Our relations with the UK seem to be going around in a circle. It is within living memory that all Australian leaders, whether Labor or conservative, held dear the relationship, the special relationship, we have with the UK.
When the UK was under immediate threat of a Nazi invasion, fighting almost alone with the Commonwealth, the Labor Foreign Minister Dr HV Evatt broadcast a message by shortwave to the people of the UK, which ended with this poem:
“ And we shall say to all the world that kinship conquers space,
And he who fights the British Isles must fight the British race.”
But some decades later, the relationship seemed to be in peril. During Question Time in Parliament on 27 February 1992 , the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, accused Britain of abandoning Australia to the Japanese during the Second World War. He said that Britain was the ‘country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination.’
Few historians would agree with Mr. Keating’s interpretation of those events.
He also accused the then Leader of HM’s Opposition, Dr John Hewson of having a subservient respect for Britain, rather than respect for his own nation. ‘If he believes that I cannot say that this is a more independent country, that we’re not tied to Britain’s coat tails…if he thinks that we ought to be basically into British boot-strapping, forelock tugging, and he calls that respect, it’s not respect for this country.’ He then spoke of the 1950’s ‘ awful cultural cringe under Menzies which held us back for nearly a generation.’ ( Parliamentary Library Background Paper 11 of 1997-98, The Recent Republic Debate-A Chronology: 1989-1998 , being an update of Background Paper No. 9 dated 25 June 1996)
For some time under the Keating government, our relations seemed to be put on an ‘either/or basis’- either Europe , especially the UK, or Asia. While the US alliance had been strongly supported by the Hawke Government, it seemed less important under the Keating Government. The “ either/or” approach to Asia ended with the election of the Howard government in 1996.
It has always seemed to me to be a mistake to dismiss the advantages of the close relationship with the UK. True, British politicians were wrong to think they would lead Europe if they entered the EEC. Until recently, the EEC remained was under the control of the cosy Paris-Bonn (later Berlin) alliance. Through a free trade agreement, the UK could have had all the economic advantages of membership without having to be, with Germany, the paymaster of the rest, and having to put up with over regulation by Brussels. We could have kept our agricultural market, and the British could have continued to buy our products at low prices. It was not the British people who changed all this, but deceitful British politicians. The British people still prefer their links with the Commonwealth over the EU. Just remember their reaction during the Canadian-Spanish fishing dispute.
But even with the UK in the EU, it is clear that our close relations based on language , law and heritage continue to link us. In an emergency there would be two powers with the capability, and above all the willingness, to come to our aid- the USA and the UK . Why then insult, gratuitously, one of the few real friends we have? Why pretend, as some do, that we were subjected to some form of colonial subjugation?
It was good then to see the impact the visit of the Rt Hon. Tony Blair has had in Australia. The longest serving British Labour Prime Minister, and a firm constitutional monarchist, Tony Blair sees the importance of our maintaining close links with the UK. On the personal initiative of our Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, annual meetings will be held between the two countries’ foreign and defence misiters , based on a similar mechanism between the US and Australia, AusMin. Greg Sheridan, in The Australian on 30 March 2006 (“Closer ties with Britain make sense”) was one of the few journalists to see both the significance of this, and the role of Alexander Downer in its birth of AUKMIN .
As Mr.Sheridan point out, the UK is “the fourth largest economy in the world, one of the most powerful military powers globally, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with the power of veto, a member of the Group of Eight… Because of its tradition of great power diplomacy, and indeed of a highly competent foreign service and foreign ministers, it does much of the institutional heavy lifting at the UN and in many multilateral organisations.”
“ It is especially helpful,” he says”to Australia to have such a close friend inside the EU.”
In the meantime, Alexander Downer finds himself at the centre of one of those hysterical media feeding frenzies that break out every so often. Yet Australia is the only country to establish an open impartial inquiry into the “oil- for- food” programme. The Commissioner, a highly respected judge, is gathering all the evidence he wants, and has indicated the circumstances in which he would request a change to the terms of reference. But almost every day a mainly uninterested public is subjected to screaming demands by journalists telling Mr. Howard, Mr. Downer or Mr. Vaille what they should or should not be doing or saying. There is a gleeful anticipation that the inquiry may bring down, if not the government , then at least a minister. This has parallels with the Hutton Inquiry in the UK. When this did not lead to the media expectation that the Blair government would be condemned and fall, an angry media turned on the judge they had been fawning on. Richard Ackland, former ABC Media Watch host, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald (“Law lord hits wrong target on evidence over Iraq war,” 30 January, 2004) ridiculed Hutton’s expectation that an editor must, before it is broadcast, vet any story, especially one based on confidential sources, which impugns the integrity of any person, from the prime minister down . This is “a prescription for a boring, unresponsive media,” insisted Mr.Ackland.
Actually, it is a prescription for a responsible media. An egregious example of the media frenzy was a story in The Australian on 29 March 2006 that breathlessly told readers that Mr Cole and Mr Howard were students at the same law school in the fifties. Given that there was only one law school in the state then, was it really necessary to splash this across page one of the national newspaper?
None of us knows what Mr. Cole’s findings of fact will be. But there is absolutely no need for him to drag out the inquiry, as many demand, ruling whether ministerial standards have been observed or international law breached. The facts will speak for themselves, and a report at the earliest possible time is crucial. Any adverse findings will no doubt be referred to the appropriate authorities, the government, the Parliament , and the courts in accordance with the constitution.
The role of the media in our Westminster style democracy is to report the inquiry calmly and objectively, with any comment being clearly distinguishable from the news. The public broadcasters are under a special duty not to editorialise and to ensure any comment is balanced.
At least we are being spared the distraction of that monumental waste of time and money, a parallel Senate inquiry which would of course be partisan and therefore, entirely useless.