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Bilateral relations with Asia have Liberal roots

14 December 2013 594 views 2 Comments

BOTH the Liberal and Labor parties have reached out to our Asian neighbours at different times in different ways. However, the idea that it was Labor that first reached out to Asia misrepresents the historical facts.

The conservative side of politics has a track record of offering a hands-across-the-water approach to our geopolitical neighbourhood.

External affairs minister John Latham’s groundbreaking trip to Asia in 1934, for example, was a milestone, along with Percy Spender’s far-sighted Colombo Plan, and Robert Menzies’ coining of the term the Near North to replace the term the Far East. It’s worth acknowledging that the Australian Liberal Party and its predecessors saw the opportunities and importance of building bridges in our region.
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In August 1962, prime minister Menzies hosted an official visit to Australia by King Bhumibol of Thailand.

In his address at a banquet dinner in honour of the king at Parliament House, Menzies, seconded by the acting leader of the federal Labor Party opposition, Gough Whitlam, stressed the crucial relationship between Thailand and Australia. In particular Menzies stressed the political and economic importance to Australia of Thailand, which was known as Siam until 1949.

In his reply, King Bhumibol congratulated Menzies for understanding that the notion of the Far East made sense only from the point of view of Europe, not from Australia. He was delighted that Australia was aware that “our country is not the Far East, it is the Near North”.

For the king, who is still alive and revered in Thailand, this awareness made Australia and Thailand much closer and, indeed, was a driver of an increasing number of Thai students coming to Australia. Hoping that our closer relationship would continue to improve, King Bhumibol explained that this meant “not only more students coming here but that there will be more Australians coming to our country, so that we can understand each other better with knowledge and understanding – and real knowledge, not the knowledge of hearsay”.

Since Menzies hosted the king of Thailand’s visit, our relationship has continued to grow in the economic, political and strategic realms. This includes highly significant people-to-people links, with nearly a million Australians visiting Thailand every year and the value of two-way trade with Thailand last year exceeding $18 billion. Thailand, the second largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and with a population of 69.52 million, is our sixth largest trading partner.

The Liberal member for Menzies’ blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, made this clear last month when he addressed the Bangkok Dialogue on the Rule of Law. Frydenberg, who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, puts it thus: “Thailand is not just important politically but is a critical economic partner for Australia and presents important future fiscal and economic opportunities for Australian businesses and corporations.”

Thailand’s first female prime minister, Shinawatra Yingluck of the Pheu Thai Party, came to power in the 2011 general election. She visited Australia in May last year to mark the 60th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, established in 1952 under the Menzies government. The visit resulted in a joint communique announcing initiatives to increase bilateral co-operation in the areas of education, trade, disaster management, energy, food safety, security, and regional and global affairs.

As a sign of the importance Thailand attaches to our long-established bilateral relations, the king’s granddaughter, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, also visited Australia, in August last year, to further celebrate the anniversary.

Yingluck is the sister of convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a coup in 2006 following corruption allegations.

Yingluck is facing large-scale street protests in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country from volatile anti-government forces. Most protesters are strong supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, which claims that the Prime Minister is a mere proxy for her brother.

However, neither the present political turmoil in Thailand, nor indeed the ebb and flow of politics within our other Near North neighbours, including Indonesia, should distract us from the importance of our bilateral relations with the countries of Asia.

Thanks to Menzies, and his political predecessors and successors, most nations in our Near North now see us as their southern neighbours. It is a north-south relationship and a Liberal legacy that is being honoured by Tony Abbott from the very outset of his Coalition government.

Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 36 books.

The Weekend Australian, December 14-15, 2013, INQUIRER p 15


  • P.A. Smith said:

    How gratifying it is to see that two of Australia’s most intelligent and independent columnists, Gerard Henderson and Ross Fitzgerald, now appearing in the Inquirer section of ‘The Weekend Australian’.

    P.A. Smith, Mt Archer, Qld

    The Australian, December 16, 2013, COMMENTARY, LAST POST, p 11

  • Peter Ryan said:


    Narcissists Abroad

    In the ‘Weekend Australian’ of December 14-15, Ross Fitzgerald’s article was headed: “Bilateral Relations with Asia Have Liberal Roots”. He says that Australians today tend to believe that their geo-political relationship to Asia was more or less recently discovered by the Labor Party, and that Labor and the Left deserve the credit
    for establishing active and fruitful relationships with our neighbours to the north. I agree with Fitzgerald about the prevalence of such beliefs, and agree with him also that they are false. Labor can claim no grand tradition of leadership in international affairs; since Australia federated in 1901, our longest-serving foreign minister has been Alexander Downer.

    As evidence of conservative priority, Ross Fitzgerald quotes incontrovertibly the far-ranging Asian pioneering sortie in 1934 by the foreign minister Sir John Latham, and after the Second World War the pro-active Colombo Plan of Sir Percy Spender.

    More importantly, Fitzgerald recalls (which I had forgotten) that it was Robert Menzies himself (“British to my bootstraps”) who adjured his countrymen that the very expression “Far East” meant nothing unless you were looking from Britain; for us, the common sense term would be “Near North”. Fitzgerald records Menzies’s personal diplomatic and political work with Thailand, of which one result today is that that country is Australia’s sixth-largest trading partner. Having so amply proved the conservative priority in this vital field of national policy, Fitzgerald offers no explanation of how Labor gazumped them for the credit.

    Let me hazard a guess: simply, that during two separate but important periods when Labor was in government, its respective ministers for external (foreign) affairs were Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965), our eminent judge, and Kevin Rudd (1957-), our brilliant Brisbane bureaucrat. Both were perfectly remarkable big-noters, seemingly self-intoxicated political go-getters to whom it was second-nature to promote to their
    Australian electors the Labor slant of their department’s work. They were equally assiduous in drawing voter consciousness back home to the brilliant job their ministers personally were doing for them on the international stage. There, in a nutshell, is my explanation for what we may call the “Fitzgerald Phenomenon”.

    Up to the 1930s, most Australian appearances on the international scene seemed to depend on something like a British endorsement (Billy Hughes’s outburst at Versailles in 1919 was a famous exception). True — only the Brits commanded the awesome Foreign Office; a wit of the time compared Australia’s position to that of the young man who had permission to use the squash court at Dad’s club. After the war, such a relationship became absurd, because from the day of the declaration of war, Australia was an active belligerent on the Allied side; its armed forces fought the Axis powers around the globe, frequently in operations which did not involve British forces at all.

    Our changed status was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated when Australia, not Britain, was appointed to represent the entire British Commonwealth on the Allied Council which, under US General Douglas MacArthur, would govern a now shattered and occupied Japan. (The British did not take their downgrade kindly, and their representative in Tokyo, General Gascoigne, secretly but in vain laboured to undermine our Australian minister, the accomplished W. Macmahon Ball.)

    A serious interest in international affairs had not been widespread among Australians at large, although valuable work had been done by a few specialist scholars, and by one or two quite remarkable journalists. But with the return of peace, international affairs flooded the general daily consciousness. The pieces of a broken world were being reassembled; the United Nations and all its many agencies, ever in the news, were being constructed to help peaceful civil states towards a more successful fresh try at things. It was the perfect background for operators like Evatt and Rudd, but what judgment should history pass now on the virtues of their efforts and the value of their results?

    His judicial charisma notwithstanding, Evatt failed horribly as a foreign minister. When the Japanese opened their Pacific rampage, Australia lay virtually defenceless before them. Almost the whole of our first-line fighting services – naval, army and air — were across the world fighting Germany and Italy. Prime Minister John Curtin dispatched his foreign minister on a desperate dual mission to London and Washington, seeking help. Much more was in mind than just short-term troops on the spot. An enduring alliance was envisaged, which would fit Australia usefully into the grand Allied strategic scheme for the whole global struggle, years though it would last.

    It is true that Evatt persuaded Churchill to release three squadrons of Spitfire fighters, which certainly gave an effective account of themselves in the great enemy naval raid on Darwin, but the truly golden opportunities of the high-level American and British visits were not merely lost, but almost wilfully thrown away.

    His visits had enabled Evatt to meet the truly effective Allied war leaders and to make their acquaintance in privileged and confidential circumstances. He met shrewd and urbane Lord Alanbrooke, wartime Chief of the Imperial General Staff, with an unparalleled record of successful senior staff appointments going back to the First World War. He also met Lord Cadogan, knowledgeable and perceptive head of the British Foreign Office. He enjoyed direct access to US General George Marshall, a towering figure of ability, strength and high principle, whether he was serving as a soldier commanding the enormous US wartime army or as a statesman — US Secretary of State, administering the postwar Marshall Plan designed to put democratic Europe back on its feet.

    But far from cultivating such a circle as precious counsellors about Australia’s future, Evatt alienated every one. They all found him arrogant, rude and overbearing, quite lacking in personal sensitivity and consideration. All put their disgust on record. George Marshall in particular notes Evatt’s offensiveness and his disposition to create trouble wherever he went.

    In the formation and early affairs of the United Nations, Evatt thrust himself to early prominence — a schoolyard “king of the kids”, and self-styled leader of the smaller nations. The ethical basis of some of his many deals was so questionable that his outstandingly able and straightforward chief adviser, the future governor-general Paul Hasluck, left Evatt’s service rather than compromise his principles. The conclusion of Sir Owen Dixon, Australia’s greatest chief justice and most scrupulous user of the English language, was that Evatt was “psychotic, cruel and wicked.”

    Kevin Rudd was Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2010 to 2012, and his term shared some qualities with that of Evatt – especially the bad temper and lack of personal consideration. But somehow it all seemed less serious. Evatt performed to dire and crashing chords of Wagnerian gravity, with perfectly real atom bombs just off stage. Somehow, the faint tones of pop music always echoed behind Rudd, even when he was having a tantrum. It was Evatt-lite.

    Rudd too paid great attention to the United Nations, which was dealing just then with a cluster of newly independent nations. A substantial group of these received the recognition of an Australian state visit from our comely new governor-general Quentin Bryce, appointed by Rudd himself. Many Australian taxpayers did not recognise even the names of some of these new lands, which did not stop them asking how many million dollars all this pomp and circumstance was costing them, and whether all that gold braid might have been intended to reflect a lustre on our man at the UN, Kevin Rudd.

    The Foreign Minister’s own travel bill was stupendous, as he genially rushed around the world to any spot which might yield a cheesy picture for television. Australia’s Foreign Minister must have felt a sense of relief when Rudd pioneered publication of his own “selfies” (some of them decked with the little white flags of paper scraps stanching the blood flow from razor nicks).

    But is Rudd really a narcissist? Consult for yourself part of his own entry in ‘Who’s Who?’ for 2014, just published: “named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Time Magazine 2008”.

    My little reverie about the “Fitzgerald Phenomenon” has not persuaded me that either Labor or Liberal foreign policy is inherently inclined to be better or worse. As the Bible in its wisdom warns: “Time and chance happeneth to them all.” But we should now be aware that, just as politics may be the continuation of war by other means (and vice versa), foreign affairs can be the continuation of a sordid struggle in the meanest municipality at home.

    This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Peter Ryan’s monthly column. A selection of fifty-five of his columns, ‘It Strikes Me’, was published by Quadrant Books in 2011.

    QUADRANT, March 2014, pp 111-112

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