Australian Notes

Australian notes

5 March 2015

11:30 AM

5 March 2015

11:30 AM

The influential American journal Foreign Affairs has not published an article about Australian foreign policy for fifty years. Prime Minister Menzies was given space in 1965 at the time of Australia’s commitment to the support of the South Vietnamese government. But nothing much since then. This is mainly because, as Owen Harries (formerly editor of the Washington-based the National Interest) put it, Americans needed good peripheral vision to find Australia on the map. If they did notice it, it was usually because of its bushfires, floods, sharks, and holiday resorts. But those days are over – according to Bates Gill and Tom Switzer, both of the US Studies Centre in Sydney University. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, they say that Canberra now figures more prominently in the United States foreign policy deliberations than at any time since 1942-1945 when a million US troops were stationed in Australia. They carefully note that they are not talking about the reflections of Joe Six-Pack or Congressman Plod but of policymakers in Washington. They dismiss entirely the stance of Hugh White who encourages America to withdraw from Asia militarily to allow China breathing room, and of Malcolm Fraser who wants Australia to abandon the unreliable American alliance and adopt a policy of self-reliance. They see a deepening American engagement with Australia as necessary to bolster the US rebalance to Asia. They call it a New Special relationship. ‘But few outside a small circle of policy elites seem to have noticed’ – in both the US and Australia.

Talking of foreign affairs, three or so years ago, not long before her death in September 2012, the writer and scholar on foreign affairs, Coral Bell, broke her public silence about the attempts in 1947 by Soviet spies in the Department of External Affairs to recruit her as a Soviet agent. She was then a diplomatic cadet. ‘I laughed merrily,’ she said and dismissed the idea as ‘a splendid way to get oneself in gaol.’ Soon afterwards she was transferred to New Zealand. She did not speak publicly about the incident until Desmond Ball wrote it up in the Australian in January 2012. Although the Chifley government did not establish ASIO until 1949, the Bell case would have formed part of ASIO’s pre-history. But in discussing this pre-history in his official The Spy Catchers 1949-1963, David Horner does not mention Bell at all. Why? In a frank talk to the Sydney Institute the other day Horner said he based his book strictly on ASIO records. Presumably there were no records of the attempts to suborn Bell. This, you might think, is strange, even extraordinary. But his book, Horner said, is not the last word. There is scope for further research and speculation. He instanced Rob Foot’s piece in Quadrant November 2013 – ‘The Curious Case of Dr John Burton.’


The Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film went to the Polish Ida rather than the Russian Leviathan. I think this was the right judgment. Leviathan is a fine film. But, despite some protestations to the contrary, it is very much a here-and-now drama about the profound corruption of the Putin regime and its accomplices in Church and State. Ida, set in the early 1960s, is a spiritual story for the ages.

Two women dominate Ida. One is Ida, a novitiate (once a foundling) who is soon to take her vows. The Mother Superior instructs her to meet her only known relative, her Jewish aunt, ‘Red Wanda’ – a post-War Stalinist but now an alcoholic, loose-living, disenchanted judge, wonderfully played by Agate Kulesza. The two women set out to find out what happened to their murdered family and stolen property under the Nazi occupation. Some scenes are unforgettable. One is of Wanda questioning an obviously complicit villager: ‘I’m trying to find out what happened to some relatives who used to live here.’ ‘Ah, Jews were they?’ ‘No, Eskimoes.’ Another is the scene of Wanda’s death. Critics loosely use the word ‘life-changing’ about any film or play they find moving. But however you view it, Ida has the power to change your life. The Russian Leviathan tells the story of how a corrupt mayor and his friends including an Orthodox priest frame a simple car-mechanic for the murder of his wife and steal his house and land. Russian critics have widely criticized the film for presenting Russians as a race of foul-mouthed, thieving drunks. It defiles the motherland, they say. Yet the Russian Ministry of Culture met 35 per cent of the costs of the film and see it as a re-working of the Book of Job. Leviathan will not change your life but it may make you think again about Putin’s Russia.

Recent studies of the British settlement of Australia have modified the Gulag theme developed by Robert Hughes in his famous The Fatal Shore. The new historians emphasise the extent to which 18th century Enlightenment ideas sustained the Botany Bay experiment. This is the theme of the latest Occasional Paper put out by the Centre for Independent Studies, Fatal Shore or Land of Opportunity with essays by Andrew Tink and Michael Pembroke and an introduction by David Hunt. No slavery was to be permitted in New Holland, Aborigines were to be treated with ‘amity and kindness’, convicts were to have civil rights, reasonable freedom of movement, and be encouraged to reform (and ultimately freed) through hard work. There were limits to all this liberalism. Governor Phillip turned a blind eye to prostitution, but drew the line at sodomy. Those who committed this crime, he wrote, should be sent to New Zealand to be eaten by the natives.

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