Have no cause for fear! Should old acquaintance be forgot? No! No! No! No! Australia will be there! Australia will be there!
These are the lyrics to a song penned upon the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. It was a clarion call to Australian youth to serve–and perish–on the beaches of Gallipoli, in the trenches of France and on the gibber plains of Palestine. In today’s jargon, it was an instant hit. The refrain was taken up by the thousands of Australians who enlisted to defend the British Empire in its hour of need.
Yet by 1914 Australia had already displayed its propensity for embracing foreign conflicts. The colonies that were to federate in 1901 were eager to commit troops in defence of the Empire. In 1863, volunteers from New South Wales and Victoria had fought the Maoris in New Zealand. Two decades later and those feisty New South Welshmen were in the Sudan to avenge the demise of General Gordon at Khartoum.
When the uppity Boers of South Africa expressed an aversion to British rule in 1899, the colonies sent their own contingents of mounted troopers–this writer’s Victorian grandfather among them. Following federation, the eight battalions of the Australian Commonwealth Horse made up the nation’s first foreign foray. It may not surprise the reader to know that Australians also saw action quelling the Boxer rebellion in China during these years.
When Japan’s southerly advance following Pearl Harbor brutally displayed the illusion of British power in South East Asia, Australia turned to the United States for protection. When Prime Minister John Curtin pledged “all the blood of my countrymen” in March, 1942, he was intimating to Franklin Roosevelt that here was a reliable and staunch ally. The President, as recent sources have revealed, was less than enthused, believing that Australia’s long-term interests were best served by Britain.
Australians have maintained a strong belief that the US, under General Douglas MacArthur, selflessly committed troops and weaponry to save them from a Japanese invasion, rather than the continent being the only valid staging post for a Pacific counter attack following MacArthur’s ignominious withdrawal from the Philippines. That belief has led to a foreign policy myopia that survives to this day.
In 1962 Prime Minister Menzies sent a small detachment of military “advisers” to Vietnam. Three years later he was announcing the deployment of a battalion and Australian forces–including naval and air force units–were employed in that war theatre till 1972. Nearly 500 men died and 2400 were wounded. But Australia had shown itself to be a loyal ally. Indeed, Menzies’ successor, Harold Holt, had infamously coined the phrase “all the way with LBJ” in 1966, a year before he walked into the sea, never to be seen again.
When President Bush decided to punish his former client, Saddam Hussein, for stepping out of line over that beacon of democracy, Kuwait, Australia’s Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke was quick to add his nation’s name to the list of military contributors. When Bush the younger called for assistance in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Howard . well, you can guess.
So now, with a Bush war against Iraq looking a fait accompli, Howard is making all the usual noises. His sluggish Foreign Minister Downer recently opined that it was “appeasement” not to militarily engage Saddam. Only two weeks ago, Howard talked of a “pre-emptive strike” against terrorists in any nation which may harbour them, earning the wrath of his northern neighbours.
Howard is politically canny. He chooses his words carefully and is not one to run off at the mouth. When he spoke of pre-emptive strikes he deliberately invoked the language of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld–Australia was at one with America. He was confident that his devotion would resonate within the community. After all, Howard has deftly played the fear card over the last eighteen months, seeking to paint (mainly) Islamic refugees as threats to the Oz way of life: “border protection” has been the popular catchcry.
And why not? The only energetic political opposition to Howard’s support for war upon Iraq has come from the Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown. The official opposition, the Labor Party under a timid Simon Crean, has opted to maintain a low profile, its gaze firmly on the public opinion polls as it sniffs the political wind.
And the polls show an Australian public which, while expressing fear and confusion over terrorist threats, particularly in the wake of the Bali bombing outrage, nonetheless is needing some convincing of the need to attack Iraq. Certainly, younger Australians strongly repudiate joining a US led strike, favouring a UN led action.
US Ambassador Schieffer, a Texas oil lawyer and former business partner of the President, has been assiduously beating the war drum, suggesting that terrorists could be contemplating the detonation of a nuclear device in Sydney harbour. Of course, he added that he didn’t wish to be seen as scaremongering.
Doubtless, Prime Minister Howard has a little work to do to before Australia declares its committment to an Iraq adventure. In the next few weeks there will be numerous assertions from him and his Ministers as to the need to establish a fair and peaceful world order. Moreover, it will be stressed that the only path to this outcome is war against Iraq.
As the Bush administration ups the militaristic rhetoric, the Australian Government will follow. In October, 2001, upon the 50th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS treaty–a formalisation of Australia’s loyalty to the US–State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declared that America “has no more steadfast ally that Australia.”
While the 1914 song that expressed Australia’s obsequiousness has long faded into distant memory, its failure to assert itself as a truly independent nation has not. Here’s a sure bet: when Bush moves against Iraq. Australia will be there.
KEVIN SUMMERS is a Melbourne (Australia) based writer, actor and playwright. He contributes to the Melbourne Age and Canberra Times. He can be reached at: