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