Critical perspectives on the US alliance are unthinkable in Australian politics | Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson
‘When he went to his audience with the Veep, Shorten brought a retinue of shadow ministers with him – some of them nominally members of Labor’s left factions.’ Photograph: Rick Rycroft/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Pence visited Australia during the week of Anzac Day. Our leaders did their best to affirm that 100 years after thousands of Australians were fed into the slaughterhouse of the first world war, Australia’s leaders are still comfortable with running a client state, on the periphery of an empire, and following their sponsor into whatever misadventures it might have in mind.

It’s not just conservatives tugging the forelock. Indeed, Labor’s behaviour is the best evidence that the Trump presidency will not change the status quo ante. Whatever the misgivings of observers like Paul Keating, Australia’s leaders will happily and completely subordinate themselves to US hegemony.

Bill Shorten swallowed his professed distaste for Donald Trump and did his duty. He called the president “barking mad” when he and everyone else thought that Hillary Clinton was sure to win. Of course, things didn’t work out as expected.

Even immediately after the US election, Trump’s voluble disrespect for various groups led Shorten to proclaim to a Labor Victoria conference that “the day that we accommodate that, just because someone, somewhere else, has won an election, is a day that we surrender the mantle of leadership in this country”.

This week, he accommodated it. He expressed nothing like the scepticism that would lead to what Keating called for – “ an altogether independent foreign policy”. Instead, in effect, he helped legitimise the Trump regime. By meeting with Pence, he acknowledged the administration’s custodianship of US foreign policy, and implicitly, their recent turn to unilateral force, which has done so much to sanctify them in the eyes of the US’s domestic elites.

Like every Labor leader in recent memory, Shorten is an unabashedly imperial figure. He is adaptable in his obeisance. When he went to his audience with the Veep, he brought a retinue of shadow ministers with him – some of them members of Labor’s left factions. For his part, Pence was good enough to stop goading North Korea long enough for a grip and grin with the leaders of the great worker’s party. Their meeting went longer than expected, and Shorten reportedly used some of the time to affirm the government’s deal to export refugees from Australia’s prison islands to the US.

His deference is a long and deeply-ingrained habit. Back in 2009, he felt it necessary to present his prime ministerial credentials to the US consul general. The account of their meeting in the Wikileaks cables can only be described as excruciating. Shorten told his hosts, then serving President Obama, that he was “deeply influenced by Martin Luther King Jr” and quoted from his speeches. (Presumably he didn’t choose the line from Dr King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967 where he spoke about “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government”).

He struck the Americans as “highly ambitious”, and he passed his audition. Diplomatically, as it were, his hosts noted that “he is widely known for his pro-US stance.”

Shorten was just one of a parade of Labor right figures who the cables showed attempting to ingratiate themselves with the United States government. Mark Arbib was described in cables as a “protected” source. He was happy to fill embassy staff in on the inner workings of the then-Rudd government, explaining its political dynamics in ways that were at odds with what he told the Australian public. Member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, even offered to write an editorial for the AFR supporting the USA’s stance on Cuba.

We haven’t seen any more recent cables, but there’s no reason to think that Labor figures have stopped beating a path to the embassy and consulates, seeking patronage. Old habits die hard.

Last week, Shorten voiced no misgivings about the ham-handed brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula; the MOAB pointlessly dropped on Nangahar province in Afghanistan; or the capricious escalation of the Syrian civil war. Instead he offered a bromide about how “the American alliance is a bedrock of our foreign policy”. It wasn’t so long ago that Simon Crean opposed Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Critical perspectives like that are, it seems, no longer available, or even thinkable, in Australian politics.

It was reported Pence’s main purpose was to “smooth any ruffled feathers” that may have followed the president’s abject humiliation of Malcolm Turnbull during their first conversation. A US insider told the ABC that it was a “kiss and make up” tour. The vice president needn’t have worried. Turnbull wasn’t rash enough to promise in advance to fight with the US, but his views on North Korea, the South China Sea, and the “rules-based system” that the United States still insists that it can capably, and credibly enforce.

When the time comes, who would bet that Australia would demur from fighting in another imperial war? It has never done so throughout the entire history of the US alliance.

A few days later, Turnbull spent Anzac Day visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Australia has been engaged in the former conflict for 13 years, the latter for 15. Combat troops were drawn down in Afghanistan 2013, but Australian special forces remain in Iraq. There appears to be no victory condition, or criterion for success, that would see these troops come home.

Before Anzac Day was completely annexed to the culture wars, it provided an opportunity for reflections on war and empire, and wasted sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine a worse reason for an Australian to die than stabilising Trump’s approval ratings, but there’s no sign of any re-evaluation of the relationship in the light of his ascendancy.

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