Skip to Content

Australia Features Australia

Notes from abroad – 28 July 2012

28 July 2012

6:00 AM

28 July 2012

6:00 AM

Private meetings shouldn’t normally be discussed but it’s permissible, I think, to break this rule in order to reflect well on another participant. Along with Kevin Rudd, Julie Bishop, Craig Emerson and Bill Shorten (all fellow participants in the 20th Australia-America Leadership Dialogue), I met US Vice President Joe Biden in Washington last week. I mentioned the famous Tip O’Neill dictum, ‘all politics is local’, but the Vice President went one better: ‘all politics is personal’. It was a splendid and memorable insight that explains the difference that the Dialogue has made.

••• 

For the best part of two decades, thanks to the Dialogue, people like former Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage and former special Trade Representative Bob Zoellick have been mixing for a week every year with leading Australians. The US didn’t have to choose Australia for its first free trade deal outside its own continent — but it did, thanks to Australia’s clout in Washington. Australians don’t need to be embedded in almost every US military headquarters — but they are, thanks to Australia’s ‘soft power’. It’s not just the Dialogue, of course. The friendship that John Howard developed with George W. Bush helped enormously. So does the professionalism of our senior soldiers. But these are the benefits to our country that rest on our subjective rather than our objective standing.

••• 

If the Dialogue has helped to deepen a country-to-country friendship that could almost be taken for granted, imagine what a comparable process might do for a much more complicated and sometimes difficult relationship? As I suggested in Beijing this week, something like the Dialogue is needed if Australia is to distinguish itself from all the other countries now eager to do deals with the rising superpower. The Chinese are much more interested in being taken seriously than they are in being used, and there would be no better way to let China know that we don’t just drop by when we want something.

••• 


There’s no doubt that the Americans are taking the Chinese seriously and that the Chinese are well and truly returning the compliment. In Washington, the issues were: will China play by the rules in the South China Sea; has China ‘bought’ friends inside ASEAN; and what’s the purpose of Chinese cyberattacks on Western institutions and businesses? In Beijing, they were: why is there a new US Marines posting to Darwin; and why is Australia choosing its history over its geography (even though we’re determined not to make such an invidious choice)?

••• 

Most Americans, though, are too genial to be relentlessly earnest even on the most serious topics. A meeting with Senator John McCain, the Republican Presidential nominee last time round, ended with him reminiscing about his days as a boxer at military academy and showing photos of his rescue after being shot down in Vietnam. Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had my advisers furiously nodding in agreement when he counselled me to be a candidate, not a speechwriter. Even after the effort of writing two set-piece speeches within a busy week, I’m not convinced. Years ago, the Australian’s Paul Kelly (also a Dialogue participant) made a special call on a young John Hewson staffer to explain that the most effective of all post-war opposition leaders had been Gough Whitlam because of the way he’d used big speeches to set the nation’s agenda. So at least until the election, it seems, I’m chained to the laptop in the hope of doing just that!

••• 

One of the treats of being in Washington was spending time with our Ambassador, Kim Beazley, who is surely one of the finest prime ministers Australia has never had, at least from the Labor side, and is exactly the kind of representative Australia needs in a capital where personality counts. I have come relatively late to an appreciation of our diplomatic service but there’s no doubt that our representatives abroad, both professional diplomats and distinguished outsiders such as Dialogue founder and now New York Consul-General Phil Scanlan, are a reason why our country punches above its weight.

••• 

My first trip to America as a Member of Parliament was a US Information Agency political exchange back in 1995. The debate about Australia becoming a republic was then in full swing so my hosts had been told that I was a ‘strong Liberal’ and ‘very anti-republican’. Something must have been lost in translation because I spent most of the fortnight being introduced to virtual communists! Thanks in part to the Dialogue, Americans are now more sophisticated about Australia. At least my audience at The Heritage Foundation laughed at the joke.

••• 

As befits a 20th anniversary event, this year’s Dialogue was held in America’s financial capital as well as in its political one. I spent a day catching up with three of the most influential New Yorkers who happen to be Australian. James Gorman, Melbourne University law graduate, is the CEO of Morgan Stanley and an optimist about America’s economic effervescence, especially once the pre-election uncertainty is resolved. Robert Thompson, a one-time Herald-Sun cadet, is now editor of the Wall Street Journal, the major paper most committed to giving Mitt Romney a fair go. And Rupert Murdoch is the media proprietor so many people love to hate because his papers broadly support market economics and social conservatism. Murdoch does matter, for good reasons not bad, because he hasn’t succumbed to political correctness in his judgments of people and events. Along with the commander of the First AIF, Sir John Monash, and the penicillin inventor, Lord Florey, he is one of the Australians who have made the most difference to the wider world.

••• 

In Beijing, it was good to meet the number four in the hierarchy, Jia Qinglin, as well as the minister for commerce and the vice minister for foreign affairs. Australia must matter when such senior people see a mere Opposition Leader. A highlight was attending Mass at St Saviour’s cathedral. China is freer than it was but it’s still a repressive state. There isn’t the ‘cultural interoperability’ with China that there is with the US. That’s why we have to work so much harder on this relationship.


See also

Show comments
Close