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Michael Wesley's questionable assertions

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4 August 2011 15:12

Geoff Miller is a former Australian Ambassador to Japan (1986-89) and a former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments (1989-95).

By the time Michael Wesley reaches the penultimate page of his latest book, 'There Goes the Neighbourhood', he seems to have succumbed to the syndrome that affected St Kilda in last year's second Grand Final — one game too many! In his case, it's one page too many.

I understand that he's trying to inspire attention to foreign policy, but he does it by very questionable assertions. On p.173 he says that 'for sixty years, Australian policy-makers and diplomats have thought hardest about how to wield influence in two places: Washington and international organisations'. I was an Australian diplomat for 40 of those 60 years, with five posts in Asia, and that statement doesn't ring true to me. He also says that 'all other relationships have been handled pragmatically and properly, but with little thought and less ambition.'

That is actually quite offensive to those working on those relationships at the time, and also plain wrong. 

Think, for example, of Casey's commitment to South and South East Asia, Spender's role in creating the Colombo Plan and ANZUS, Barwick's intense diplomacy with Indonesia over West Irian, Whitlam's involvement with Indonesia and Timor, Hawke's commitment to the China relationship, Hayden and Evans' important and eventually successful efforts in regard to Cambodia, Downer's persuading Howard that Australia should accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, enabling our later invitation to join the East Asia Summit, a body to which Michael attaches high importance.

Think also of the list of activities and achievements on pp.25-27 of this very book, which begins, 'The two decades after 1990 saw Australia engage in an intense burst of diplomatic activism, playing a central role in initiatives that shaped regional and global architecture'!

There's a further instance which struck me in regard to 'little thought and less ambition.' It relates to Japan. Michael seems quite unaware of the enormous effort that went on in the early '80s (before my own involvement with Japan, I should add) to construct a whole-of-government approach to our relationship with Japan, then our most important trading partner.

It involved the creation of dedicated institutions, both within the Government and involving the wider community at a very senior level, repeated Cabinet consideration and the formation of an important Joint Ministerial Commission with Japan. It certainly did not reflect 'little thought and less ambition'. And the result? Perhaps it contributed to the result Michael records on p.132, a Japan which 'became Australia's closest partner in Asia'.

Michael also says (p.173) that 'time's lurch forward during the transmillenial decades challenges Australia on a greater and more sustained scale than any other period for two hundred years' and on p.171 that 'for the first time in history, Australia will be uncomfortably close to the designs and demarches of competing great powers'.

He seems oblivious to World War II, when Australia was certainly close to — and desperately involved in — the 'designs of competing great powers'. Another period of great tension and uncertainty which also involved Australia in war (in Vietnam) was the 1960s, when Communist dreams of 'Asia in flames' and a 'Pyongyang-Peking-Hanoi-Phnom Penh-Jakarta axis' seemed to have a chance of becoming reality.

Michael concludes by saying that the regional and international situation now facing Australia is so important that it can't be left to the diplomats, 'because they may make the wrong choices'. Of course they might be wrong — any professional can be wrong. But that doesn't amount to a reason for dismissing their advice.

But there's a more basic criticism to make; important foreign policy issues haven't been, and never will be, 'left to the diplomats'. Australia is run by Cabinet government, and major decisions are taken by Cabinet and Ministers, not by any group of officials and advisers. Look at the decision to join in the invasion of Iraq. And, as is implicit in the examples I've given above, that has certainly been the case in regard to important foreign policy issues over the past 60 years — not least now, when Foreign Minister Rudd is so active.

So, while I found much of Michael's book both interesting and valuable, I can't agree with his final conclusions. Australian governments of the last 60 years haven't been fixated on the US relationship and multilateralism, and foreign policy hasn't been 'left to the diplomats'. Nor should it be, though their advice shouldn't be denigrated either.

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