Bowing to duchess diplomacy

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard looked suitably pleased when President Barack Obama recently assured her Australia ''punched above its weight''. Not only that, said Obama, but America had no greater friend than Australia. It was high praise indeed, and our hard-pressed Prime Minister might well look pleased. The sound bite provided a rare and powerful endorsement of her leadership.

However, the shine was taken off Obama's comments when a Danish television program showed the President using almost the same words when speaking to the Danish leader, the Belgian leader, the Polish leader and a host of others. Obama's endorsement also came at a cost. In return, Gillard agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the Afghan government and to continue our military commitment to Afghanistan for years to come.

It seems our prime ministers are fated forever to follow in the footsteps of Prime Minister Harold Holt and his promise to President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966 that Australia would go ''all the way with LBJ''.

How has the United States managed to work its will for so long on our prime ministers? In fact, it has not been difficult.

America has benefited from the colonial cringe that Australian leaders adopted towards the British government for more than a century. When Washington finally replaced London in the Australian political firmament in the 1960s, the culture of deference simply shifted across the Pacific.

The British were masters at having their imperial interests accepted as Australian interests. One of the main ways of doing so was by ''duchessing'' Australian politicians when they visited London. This often involved feeding their sense of self-importance by inviting them to a country house for a weekend of informal mingling with British politicians and minor royalty.

Hence the term ''duchessing'', whether it was being entertained by a duchess or being treated like a duchess. The derogatory term seems to be peculiarly Australian and was used by journalists to disparage Australian politicians, particularly Labor ones, who were beguiled by British flattery into promoting British interests as their own.

It was hard to resist such flattery. Even Australia's forthright foreign minister H. V. Evatt succumbed when Churchill suggested in 1942 that he accompany him on a train tour of bombed English cities. Churchill could not bear the sight and sound of Evatt. But he put aside his dislike in order to neutralise Evatt's calls for the Allies to give as much weight to the Pacific war as the European war.

After two days of close attention from Churchill in the confines of a train carriage, Evatt softened his pitch. He explained to Prime Minister John Curtin that strong demands from Australia would now be counter-productive and would upset the good relationship that Evatt mistakenly believed he enjoyed with Britain's leader. Churchill had convinced the pugnacious Australian to see the war through British eyes.

Curtin was wary of being duchessed and avoided it by refusing repeated invitations to visit Washington and London. When he finally agreed to attend an imperial conference in 1944, Curtin was given the full treatment - meals at Buckingham Palace with the king and queen and weekends with Churchill at the prime minister's country residence. It was hard not to be beguiled by such attention, although Curtin continued to stand up for Australian interests.

Ben Chifley was just as reluctant a traveller as Curtin. Whereas Prime Minister Robert Menzies would take weeks to sail to London, and be away for months, Chifley would whiz around the world by aircraft and be back home in days. One reason Chifley kept his schedules tight was to ensure there was less opportunity of being duchessed by the Americans or British.

In more recent times, the US has not waited for a politician to become prime minister before ensuring they see the world through American eyes and view American interests as if they were Australian interests. Up and coming Australian politicians, academics and opinion leaders are identified and flattered with access to their leading American counterparts.

It is all done through the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, a private organisation established in 1992 by a Coca-Cola Amatil executive following a visit to Australia by President George Bush snr. The annual meetings of about a hundred invited delegates are held behind closed doors, with the informal discussions being designed to maintain Australian support for the American alliance.

This modern-day duchessing might not involve any bridge-playing in a country house, but it is duchessing nonetheless. Just as earlier Australian politicians visiting London were flattered into thinking of themselves as British first and Australian second, the Australian delegates to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, such as the young Julia Gillard, are encouraged to think of themselves as sharing American values, as if they are the same as Australian values.

It is an easy step from this mistaken assumption to feeling that the American alliance is defending these shared values, rather than simply defending American economic and strategic interests, some of which Australia might not share.

In earlier times, Australian journalists would lampoon politicians who allowed themselves to be duchessed in London. It is time this Australian term resumed its useful place in our political lexicon and up and coming politicians realised that they are just as prone to being duchessed in Washington as some of their predecessors used to be in London.

The Age, Melbourne, June 8, 2012

Alert, but not alarmed: enemy not at the gates

FOR the past two centuries we have been consumed by recurring fears of invasion, although none have come close to eventuating. New fears are now coming to the fore, driven by the relative decline of the United States and the concomitant rise of China.

Australia needs to take a reality check on its fears. We are in a stronger position than we think and we are less threatened than we imagine.

Despite this strong position, our defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is about three times greater than neighbouring New Zealand. Moreover, we have reacted to the rise of China with plans for expensive planes and submarines that will most likely never be used in the direct defence of Australia. We have also needlessly raised regional tensions by allowing the Americans to establish a military base at Darwin.

For a while in the 1970s and '80s, our defence planners were chastened after the Vietnam defeat and concentrated on the defence of the Australian continent. It was not a bad policy, but soldiers could not see much scope for action in defending the continent or participating in peacekeeping operations. They wanted to hone their skills and deploy their equipment in actual wars.

The Americans also wanted Australia to concentrate more on developing an expeditionary capacity, so that we could participate in their ceaseless conflicts around the world. Australian governments complied and sent our forces off to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that our commitment to Afghanistan is winding down, we need to reassess our defence thinking before we are called to partake in another American war. We can start by making a cooler calculation of our circumstances and interests.

As the inhabitants of an island continent that shares no land borders with other nations, Australia is well placed to avoid conflict with its neighbours. This is because most wars are about territory and the position of borders.

Thankfully, our forebears managed to secure the whole continent for themselves rather than having to share it with another European nation. The colonies and their successor states subsequently held together as one federation. As a result, we have avoided the potential for conflict that a divided continent would create.

Despite this, we have feared being displaced, particularly by the rise of different Asian nations and by our slowness to populate and develop the continent. When we had just 5 million people, and the numbers across the north barely filled a sizeable town, it is not surprising that Australians feared invasion. There was also a conviction back then that practically all the continent was capable of being occupied.

Now we openly acknowledge that two thirds of the continent is arid or semi-arid and Australia will never support a population comparable to that of other continents. At the same time, we have experienced a fivefold increase in our population and some of the isolated settlements across the north have grown into cities.

Rather than huddling in south-eastern cities, and presenting a relatively empty north to the world, Australians have developed mineral and other resources in the tropics and established new settlements to support those developments. It has now become much more difficult for outsiders to argue, as they used to do, that Australians were not making adequate use of the continent.

Apart from having a more secure hold on the continent, there has been another fundamental change in our defence position. Instead of posing threats to our sovereignty, a range of powerful Asian nations now have a strong interest in protecting Australia as a secure source of raw materials and food and as a market for their excess consumer products.

Indeed, a potential invasion of Australia would probably cause more alarm in Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi than it would in Washington. This dramatic change in our circumstances requires us to make a fundamental reappraisal of our defence policy and the amount that we spend on it.

The first thing we should resolve to do is avoid any future involvement in America's wars. These costly adventures from Vietnam to Afghanistan have been calamitous for all involved, including the US. Yet, as the NATO conference in Chicago suggests, there will undoubtedly be more calls for Australian forces to support the doomed attempt by the US to maintain a worldwide empire.

The next thing we should do is make a more realistic prediction of the likely future threats to our security. During the 20th century, there was much talk of protecting our sea lanes and maritime approaches. While we certainly need to be able to assert our authority in Australian waters, the idea of protecting our sea-borne trade routes and maritime approaches needs to be rethought.

The idea of protecting our sea lanes originated when Australia's trade was principally with Britain and Europe and the security of those trade routes was an economic necessity. It also suited Britain to have us concentrate our defence spending on the navy. But today, our trade routes are principally to China and other Asian nations, who were the source of the supposed earlier threat and now are just as concerned about keeping those trade routes secure. It is difficult to see from where any future threat might come.

There might be a theoretical risk from Indonesia, but any such risk is only going to be exacerbated by Australia starting a regional arms race with Jakarta. Instead, Australia needs to continue the sort of confidence-building and military co-operation that has been the hallmark of our recent relations with Indonesia.

With no serious threat to our possession of one of the most defendable territories on earth, it is time for Australia to set aside its historic fears of invasion and adopt a defence policy and budget that suits our circumstances rather than those of the United States.

The Age, Melbourne, May 21, 2012

The myth that binds

LOTS of questions remain about Gallipoli. And the debate about the details of the campaign will only intensify as its centenary comes closer. Australians will be bombarded by a government-financed commemoration that will produce an explosion of publications, documentaries and public events. All of them will be designed to cement the Gallipoli story firmly in the popular consciousness.

The usual questions will get another run, such as whether the troops landed on the wrong beach, or whether the plans of General Ian Hamilton were adequate for the task. The most important questions for Australians will not be asked. Yet they are crucial to our progress as a nation.

The questions we should be asking are: why has Gallipoli come to occupy such a central place in the Australian story? And has it played a mostly positive or negative role in our development? These questions need to be addressed if we are to be freed from the shackles of our dependent past.

Initially, Gallipoli was embraced as a way of closing the curtain on the shame of Australia's convict origins. The stories of the war correspondents allowed the international image of Australian manhood to be transformed from a cowering convict to a courageous soldier. From being the rejected detritus of British jails, Australians could project themselves to the world as being the bravest defenders of the British Empire.

Few publicly questioned the terrible cost - 8709 Australian dead - for no gain. And the architect of our war effort, Billy Hughes, ensured as prime minister that the official version of the Gallipoli story would be used to bind Australia even closer to Britain rather than advance Australia on the road to independence.

There might have been more resistance to the official story, but which nation wants to hear that the sacrifice of its sons was for nothing and that the courage of their soldiers was not extraordinary. Australians had a particular need to believe in the martial prowess of their menfolk. They wanted the blood of battle to invest them with the right to possess the continent they were still in the process of occupying.

Gallipoli gave Australians that battle in a way that the scattered skirmishes against the Aborigines never could.

It would have been more satisfying if the battle had been fought and won on Australian soil, rather than fought and lost on Turkish soil. Although far removed and ending in defeat, Australians could console themselves that the battle was fought in a region where mythic heroes had won fame in ancient times. And descriptions of the Australian soldiers freely compared them to ancient gods.

It was heady stuff for a people who had spent more than a century scrubbing away at the supposedly shameful ''stain'' of convictism. The accounts of Gallipoli gave Australians a new foundation story of which they could be proud. The story was shaped in such a way that the defeat at the hands of the Turks was somehow transformed into a story of triumph.

In doing so, Gallipoli gave Australians some confidence that their small population of barely 5 million, far less than the population of London, might be able to defend their huge continent. This was the real significance of the Gallipoli story, as it was told to successive generations of Australians.

Gallipoli provided a security blanket for a people who had feared since the 1840s that Asian nations coveted their continent and would one day invade it.

When the sons of the First World War Diggers, and some of the Diggers themselves, went off to the Second World War, they went with a swagger, self-consciously carrying the legacy of Gallipoli. Australians had convinced themselves, and many Britons as well, of their superiority as soldiers.

Consequently, there was a sense of panic in Australia, and a feeling of surprise and disappointment on the part of British leaders, when Australia's volunteer soldiers were unable to hold Singapore against the Japanese army. The men of Gallipoli were seen momentarily as ordinary mortals.

The Australian panic was quickly assuaged by the arrival of the Americans and the later success of the Australian conscript soldiers in holding back the Japanese soldiers on the Kokoda Track. The security blanket was back in place.

Yet that abiding fear of invasion was misguided. The only invading force that ever headed for Australia was led by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Even when Japan had the chance to do so, it chose to send its forces elsewhere.

Australians have been loath to acknowledge the natural advantages we enjoy, occupying an island continent situated so far from possible powerful enemies. Perhaps more importantly, we have been slow to recognise we have become the rightful inhabitants of the continent that the early British Australians invaded and occupied.

We still embrace the myth of Gallipoli, which reassures us that we somehow excel at soldiering. But we are still obsessed with a fear of invasion. Taken together, the confidence that came from Gallipoli, combined with the fear of invasion, has left us with an unjustified swagger combined with a forelock-tugging dependence on great and powerful friends. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, it has been a costly combination.

The Age, Melbourne, April 24, 2012

Never a dole moment

AS TONY Abbott and Julia Gillard toss sound bites back and forth on the evening news, the issue of jobs often features in their imagery. Both leaders are fond of visiting factories in hard hats and fluorescent vests to emphasise their affinity with working people and their commitment to create jobs.

It should be a slam dunk for the Labor Party. After all, it was the Labor governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley that brought an end to the lingering effects of the 1930s Depression and ushered in decades of full employment after the war.

Curtin and Chifley knew what full employment meant. It did not mean an unemployment rate of more than 5 per cent, which we have at the moment. It meant a rate of less than 2 per cent, so that everyone who wanted a job could get one. And not just work for a few hours a week, but a job that provided a living wage.

In these more prosperous and educated times, it should not be beyond the wit of politicians and economists to achieve full employment again. Such a commitment should certainly occupy a prominent place on the political agenda of a party purporting to represent the interests of working people. Yet it does not.

It must be galling for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to watch Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens talk up the boom that Australia is meant to be enjoying.

There is no acknowledgment that the policies of the government and the bank are leaving many Australians in the lurch. And that they are doing it deliberately.

In 1993, prime minister Paul Keating gave the Reserve Bank the task of keeping inflation within an excessively low and narrow band of 2-3 per cent over the medium term. There was no requirement for the bank to achieve full employment and maintain it, while at the same time keeping inflation down. It seems that it was just too hard for the board members of the Reserve Bank to walk and chew gum at the same time. Not surprisingly, successive Reserve Bank governors have not had too much difficulty keeping inflation within the stipulated limits. They do so by pushing unemployment up whenever economic activity begins to accelerate and inflation ticks up a point or two.

It has been left to governments to deal with the resulting unemployment. No government for decades has suggested that full employment is achievable.

In 1999, Labor's opposition leader, Kim Beazley, promised to bring unemployment down to 5 per cent. At the time it seemed to be a heroic commitment. But unemployment had been on a downward trajectory since 1992, when it had almost reached 11 per cent. By the time of Beazley's statement, it had dropped back to about 6 per cent.

It would have been more heroic of Beazley to have promised a return to conditions of full employment, so that the spectre of unemployment could be removed from the lives of working Australians.

That would have been a great commitment for a Labor leader to make, even if it had to be achieved over the life of two parliaments. It would have put the issue back on the political agenda, back in the realm of the possible.

Beazley lost his chance and John Howard remained in power, presiding over an economy that saw the unemployment rate continue to slide downwards past Beazley's heroic rate of 5 per cent to reach just 4 per cent by early 2008.

There was not far to go before Australians might once again enjoy conditions of full employment. But it was a false dawn. Unemployment soon crept back up.

Instead of celebrating the approach of full employment, economists began wringing their hands in despair.

Although Australia had prospered for three decades with unemployment less than 2 per cent, economists decided that anything lower than about 5 per cent would cause inflation to soar.

They warned darkly of capacity constraints that would cause wage inflation and lead to the inflationary spirals of the 1970s and 1980s.

Such views condemn hundreds of thousands to unemployment or under-employment, leaving them to live precarious lives on marginal incomes.

By accepting such views, and ensuring that the Reserve Bank's mandate is only concerned with inflation, the Labor government has kept the unemployed in that position.

The unwritten mandate of the Reserve Bank is to maintain sufficient unemployment to keep inflation within the narrow band set by the government.

If by some miracle every unemployed person found work tomorrow, the Reserve Bank would respond by raising interest rates to reduce economic activity and toss them back on the dole heap.

I don't know what Curtin and Chifley would make of it, if they could see a Labor government maintaining a perpetual pool of unemployed people and then punishing those who were caught in it by imposing punitive work tests and providing an allowance that has declined in value compared with other social welfare payments.

If the Labor Party is to have any hope of winning the federal election next year, it needs to tackle unemployment. Not just by rabbiting on about the absolute number of jobs the government has created, but by committing itself to a policy of full employment. It could begin by asking the members of the Reserve Bank board to chew gum and walk at the same time.

The Age, Melbourne, April 2, 2012

Miners might not dig a coal delay, but it makes sense

There is a degree of political schizophrenia within the Labor government. On Monday, Treasurer Wayne Swan assailed coal magnate Clive Palmer for using his wealth to influence government policy. On Tuesday, Swan attacked environmental organisation Greenpeace for threatening Palmer's wealth. Greenpeace's crime was to announce plans to organise communities to slow down the frenetic expansion of Australia's coal mines and coal seam gas industry.

But the government's schizophrenia runs far deeper than that.

At the same time as the government introduces a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gases and create a low-carbon economy, it is vastly increasing greenhouse gases by expanding Australian coal mines and supporting the coal seam gas industry. Squaring this circle should not be beyond the capacity of a government that is not in the pocket of the coal miners and which has the nation's best interests at heart.

Beneath all the hysteria that has been created by the Greenpeace announcement, with one official calling for them to be charged with treason, there is considerable merit in the Greenpeace case. And not just for the beneficial effect such a slowdown would have on global warming and hastening the switch to renewal energy. To most people, that would be the beginning and end of the argument. But there are other good reasons why slowing the expansion of coal mines would benefit Australia and boost the sagging political stocks of the Labor government.

The economic arguments are compelling for switching the miners' green light to amber.

The resource industry around the world has been marked by a boom and bust mentality. In the middle of a boom, it is hard to see the coming bust. But coming it surely is, as high prices drive the expansion of mines around the world and the opening of many new ones. The prospective six-fold expansion in Queensland's coal exports by 2020 is just one dramatic sign of this.

Over the next few years, this frenzied expansion will produce the inevitable over-capacity, which will cause a collapse of prices and the shut-down of uneconomic mines. Such a bust will have dire effects in countries like Australia that have allowed large parts of their economy to be hollowed out to drive the mining juggernaut.

Government revenues will collapse and unemployment will increase, with less scope for shifting workers to other sectors of the economy.

Rather than ruing a slowdown in the expansion of Australian coal mines, the prospect should be welcomed by the government.

Instead of leading to a collapse in coal prices, a slowdown should put a floor under their present high levels. This will be good for the stability of government revenues, good for the security of mining jobs and good for accelerating the world's conversion to a low-carbon economy.

By encouraging the rapid expansion of coal mines and the consequent collapse in prices, the government will only encourage a continuing reliance on coal and delay by years the price-led switch to renewable energy. The creation of super-ports on the Queensland coast, and the vast expansion of shipping along and through the Great Barrier Reef, will also place Australia's greatest tourist asset in jeopardy.

Perhaps most importantly, the pace of the development leaves insufficient time to assess the likely effect on Australia's food bowl and water resources. If the Great Artesian Basin - one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the world, which underlies about 22 per cent of the country - is polluted by mining, it is gone forever.

Over the past couple of days, government ministers, union bosses and mining companies have all sung from the same song sheet in response to Greenpeace, claiming that any slowdown in the expansion of coal mines will cost jobs and bring the economy to a standstill. The opposite is true.

Because the mining boom has driven the Australian dollar up so high, every additional job created in mining has destroyed jobs in other industries. When the boom collapses, both the miners and the gutted industries will be left stranded.

The government must take a more long-term and strategic view of the present mining boom. Once the mining tax is bedded down, it should emulate other resource-rich countries by creating a sovereign wealth fund to shift part of this windfall revenue offshore as a counter-balance to the inrush of investment funds. Such a fund will help to bring the dollar down from its present destructive level, defend at-risk industries and provide a permanent revenue stream for the nation.

By slowing the expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas, Australia will be able to take a more measured approach to these developments.

It will allow time for governments and communities to assess whether the cost to Australian jobs and industries, and the multi-pronged cost to the environment, is worth the marginal gains that will accrue to the largely overseas mining companies.

A Labor government that can show it really has national rather than narrow, sectional interests in mind will recover much-needed public support and might even inspire enthusiasm from a jaded electorate.

The Age, Melbourne, March 8, 2012

The cloak of authority can be worn at last

Yesterday's dramatic vote of the Labor caucus has provided Julia Gillard with two things she has lacked as prime minister. Ever since she moved quickly and surgically to replace Kevin Rudd, her Brutus-like behaviour has detracted from her moral and political authority. It is these deficiencies that have prevented her from translating undeniable policy successes into the political support required to ensure victory in 2013.

The lack of moral authority is partly because she failed to explain properly why one of Labor's most popular and effective leaders had to be dumped after little more than two years in the job. Without a convincing explanation, voters rightly felt aggrieved when they awoke one morning to find that the person they had installed as prime minister had been removed in an overnight coup, apparently by Labor's machine men. She has been equally troubled by a lack of political authority.

Whatever the machinations and motivations behind the scenes, it is true that our first female leader has been hobbled in office by the unprecedented manner in which she came to it. She made a serious error of judgment in listening to the siren calls that assured her the prime minister's office was hers for the taking.

Labor leader John Curtin also heard those calls in late 1940, when an inconclusive federal election left prime minister Robert Menzies hanging by his fingertips. Curtin was urged by some colleagues to pick away at Menzies' tenuous hold on power so that Labor could form a government. He refused to listen, counselling his more ambitious colleagues that a government coming to power in such a way would lack political and moral authority.

Curtin only agreed to become prime minister in October 1941 after Menzies had been deposed by his own colleagues and his successor, Artie Fadden, had lost the confidence of Parliament. By biding his time, Curtin joined the pantheon of Australia's great leaders.

Although it did not seem like it at the time, Rudd's decision to resign as leader without forcing a caucus vote in 2010 compounded the problems for Gillard. She was never able to show to the public a convincing demonstration of her support within the caucus and the extent to which Rudd had lost the confidence of his colleagues.

Even though she was now Prime Minister, Gillard implicitly acknowledged her lack of political authority by declining to move into The Lodge until after her position had been confirmed by the people at an election. While it may have seemed the right decision at the time, her refusal to live in The Lodge only confirmed her lack of legitimacy.

Gillard then compounded her political errors by installing Rudd to a high-profile position as foreign minister rather than appointing him, say, as ambassador to one of the world's capitals.

When Billy Hughes deposed popular prime minister Andrew Fisher in 1915, after Fisher had won a resounding election victory a year before, he appointed him Australian high commissioner in London. This astute move prevented Fisher acting as a popular rallying point for the anti-conscriptionist Labor MPs in 1916 and shored up Hughes' political position during his next eight years as prime minister.

The 2010 election could have cloaked Gillard with the political and moral authority that she lacked. But the close-run race did the opposite. For several weeks it seemed as if the Australian people had chosen Tony Abbott as prime minister. The see-sawing of the poll results, and the drawn-out negotiations with the independent MPs and the Greens, only added to the impression of a leader who still lacked legitimacy. And she compounded this impression by introducing a carbon price after promising not to do so.

The Prime Minister's problems have been further compounded by mistakes of her own making. Continuing questions about her authenticity should not be difficult to deflect. She has shown, albeit rarely in public, the ability to project a warm and confident persona, but she too often appears on television as a cold and wooden figure who rote-learns her lines and refuses to stray from them. The past week has seen some passion and even anger, but it requires a whole range of human emotions for a leader to be regarded as truly authentic.

The lack of an overarching political narrative has also been one of Gillard's failings. An inspiring Australia Day speech would have allowed her to begin the articulation of such a narrative. But she chose not to give such a state-of-the-nation speech, leaving television audiences instead with the spectacle of the barefoot Prime Minister being dragged to her car by security men. She seemed to be on an inexorable slide to political oblivion.

And she may still be, despite yesterday's strong caucus vote in her favour. Although Gillard has finally been cloaked with some political and moral authority, she needs to show that she has learnt some political lessons from the past 18 months. To do that, she needs to move on from her years as a student politician and her role as a backroom apparatchik for state politicians. National leadership demands much more.

Floundering politically since 2010, and only kept afloat by the public's comparable distaste for Abbott, it's time for her to start swimming.

The Age, Melbourne, February 28, 2012

Antarctica is no place for politicking

THE recent ceremony carried out at Mawson's huts, when the Australian flag was raised and a plaque placed on a nearby hill, was just the latest piece of political theatre to be staged in Antarctica.

For more than a century, flags have been raised on the ice or dropped from aircraft, while proclamations have been either read out to audiences of penguins and seals or similarly dropped from on high.

The Germans even dropped Nazi insignia attached to heavy javelins, so they would stand when they hit the ice. From Mawson in 1912 to Monday's ceremony, it has all been done in the name of territorial acquisition and retention, with science acting as a cover.

A century ago, when Douglas Mawson went south with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, science was the supposed purpose. According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ''Mawson and his colleagues undertook their epic journey . . . to advance the cause of science.''

In fact, science was far from the most important motive for Mawson's expedition. As he explained at the time, the expedition would bring Australia to the world's attention and invest it with ''the prestige [that comes from] being strong enough to investigate and claim new territory''. And it had to be done quickly, before ''foreign nations … step in and secure this most valuable portion of the Antarctic continent for themselves''.

It was a compelling argument for the Labor government of Andrew Fisher. A Japanese army officer was even then leading an expedition to claim part of the Antarctic for his emperor and a Prussian military officer was doing likewise for the German kaiser. It was the presence of the Japanese and Germans, not science, that helped clinch a sizeable contribution for Mawson's expedition from Fisher's government, which was adamant that no potentially hostile power should control the Antarctic coastline to its south.

As soon as Mawson had erected his huts at what he named Commonwealth Bay, he gathered his companions together on a nearby hill for a formal ceremony on January 30, 1912. Curiously, the ritual received no mention during the commemoration this week.

British and Australian flags were raised in the 1912 ceremony, and surrounding territory was claimed in the name of the king. No matter that Mawson had been unable to persuade the British to give him the authority to make such a claim.

It was the beginning of a lifelong campaign by Mawson to claim all of what he called the Australian sector. He went back there in 1929-31, during which he made two long voyages along the Antarctic coast with an aircraft lashed to the deck of his small ship. This time he had authority from Britain to claim territory and went at it with a will, either by dropping proclamations from his aircraft or depositing them on shore under a cairn. When he was unable to land, he simply threw them ashore from a small boat.

At the time, Mawson was engaged in a furious race with Norwegian whaler Lars Christensen, who wanted to claim the same sector on behalf of his king. Although the Norwegians preceded Mawson in several places, the Norwegian government buckled to pressure from the British not to annex any territory within the Australian sector.

Following these voyages, Australia finally moved in 1933 to annex the territory along which Mawson had sailed.

The Australian claim was later found to comprise 42 per cent of the entire continent. And it had all been done without Mawson having seen more than a small fraction of it. Although it was now marked on maps as Australian Antarctic Territory, successive Australian governments did little to reinforce their ownership.

Indeed, it was more than 20 years before any other Australians returned to its shores, after Mawson's continuing campaign led to establishment of the first Australian base.

By that time, Australia's title to its territory was most tenuous, with both the US and Russia establishing bases on the supposed Australian territory.

Mawson's campaign was motivated by the assumption Antarctica harboured resources of value to Australia and to himself personally. First, he had been excited by the discovery of coal seams, and he thought gold and copper might also be present in large quantities.

There were also whales and seals, which Mawson hoped to exploit on his own account. But nothing came of it. Neither did the Antarctic come to have the strategic significance for Australia that Mawson and others had predicted.

Yet Australia persists with its claim to 42 per cent of the continent and engages in continuing acts of political theatre to reinforce it. Although the Antarctic Treaty supposedly ended the jostling for territory, the nations with historic territorial claims continue to vie with nations that harbour territorial aspirations.

It is an uneasy equilibrium that has the potential to boil over into conflict. Australia should use the current calm to develop a post-treaty future for Antarctica in which scientific co-operation and environmental protection really are paramount, and territorial claims have no place at all.

The Age, Melbourne, January 19, 2012

Rescue us from this madness

WHEN future historians sit down to write our history, they will be puzzled and doubtless dismayed at the increasingly harsh treatment meted out to asylum seekers who fetch up on our shores after enduring hazardous voyages in small boats. Instead of receiving our sympathy and succour, they are thrown behind razor wire for long periods of mind-destroying detention. How did it come to this?

Back in early 1990, when I was writing a history of the Australian Customs Service, I flew along the Kimberley coastline in a small Coastwatch aircraft looking mainly for Indonesian fishermen. There was also the possibility of sighting a refugee boat, following the arrival weeks earlier of such a boat from Cambodia, the first to have come all the way from that war-racked place.

Looking through the Customs records in Broome, I came across the correspondence relating to that first boat, which had brought an extended family of 26 people. They had come ashore and been reported by the local Aboriginal people, who thought the people were Indonesians.

Even when their true origins became known, there was none of the hysterical hullabaloo that now infects the political debate. Instead, matter-of-fact newspaper reports showed pictures of grinning women and children relieved that their month-long journey was over, while headlines noted their ''amazing 5000 km voyage''. In that more innocent age, a Broome tourist operator even offered to house the whole group and employ its adult members.

Such an outcome would have been ideal. The refugees would have had immediate livelihoods, while Broome's labour shortage would have been eased. Alternatively, they could have been taken to a reception centre elsewhere, where their needs could have been assessed and housing and jobs organised. Instead, a posse of immigration officials escorted the refugees into months of detention in Sydney.

The bureaucratic reception was in marked contrast to the humane treatment of other refugee arrivals, whether it was Jews fleeing Hitler, displaced Europeans after the Second World War, Hungarians in 1956, Vietnamese fleeing their homeland or Chinese students seeking refuge after the Tiananmen Square massacre. And it had the unfortunate effect of locking both sides of politics into an approach that would get increasingly harsh as populist politicians and radio shock jocks began to bang away at the drums of fear and suspicion.

To his eternal discredit, John Howard took the drum-banging to new heights over the Tampa, when shipwrecked asylum seekers were met by gun-toting members of the SAS. This extreme response was a chance for then Labor leader Kim Beazley to show his mettle and remind Australians of their humanitarian obligations. But he funked his chance. There was an election in the offing and there was no time for talk of values or principles. Labor has been boxed in by the debate ever since and recently pushed into ever more extreme positions of its own desperate devising.

Now Australians are presented with the bizarre solution of sending 800 asylum seekers into the harsh clutches of the Malaysian government in return for 4000 of their refugees. The best that Tony Abbott can offer in response to this exercise in human trafficking is to suggest reopening the failed Nauru detention centre.

Back in the Howard years, when the Woomera detention centre was a byword for infamy, I suggested that it be kept as a historical monument to remind passing tourists of the moment of madness that had gripped us back then. Perhaps because of my suggestion, when the detention centre was closed, the site was bulldozed. Although there are no reminders at Woomera, every state now has a monument to our continuing madness.

Neither side of politics can take pride in the stands they have taken, the fears they have evoked and the damage they have caused to the most vulnerable of people. There is a solution, but it will take political courage. Political leaders on both sides have to restore decent Australian values and principles to the debate, which demand that people be treated with dignity, respect and humanity. Why should that be so hard, and why have political leaders of the major parties lacked the courage to do so?

Kim Beazley failed to display ticker over the Tampa, choosing short-term political results over long-term reputation, and was punished for being a tin man. Julia Gillard follows that sorry example as she thinks up ever more extreme ''solutions''. Labor has allowed Tony Abbott to portray himself as offering a more humane solution on Nauru than Labor offers in Malaysia or on Manus Island. And so Labor continues to be boxed in by John Howard's cruel political trap.

In the 21 years since that first Cambodian boat, while the politics have become increasingly fraught to the point of obscenity, the practical problem of dealing with asylum seekers has remained just as manageable as it was in 1989. There was no need to use detention centres back then and there is no need now.

Instead of fortified camps for mandatory and indefinite detention, we need reception centres where new arrivals can be briefly housed and processed, before being moved quickly into one of the many Australian communities that would welcome them. We also need a staff of immigration officers in Jakarta to process refugee applications, with preference for family reunion to deter desperate people heading here by boat. It just requires a leader with the courage to reframe the debate in terms of decent principles and values. Only then will the arguments of the fearmongers be neutralised once and for all.

The Age, Melbourne, June 15, 2011

​Cook's mixed endeavours

Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his Rivals by Geoffrey Blainey, Viking, $49.95

The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade, by Glyn Williams, Profile Books, $39.95

THE FACTS OF JAMES Cook's life and death are straightforward. He led three prolonged voyages around the Pacific, during which he added considerable detail to the European maps of that ocean. In February 1779, on a Hawaiian beach, Cook was struck down, killed and his body dismembered.

The news of his death, which took almost a year to reach London, caused an outpouring of grief by a nation that was smarting from the loss of its American colonies. Yet, as Glyn Williams points out in The Death of Captain Cook, there was some ambivalence about a man who allowed himself to be treated as a pagan god by the people of Hawaii. Some English observers also had misgivings about the implications of Cook's voyages for the people of the Pacific.

To his credit, this was something that Cook readily conceded in his journal, noting that the arrival of the English introduced "wants and diseases which (the islanders) never knew before and which serves only to disturb (their) happy tranquillity ..". Although he made some effort to prevent the worst effects of European contact, Cook could not help being the harbinger of death and destruction.

His reputation has been contested ever since. His successes were many, yet so too were his failures. He charted the east coast of Australia but failed to discover that there was a strait separating Tasmania from the mainland. He was anchored for days at Botany Bay without realising that one of the finest harbours in the world was within walking distance. When he continued his voyage, he sailed past the entrance to Sydney Harbour without investigating it.

The principal purposes of his voyages were not achieved. Rather than discovering the continent that was thought to exist in the South Pacific, Cook showed there was no such place. His search for the north-west passage that was believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was similarly fruitless. He could have been the first to discover Antarctica, but he retreated in the face of the testing seas and freezing temperatures.

In his slim and authoritative book, Williams is more concerned to trace the ways in which Cook has been remembered since his death, both by the people of the Pacific and by his fellow Europeans.

He relates the ways in which Australians and New Zealanders embraced the image of Cook, the civilised navigator, as the founding father of their colonies and later nations, disregarding the earlier European discoverers and, of course, the indigenous peoples whose lands they were.

Williams concludes with a survey of recent writings by Cook scholars, concentrating on the sometimes fierce disputes about the cause of Cook's death. Was he a god who revealed his human frailty to the Hawaiians or was it a more prosaic defence against an alien expedition that was placing unbearable demands on their food supplies and posing a possible threat to their control of the islands?

Williams suggests an even simpler explanation. He points to the events immediately preceding Cook's death, when the irascible captain assaulted the local Hawaiian leader and then found that his small shot was ineffectual in stopping the anger of the crowd from being unleashed upon him. Such inflammatory behaviour could be a death sentence in any society.

In Sea of Dangers, Geoffrey Blainey reminds us in often vivid prose that Cook was not alone in the Pacific. In the late 18th century, the ocean was the scene of rivalry between the English, French and Russians as they sought to undermine the crumbling Spanish empire and assert their own pre-eminence.

While Cook was crossing the Pacific in 1770, scanning the horizon for some sign of the supposed great south land, French trader Jean de Surville was leaving the Indian port of Pondicherry with a cargo of goods that he hoped to trade with the people of that same non-existent land.

The two explorers, approaching from opposite sides of the Pacific, are described as rivals, though each was oblivious of the other and their intentions were dissimilar. Cook had been instructed to claim the great south land for Britain, while deSurville was intent on profiting from its trade. In sailing about the south-west Pacific, deSurville came so close to eastern Australia that his crew reported that they could smell it.

Rather than following his nose, de Surville headed towards New Zealand, expecting that there was a better chance of profitable trade with its inhabitants. It was there that his ship almost came in sight of Cook's Endeavour.

The meeting of the two captains could have been an interesting historical moment. But it never happened. Instead, de Surville headed east for the non-existent continent, while Cook went west to the continent everyone knew existed but which noone was much interested in claiming.

The story of Cook's charting of Australia's eastern coast is a familiar one, but Blainey's characteristic curiosity and close re-reading of the shipboard journals raise new questions about Cook and his reputation, particularly his decision to sail through moonlit seas likely to conceal dangerous coral reefs.

Cook's reputation as a navigator would have received even greater damage than the Endeavour had he and his crew not been able to haul it off the Great Barrier Reef and repair the damaged hull on the banks of a nearby river.

The Age, 8 November 2008

​Best file secrets in the biscuit tin

A FEW years ago, the New Zealand biographer Michael King told an audience at the National Library about the perils of writing biographies and the discretion that has to be used when writing about the private lives of public figures. King had just published a biography of the Nobel Prize-nominated author Janet Frame, who was then still alive.

King admitted that he had screened from public scrutiny various episodes in Frame's life that might have caused her to be hurt. For the time being, he said, they would be kept buried in a biscuit tin at the bottom of his garden. Now both Frame and King are dead and the contents of the metaphorical biscuit tin may never be revealed.

Most biographers have such biscuit tins in which they keep unpublished notes about their subjects, whether because publication would cause needless hurt or because the veracity of the information cannot be confirmed. Of course, there are some people who argue that the private life of a public figure is not a proper subject for biography. But this is nonsense.

Understanding the actions and motivations of a public figure requires biographers to explore the private landscape, so that they can feel confident of being able to see the world through the eyes of their subjects. Those writers who don't do so end up creating a cardboard cut-out figure that is difficult to recognise as human. This is true whether the subject is a novelist, such as Frame, or a politician.

Prime minister Ben Chifley was reported to have spent many hours stoking his backyard incinerator with his private papers and disparaged the idea of a biographer wanting to write his life. It was not the false humility of an engine driver who had risen to be prime minister. There were important aspects of his life that Chifley was keen to conceal from public gaze, that a biographer would almost inevitably reveal.

Despite his careful planning, there were some things that could not be concealed. When Chifley was stricken with his second heart attack, he was in his bedroom in Canberra's Hotel Kurrajong. Keeping him company was his secretary, Phyllis Donnelly, whose presence naturally gave rise to rumours about the pair being long-time lovers. The truth was more complex than that.

One of my most confronting experiences as a biographer occurred when I was rummaging through the drawers of a dresser in Chifley's cottage. Sliding out of a large envelope came the X-ray of Elizabeth Chifley's twisted spine, which shows dramatically the scoliosis that had blighted her life from an early age and which forced her at times to wear a corrective brace on her upper body. The chronic pain of his wife's condition may provide part of the explanation for Chifley seeking solace in the arms of another woman.

When I raised the question with Chifley's old campaign manager in a Bathurst nursing home, he was most emphatic that it was not Phyllis Donnelly but her older sister, Nell, who was the real love of Chifley's life. The subsequent disclosure in my biography of Chifley's complex private life caused outraged denials from a section of his extended family. Yet his long-term relationship with Nell Donnelly should not be a cause of shame, nor should it detract from Chifley's considerable reputation. In the difficult circumstances and with the social constraints of small-town life, he did what he could to be true to both the women in his life.

The family of wartime prime minister John Curtin had been similarly sensitive about disclosures of his private life. His addiction to alcohol had tormented him throughout his adult life and was widely known. So, too, were his regular descents into depression. Yet the family was anxious that the general public should not be made aware of them, even to the extent of threatening legal action against an early biographer.

Attitudes towards alcoholism and depression had changed by the time that I embarked on my biography of Curtin in the late 1990s. When I visited Curtin's bungalow in Perth's beachside suburb of Cottesloe, the house was being maintained by his daughter, Elsie. Perhaps because of the dementia from which she was beginning to suffer, there was no attempt by Elsie to conceal the emotional and psychological problems with which her father wrestled.

Curtin almost certainly suffered from bipolar disorder, probably inherited from his father. But it was not just his bipolar disorder that impelled him to drink. There is considerable evidence that there was a darker secret that Curtin nursed all his life. Although I refrained from revealing my suspicions in the biography, I did admit to several audiences that I believed Curtin had probably been sexually abused as a teenager by a Catholic priest. There is some evidence for this.

When Curtin lay dying in the prime minister's Lodge in Canberra in 1945, the Catholic monsignor for the capital came calling, apparently hoping that Curtin would make a deathbed return to the church. But the monsignor was turned away at the door by Curtin's Presbyterian wife, also Elsie. The adamant refusal to admit the monsignor suggested a deeper motivation than simple sectarianism on the part of his wife. It seemed more likely that his wife was privy to an episode in Curtin's early life that would make the admission of the monsignor impossible.

Throughout his adult life, Curtin had steadfastly refused even to step inside a Catholic church. When invited to the Catholic weddings of close friends, he would decline to attend the ceremonies. He just could not bring himself to do it.

The origins of his refusal probably date back to his time as a young lad in the Victorian country town of Charlton, when Curtin had been an altar boy at the local Catholic church. One of his duties was to help the priest with his robes before the service. The parish history notes that the priest had "a commanding presence and strong personality". Was he the priest who abused Curtin and turned him against the church?

At this distance in time, we cannot know for certain. But the evidence suggests that Curtin had a profound psychological aversion to the church of his birth rather than simply a rational reaction against religion. During my research, I only came across one reference to Curtin entering a church of any sort as an adult. It occurred in 1942 when he attended the rededication of a historic Presbyterian church in Canberra. Expecting just to be in the congregation, Curtin was taken aback when called upon to speak. The minister later recalled that Curtin was "shivering among the presence of church people".

An earlier wartime prime minister, Andrew Fisher, would have had no such reservations about speaking in a church. The former Scottish coal miner, who rose to become prime minister and commit Australia to World War I, had been a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher in Queensland before turning to politics. During three separate terms, he did more than any other prime minister to create a sense of Australian nationhood.

There is a long list of practical achievements to his credit, from creating the Royal Australian Navy to laying the foundation stone of Canberra and constructing the transcontinental railway. He also ignored the nervous opposition of his colleagues and established the Commonwealth Bank, as well as inaugurating Australia's currency and penny postage stamps.

Despite being one of our longest-serving prime ministers and presiding over the landings at Gallipoli, his story remains largely unknown. After two of Fisher's previous biographers had died before completing their work, I was anxious that my own attempt was done expeditiously. The task seemed straightforward. But there were some twists and turns to the story that I had not anticipated.

I discovered that Fisher was also instrumental in promoting an Australian sensibility through his relationship with influential Australian artists of the Heidelberg School. I was surprised to discover that he would often escape from his political burdens and the pressures of his crowded family life to spend time in an artist's studio in Carlton.

The most disconcerting discovery, though, was made among Fisher's papers at the National Library. Fisher had been a keen photographer and had even installed a darkroom in the cellar of his rather rundown Melbourne mansion so that he could do his own developing.

Amid all the family photos there was a small, washed-out photograph of a naked man posing aboard a sailing boat. Suddenly, my carefully constructed image of Fisher threatened to come undone. What was the significance of this isolated piece of late-Victorian erotica among Fisher's papers? How was I to deal with it and where was it likely to lead? What would Michael King have done? Buried it in his symbolic biscuit tin, perhaps?

I was conscious that Fisher's papers had been left behind in his Melbourne mansion in 1915 when Fisher and his family went to live in London. His brother-in-law, a keen sailor, lived in the house until Fisher returned and took all his belongings back to London. There the papers remained long after Fisher's death from dementia in 1928. There was no telling how the photograph had come to be among Fisher's personal papers. So, as far as Fisher's biography was concerned, I would leave the photograph in the biscuit tin.

It would be easy to hold nothing back from a biography; to report every rumour and bring every piece of material to the attention of the reader. But the biographer has a duty of discretion when delving into the private life of the subject, even when that person is long dead, and also has a responsibility to the readers to sift carefully through the surviving evidence, discarding the irrelevant and the malicious and dismissing the false trails that are meant to mislead.

After researching three biographies, my particular biscuit tin has become rather full.

Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 2008

Casting off chains of thought

Australia's Birthstain, by Babette Smith, Allen & Unwin, $49.95

EVERY SOCIETY HAS A foundation story that reinforces its links to the land it happens to occupy. While the United States has its Pilgrim Fathers, Australia has had to suffice with a story of convicts being led ashore into captivity at Sydney Cove. It does not do much to reinforce Australian claims of ownership of the continent. Nor does it imbue Australians with a sense of collective pride in their origins.

As a result, generations of Australians spent more than a century in a state of denial about their nation's convict origins. At various national pageants, convicts were never remembered. Instead, commemorative parades and ceremonies celebrated the historic roles of the pioneers or the soldiers or even the bushrangers: anyone but the convicts, who had comprised the great majority of British Australians in the pre-gold rush decades.

When an American company proposed in 1926 to make a film of the convict novel, For the Term of his Natural Life, strenuous efforts were made to prevent it happening. It was feared that the film would remind the world of Australia's origins and thereby harm its campaign to attract investment and immigrants. As late as 1988, the Bicentenary saw a re-creation of the First Fleet, with sailing ships eerily empty of the convicts who had crowded the decks of the original fleet and who had gone on to lay the foundations of Australia.

This sense of shame about Australia's early history has been slow to dissipate. And the shame was heightened by many families who had a convict among their ancestors and who sought to hide it.

Not any more. As prime minister Kevin Rudd showed when talking of his own roots, people now point with pride to having a convict somewhere on their family tree.

Freelance historian Babette Smith is one of perhaps 2 million Australians who can claim a convict ancestor, with the story of Smith's ancestor being proudly told in her previous book, A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal.

Now Smith returns to examine the origins of the shame of "Australia's birthstain", which she dates to the 1837 House of Commons committee on transportation, chaired by the radical young dandy, Sir William Molesworth, and the subsequent movement in the colonies to campaign against transportation.

Until then, claims Smith, the inhabitants of the colonies were content to judge a person by their character rather than by their criminal convictions.

The committee's hearings changed all that, providing the opponents of the convict system with a soapbox from which to make lurid allegations about the depraved state of the Australian colonies, focusing particularly on the extent of homosexuality among the convicts and their slave-like working conditions.

The committee's damning report was published just as the colonies were being transformed by the wealth of the wool industry into places of considerable economic and social opportunity for convicts and free alike. It was that wealth, multiplied many times by the discovery of gold in 1851, which brought an end to the convict system in eastern Australia.

Even before then, as Smith relates with numerous examples, people were committing crimes in Britain in order to be transported to Australia and enjoy opportunities and higher living standards that the colonies now offered even its humblest citizens.

As free immigrants began in the second half of the 19th century to outnumber convicts and former convicts, those who had once been guests of the government began to conceal their convict past from public view. It was partly because of the stain of their collective past that Australians so welcomed the news from Gallipoli in 1915, believing that the stories of their soldiers' courage would begin to wash away the convict stain and provide a new foundation story for the nation.

In Australia's Birthstain, Smith blows the trumpet for the legion of family historians who have painstakingly worked away in libraries and archives over the past 30 or so years to uncover the individual stories of thousands of convicts and their descendants.

Collectively, their stories paint a quite different picture of early Australia from the gore-spattered picture of Robert Hughes' influential study, The Fatal Shore. The gibbet and the whipping post are still there, but they do not overshadow the images of those many convicts who found liberty and opportunity in Australia.

More importantly, Smith shows how the shame about Australia's convict origins was created by a combination of moralising religious leaders and radical nationalists, whose censorious judgements "left a wound at the heart of the nation" and continue to influence the way we view our history. This is an important book that deserves to be widely read. It should also inspire other historians to shed further light on our formative years, freed from the shackles of the past.

The Age, 5 July 2008

​The world is all at sea when it comes to the oceans' bounty

AFTER a tense time last summer between the Japanese whaling fleet and environmentalists, Australia's appointment of Sandy Hollway as a whaling ambassador may well head off worse confrontation next summer. But supporters of a whaling ban in the Southern Ocean should not assume that such a ban can be achieved, or that additional pressure on Japan will not prove counter-productive.

Next time, Japan could well raise the stakes by using its defence forces to protect their whaling fleet. Before that happens, Australians should pause and reconsider the support for a blanket ban on whaling in the Southern Ocean. We need to take some of the heat and emotion out of the issue. In this, there has been fault on both sides. Some of the heat has been stoked by the Japanese, who say their killing of whales is for research purposes, when clearly that is not the case. But there has been misinformation by their opponents as well.

Despite claims to the contrary, Japan has had a long-standing involvement in whaling. It was not simply a postwar development promoted by the Allied occupation forces commander, General Douglas MacArthur, to feed a hungry population. Before the war, Japan was one of the world's most active whaling nations, with a large fleet operating in the Southern Ocean.

 In the late 1930s, it took more than 40 times the number of whales that it now kills. Along with other nations, including Australia, the Japanese over-fishing caused a disastrous decline in the whale population, pushing some species to the edge of extinction. This had occurred before over the previous century or so, as whaling fleets from several countries killed mature and juvenile animals alike. Inevitably, this resulted in a boom-and-bust industry.

It was in response to the postwar depletion of several whale species that the International Whaling Commission was formed. It was never intended to ban whaling, but to put it on a sustainable basis, so that whales could be harvested without putting any species under threat of extinction.

The argument has since moved on, with some people calling for a complete ban on the killing of whales, except for those hunted by indigenous people using traditional methods. But is this what the Australian Government believes? The problem is that Australia seems not to have a rational position.

The latest call by its Government is not to protect all whales, just those that happen to be in the Southern Ocean.

Would it therefore be all right for ships to lie in wait on the edge of the Southern Ocean and hunt whales as they migrated northwards? Or do we really want to protect all whales per se? And if that is our real intention, we need to be able to make it clear why whales should be privileged when other species are not so privileged.

Why, for instance, can kangaroos be killed for dog meat, crocodiles for designer handbags and lambs for Sunday lunch. Rather than singling Japan out for opprobrium, and setting ourselves up for a destructive and probably futile conflict, we should take a more holistic approach in protecting biodiversity in the oceans, at the same time protecting the lives of the billions of people whose lives depend on the harvest from the seas.

We should, perhaps, be more alarmed by the massive and unregulated fishing of krill from the Southern Ocean, on which the lives of whales, penguins and fish depend, rather than the small-scale and probably sustainable hunting of whales that now goes on.

Australia should work for a more wide-ranging and scientific approach to maintain the health and biodiversity of all the world's hard-pressed oceans.

That will require an international effort to achieve a pact, brokered through the UN, to prevent the over-fishing of all species and the destructive methods often used to harvest the oceans. In reaching such a pact, and creating the means of enforcing it, the support of such influential fishing nations as Japan will be essential.

Just as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was established to monitor the world's climate, and prompt governments to act in ways that might forestall some of the worst effects of global warming, so Australia could push for an inter-governmental panel on the world's oceans.

Such a body could harness the knowledge of marine scientists, fishery experts and environmentalists to provide regular updates and advice on the health of our oceans and the sustainability of the species within them, from the largest whales to the smallest krill.

The Age, 19 May 2008

​A forgotten PM's ideas still resonate

Andrew Fisher is a good choice for a political hero by Kevin Rudd.

DURING the election campaign, Kevin Rudd nominated Andrew Fisher as one of his political heroes. Although the name would have meant little to many Australians, it was a good choice, and not just because Fisher was a Labor prime minister who came from south-east Queensland. More to the point, he was prime minister three times and served for longer than Gough Whitlam, John Curtin, Ben Chifley or Paul Keating. Moreover, he left a remarkable legacy.

Next year will mark the centenary of Fisher's first accession to the prime ministership in November 1908. It was a minority government that lasted only six months, and as a consequence his first term achieved little in the way of legislation. But Fisher's moderate leadership and fiscal conservatism, together with his plans for Australia's development and defence, reassured Australian voters that the Labor Party could be trusted with the levers of power. There were bigger things to come.

In April 1910, after Alfred Deakin's dwindling band of small-l liberals were swamped by conservatives in the Liberal Party government, Fisher's Labor opposition swept back into power in a landslide of historic proportions. Like Kevin Rudd, Fisher had captured the political centre that his opponents had effectively deserted. It was the first time in Australia that any party had achieved a majority in both houses of parliament, and it was the first time in the world that a socialist party had been elected to government.

Just as Labor's present success owes much to the personality and character of Kevin Rudd, so Labor's success then owed much to the personality and character of Andrew Fisher. Fisher had risen from the coal mines of Ayrshire, in south-west Scotland, where he had begun work as a boy before emigrating to Queensland in pursuit of the economic and political freedoms that were denied to men of his class in Britain. He found plenty of opportunities in colonial Queensland, where he worked as a goldminer and served as a Sunday school teacher. He was soon elected to the Brisbane Parliament as one of its first Labor MPs before joining the first Federal Parliament in 1901.

From less than 20% of the vote in 1901, Fisher had done much to increase Labor's share to a massive 50% by 1910, with a swing of 13% from the previous election. After his win, Fisher launched into a great nation-building program that was designed to boost the wealth and population of the country. He ditched some old Labor shibboleths, such as its opposition to immigration, and oversaw a substantial increase to Australia's population after some years of stagnation under his predecessors.

As part of this program, he introduced a tax on unimproved land to force large land owners and pastoral companies to break up the millions of hectares on which they were squatting and turn them over to small farmers. And he established a Commonwealth Bank to loosen the financial fetters of the City of London and harness Australian savings for the development of the nation.

After Deakin had been dithering over the establishment of Canberra, it was Fisher who decided its site, laid its foundation stone and gave the capital its Aboriginal name. Similarly, he took over the Northern Territory from South Australia, which had left the north dangerously undeveloped and largely unpopulated. Among his many other achievements was the establishment of the railway that would connect the west and east coasts.

Fisher also asserted the supremacy of the federal government over the parochialism of state premiers, who sometimes liked to put themselves on a par with Fisher by styling themselves as "prime minister" of their particular states. He did more than his predecessors in establishing a unifying national identity in the minds of Australians, drawing on a mixture of symbolic gestures and practical measures - whether it was giving Australia its own currency and making the wattle Australia's national flower, or replacing Australia's traditional reliance on Britain's navy with the establishment of its own.

After narrowly losing office in 1913, Fisher was swept back into power in 1914 and would have added to his achievements but for the intervention of the First World War. He famously committed Australia to "the last man and the last shilling", not realising the horror of what lay ahead. As the dire implications of that commitment unfolded in the gullies of Gallipoli, and the war demanded more and more of Australia's limited manpower, Fisher resigned in October 1915 to become high commissioner in London.

Unlike John Howard, Fisher left politics at a time of his own choosing, but there was little sense of triumph on his departure. His earlier, nation-building achievements were overshadowed by the developing disaster on the Gallipoli peninsula. Fisher would remain in London, where he gradually slipped into a twilight world of dementia, from which he died in 1928. Forgetful himself at the end, he has been largely forgotten by Australians ever since. Yet, a century on, the challenges and parallels of his time at the top remain relevant to modern political leaders.

The Age, 10 December 2007

Beazley's tempted to appeal to the fickle mob

AMANDA Vanstone's feigned outrage at Kim Beazley last week has revealed the Government's vulnerability on its vastly expanded foreign worker scheme. The Government's failure to provide training for the large pool of unemployed Australians, while at the same time throwing open the door to temporary foreign workers, has the potential to cost it dearly at the next election. But it also has dangers for Labor and the future of Australia.

For Beazley, the coming poll will be his third and last throw of the dice as Labor leader. With victory becoming more than a faint possibility, it would be tempting for Beazley to let rip on an issue that has resonated with Australian workers since the 1840s, when hard-pressed squatters wanted to bring in gangs of cheap Indian labourers to work on their sheep runs. Just a few years later, tens of thousands of Chinese gold miners provided a more potent challenge.

The presence of the Chinese, together with the later recruitment of Melanesian labourers for the sugar industry, made racial exclusion a maxim of the Australian Federation in 1901. The so-called White Australia policy, which imposed a dictation test designed to exclude non-European immigrants, was supported by all political parties, although it was Labor that clung most fiercely to it.

While some conservatives could see the easy profits in using non-European labourers to develop the tropical north, the labour movement saw such indentured labourers as a threat to their hard-won wage rates and living standards. There were also widespread fears about Australians being swamped by an Asiatic tide.

Racism was the glue that held the White Australia policy together. And Labor leaders were not averse to using this racism to help them win elections. Even John Curtin, a man who usually eschewed such base appeals, included racial arguments when leading the fight against conscription during the First World War.

Pointing to the rising power of Japan, and the recent recruitment of indentured labourers from Malta, Curtin told public meetings that the conscription of Australian men would threaten the policy by sending white Australian men to the other side of the world while their jobs were taken by indentured labourers and the country became more reliant on the Japanese navy for its protection.

A decade later, another future Labor leader, Ben Chifley, was facing the fight of his life. Rejected by the voters in his Bathurst electorate at the 1925 election, Chifley was making what would have been almost certainly his final attempt in 1928 at being elected to Federal Parliament. At public meetings throughout his largely rural electorate, the very sober, "facts and figures" politician found himself being wildly applauded when he promised to prevent the entry of non-British workers, mainly southern and central Europeans. Like Beazley today, Chifley objected because they were "being used to break down the wages and conditions of Australian workmen". So far, so good.

However, reacting to the adulation that he received, Chifley gradually ramped up the rhetoric as the election approached. The dog whistle was put away in his pocket and the foghorn of racism was given several loud blasts as Chifley attacked the government for giving "preference to dagos", rather than to unemployed ex-servicemen, and for having "allowed so many dagos and aliens into Australia that today they were all over the country taking work which rightly belonged to Australians". He accused the conservative government of fostering "an invasion of 30,000 aliens" that was changing Australia from "a white man's country" to one that was fast becoming "hybrid".

It was a discreditable lapse from an aspiring politician who would later, as prime minister, be responsible for welcoming hundreds of thousands of these self-same European "aliens" under his government's massive postwar immigration scheme. Over the subsequent 50 years, it was tolerance rather than intolerance that provided the glue that held an increasingly diverse Australia together. Now, as Anglo-Celtic Australians face the inevitable prospect, after 60 years of mass immigration, of becoming a minority in a country they once regarded as theirs forever, the voices of intolerance are again coming to the fore.

In such circumstances, a desperate politician might seek the passing plaudits of the fickle mob rather than remaining true to his principles and earning enduring respect by celebrating and defending Australia's historic transformation into a humane and outward-looking society.

In this respect, Beazley's recent talk about prescribing a set of Australian values, along with the Government's mooted test for immigrants, raise serious concerns. Labor's promise to provide a better and fairer society for all Australians will be put at risk if Beazley again tries to out-Tampa John Howard and turn his concern about the ruthless exploitation of vulnerable workers into a divisive campaign designed to appeal to our largely latent racism.

The Age, 19 September 2006

Time to acknowledge the first people's rights

FOR years now, some commentators have berated us for not making a greater celebration of the day that marked the beginning of our nation, and others have berated us for celebrating the day that also marked the beginning of a tragedy for Aboriginal peoples.

Both sides are right about the historical significance of January 26, 1788. It does mark the beginning of Australia's shame and of its triumph. This partly explains the muted way in which we tend to celebrate the day.

When Captain Arthur Phillip and his officers splashed ashore at Botany Bay, they believed they were bringing civilisation to what one of the officers described as "a remote and barbarous land". But it was not an act of selfless charity. They had come to conquer. They had not come to live in an Aboriginal world but to dispossess the Aborigines of their land and compel them to live in a British world. Phillip had been sent by the British government to take possession of the eastern half of Australia. The bold move was designed to give Britain a strategic presence in the Pacific. Little thought was given to the incidental consequences for the Aborigines.

With the peremptory act of raising a flag at Sydney Cove and reading a proclamation, Phillip blithely made one of the greatest land grabs in history without even a token attempt to negotiate with or compensate the owners. Had they been invited to Phillip's ceremony, and realised its significance, the Aborigines might have resisted more. In that first year, they had the numbers to bring the half-starved colony to a premature end. But there was little sustained resistance, and even less after smallpox wiped out much of Sydney's Aboriginal population.

Laid waste by disease and alcohol and the disruption of their traditional living patterns over the succeeding decades, or killed outright by punitive expeditions, the Aboriginal population seemed set by 1900 to be headed for extinction. A population of a million or more had been reduced to about 60,000. In the minds of the colonists, there was a sense of sad inevitability about it all, along with a quiet sense of satisfaction that the eventual Aboriginal demise would remove any lingering uneasiness about the legitimacy of the British occupation. But the nature of our national origins clearly concerns us still.

 Still unconfident in our relatively short-lived occupation of the continent, we shrink from undertaking those symbolic acts that would acknowledge the historic wrongs visited upon Aboriginal people and adequately recognise their status as first peoples. Just as in the past we took many of their children in an unsuccessful attempt to make Aborigines disappear, so we continue to press for them to blend into white Australia, thereby ceasing to pose a moral challenge to our occupation of their continent. We watch passively as Aborigines die from preventable diseases and as their societies are ravaged by the physical and psychological consequences of their historic dispossession, while comforting our consciences with the mistaken belief that they are the authors of their own misfortune.

Rather than providing adequate medical, educational and housing facilities, we compel outback Aborigines to wash their faces in return for providing a petrol bowser, thereby implicitly reinforcing the 18th-century view of the Aborigines as child-like savages who have to be civilised.

There is nothing to be gained by simply reproaching ourselves about the shameful acts in our past. Instead, we need to understand and acknowledge our history in its complexity, from the grandeur to the genocide. We need to situate our history within a wider context and understand we are far from alone in dispossessing indigenous people of their land. Just because many other societies share our situation does not absolve us of our shameful neglect. On this Australia Day, then, it is fitting we acknowledge the importance of Phillip's enterprise. Despite ignorance and ill-luck, the colonists overcame considerable obstacles to establish one of the world's great cities and one of the most diverse and tolerant societies.

It is equally important to acknowledge the tragic outcome for Aborigines. The tragedy will persist for so long as we push ahead with Phillip's original project of dispossession and refuse to recognise we have reached an important point in the prolonged process, initiated by Cook and Phillip, of making this continent our own. After more than 200 years, and with a population of 20 million people, the fear of ourselves being dispossessed has been largely allayed. We should be confident enough to recognise Aborigines as the first peoples of this land and to accord them the rights implicit in such status. It has proved to be a bounteous land. Its riches deserve to be shared more generously with those from whom it was taken.

Sydney Morning Herald/ The Age, 26 January 2005

Heroic portrait of an officer and a cad

Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War. by Roland Perry, Random House

The Great War killed 60,000 young Australian men, along with millions more from other nations. One of the generals who directed them to their death was John Monash, a Melbourne engineer of German-Jewish background who managed to surmount the discrimination of early 20th-century Australia to become one of the new nation's most famous sons.

Like thousands of others, Monash's father had come to Victoria during the gold rushes, hoping to make his fortune, only to end up as a storekeeper at Jerilderie and later as an unsuccessful money-lender in Melbourne. Monash would later regale dinner parties with stories of how he held the horses for Ned Kelly when the bushranger came to sell stolen mounts in Jerilderie. According to a previous biographer, Geoffrey Serle, such stories were almost certainly untrue.

Rather than taking over the small town store, Monash managed to fulfil the hopes his father had not quite managed to achieve. He had resolved to be both rich and famous and was successful on both counts, taking out three degrees from Melbourne University, then putting his learning to good account. After some years of relative struggle as an engineer during the 1890s depression, Monash began to make his fortune when he teamed up with Dame Nellie Melba's father to make pipes, bridges and other constructions, applying the new method of using reinforced concrete.

At the same time, he was pursuing his other great interest as an officer in the militia, proving to be a strict taskmaster who prided himself on bringing order and discipline to the rather ragtag force of weekend volunteers. His work as an engineer and an officer gave him valuable experience in detailed planning, something that later would bring him to the notice of his superiors at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The militia also allowed him to enjoy the regularity and discipline that was lacking from his personal life.

A turbulent affair with the wife of his assistant ended in an attempted elopement that saw Monash knocked unconscious in a Melbourne street by the outraged husband. Thwarted in love, Monash found his match in a young Jewish woman who allowed herself to be wooed and married, while making clear that she would not be the subservient wife that Monash desired. She walked out on him several times, once sailing off to England.

It is all laid out in the frank entries of Monash's diary, along with the voluminous letters that he kept for posterity. They provide a goldmine for biographers. As a result, Monash has been well served by biographers, with this work by Roland Perry being the third biography to appear. To ensure his place in history, Monash also wrote his own account of his time as commander of the Australian corps in France.

Monash would have been well pleased with Perry's book, which repeats the Kelly story as fact and tells a heroic story at a ripping pace, unimpeded by too many footnotes.

This sympathetic account also does not dwell too much on the morality of a general who had an affair with his wife's friend in London, while his wife was recovering from cancer in Melbourne, and who resisted pressure from prime minister Billy Hughes to take his corps out of the front line in late 1918. Instead, he pressed on with a flurry of pushes at the German line that added to the already heavy Australian toll, while ensuring his own place - and theirs - in history.

Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 2004

The invisible weapon that can win or lose a war

America's squandering of its moral authority has made a withdrawal from Iraq inevitable.

 Many factors decide whether a war will be won or lost. Having a more powerful armed force than an enemy is obviously important. But it is not sufficient, as the Americans found in Vietnam and are discovering in Iraq.

Belligerents also have to take account of what South African leader General Jan Smuts once described as ``those imponderable forces, which in the end win all great wars".

Among other things, he was referring to the moral authority that each side uses to fortify its own troops and civilians, to undermine the confidence of the enemy and to win over world opinion.

The Japanese claimed to have moral authority to launch the Pacific War in December 1941, which, they said, would free the people of Asia from the yoke of European imperialism. However, it is likely that not too many people were fooled by the Japanese concept of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was just another empire in all but name. Moreover, the Japanese actions in China and Korea belied their supposedly beneficent intentions, while their sneak attack against Pearl Harbour robbed them of any moral authority that they might otherwise have been able to claim in American eyes.

The attack on Pearl Harbour was ultimately disastrous for the Japanese. It had the unintended effect of handing the US the moral authority to retaliate unmercifully. It also gave the victorious Americans the authority to occupy Japan for years and impose their will on its unresisting people. Sixty years later, US bases are still there.

The Japanese had relied on the vast stretches of the Pacific being such a formidable barrier that the Americans would be deterred from launching a full-scale assault on Japan's newly won empire. Almost to the end, they expected the Americans would come to an accommodation with them. But Pearl Harbour ensured there would be no significant voices in the US wanting less than a complete victory.

As a liberal democracy based on notions of individual liberty, the US starts each war with a formidable store of moral authority on which its government can draw to pursue its geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions might have very little to do with liberty, as was seen in such places as Chile and Vietnam, where US support was crucial for installing military dictatorships. But they can proceed nonetheless, confident their store of moral authority will see them through. Sometimes, though, they run out of the moral authority and face a rising clamour from home and abroad to withdraw, suffering a humiliating defeat in the process.

It took 10 years for this to happen in Vietnam. Now, after little more than a year of war in Iraq, that is the prospect that faces the US. Despite John Howard's claim last week that the ``moral basis of coalition action in Iraq" remains intact, world opinion has become almost unanimously hostile to the American enterprise.

Even a majority of Americans have now renounced their former faith in the legitimacy of their Government's action. More importantly, with each outrage, the Iraqi view of the American troops has changed from ``liberators" to ``occupiers".

President Bush had already depleted some of the American authority when he failed to wait for the UN inspectors to complete their search for the so-called weapons of mass destruction and insisted on invading with few allies and little UN authorisation. From such an unpromising beginning, it only got worse. The killing of thousands of civilians, and the sight of tanks protecting the Oil Ministry while troops stood by watching hospitals and other civilian facilities being looted, saw more moral authority leak away from the invaders.

It was partially replenished when the graves of Saddam Hussein's many victims were uncovered, only to be reduced again when it was clear there were no WMD to be found and that the changing justification for war was constructed on lies.

A further loss of moral authority has occurred after each disclosure from within the Bush White House confirming an existing plan to invade Iraq before the events of September 11, and after each heavy-handed response of the US military to instances of Iraqi resistance.

I cannot recall jet fighters bombing Saigon, but it seems to be an almost daily occurrence in Baghdad, while American snipers on rooftops during the recent bloody assault on Fallujah were reported to have killed anything that moved. Now the events in Abu Ghraib prison and the bombing of a wedding party have revealed the depraved depths to which the US liberators have sunk. Despite it all, Donald Rumsfeld rushed to Baghdad to thank US troops ``for the fine job they were doing", confiding that he no longer reads the critical newspaper reports of their behaviour.

With newspapers across the world calling for the Americans to go, it is clear America's well of moral authority has been drained dry by Bush and his coterie of neo-conservative ideologues. The squandering of its moral authority makes it impossible for the US to achieve its strategic ambitions of controlling Iraq's oil and dominating the Middle East from Baghdad.

Not only is a US withdrawal inevitable, but the loss of its authority reduces America's ability to pick fights elsewhere in the world. That could be a blessing, particularly if it forces the US to pack away its six-gun and behave more like the good citizen it is capable of being.

The Age, 25 May 2004

The real threat to our nation is hype, not war

The professional scaremongers among us should take a collective cold shower.

It seems that every day we are regaled with new reasons to fear for our future. Now a report from strategists at the Australian National University warns that our cities could be attacked by seaborne ballistic missiles ``today". Does this mean that we should cancel the milk and paper? Further out, the report warns that North Korea and Iran could unleash long-range missiles at our cities within six years. Should we put off having more kids just in case?

Not to worry. We can be safe, these analysts claim, if we just support the American anti-missile system and spend more than a billion dollars installing missile systems around our capital cities.

Joining in the clamour for greater war spending, the commander of our submarine fleet wants his vessels fitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles so that Jakarta could still be attacked once the F-111 aircraft are retired from service (The Age, January 30, 2004).

It would be cheaper if we simply installed cold showers at the ANU, in the subs and at Parliament House so that the fevered proponents of a regional arms race can cool off. Australia is more likely to be attacked by Martians than have a missile launched at it from North Korea or Iran. Not only do these countries have targets much closer to home, but they would incur such a powerful and destructive reaction from any such attack that the likelihood of it happening is beyond the realm of reasonable possibilities.

Indeed, compared with previous decades, Australians live in relatively peaceful and secure times. Not that the Government would like us to realise it, but the likelihood of us being embroiled in a war not of our own choosing is probably lower than it has ever been.

Moreover, as an isolated and mostly arid island continent, Australia occupies one of the most secure geographic positions on earth. In more than 200 years, white Australians have never faced a serious possibility of invasion and it is unlikely that we ever will. Yet the myth persists, feeding a deep-seated fear that has cost us dearly over the years.

Australian fears partly stem from World War II, when John Howard was a young boy and a Japanese invasion seemed to be a daily danger. Nobody then doubted, in the wake of Singapore's fall, that Australia was facing what John Curtin called "the Battle for Australia". It was a matter of life or death. Australians mostly believed it then and they are regularly encouraged to believe it still.

In 2002, Channel Ten news hailed Private Kingsbury, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his fighting defence on the Kokoda Track, as being ``the man who saved Australia". Curtin too has been hailed by some as "the saviour of Australia", as have General Douglas MacArthur and the US naval forces that won the battle of the Coral Sea.

Despite having so many supposed saviours, the much anticipated battle for Australia was, in fact, never fought.

Instead, the Japanese were content to try to neutralise the military threat that the Australian continent posed to their newly won territorial possessions. With the Pacific practically devoid of friendly naval forces, Australia was more vulnerable than it had ever been in 150 years. Yet the Japanese never pressed home their sudden and unexpected advantage. It is worth wondering why.

There were several compelling and enduring reasons why the feared invasion did not eventuate. First, Australia was too far away and too big to be invaded when Japan was preoccupied with its war in China.

Second, Australia was relatively unattractive as an invasion option, while places such as Malaya and Borneo offered more and could be had for less cost. Moreover, Australia was relatively unimportant in a strategic sense. Even the Americans mostly bypassed Australia when pressing home their advance on Japan. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Japan could not portray an invasion of Australia as being one to liberate its people, as it could do in the case of colonies such as Malaya and the Philippines. As for living space for the fast-expanding Japanese population, there was plenty of space available, and much closer, in Korea and Manchuria.

These decisive factors were not appreciated at the time. Instead, it was felt that Australia had barely escaped with its life and remained in grave peril of another such threat arising.

This conviction underlay the government's urgent postwar action to greatly expand Australia's population. As Arthur Calwell warned when announcing the immigration scheme in 1945, there would be another challenge within 25 years ``to our right to hold this land".

Sixty years on, the paranoia continues.

As we recently saw, the arrival of a dozen or so Kurdish refugees on a tiny fishing boat at Melville Island prompted the Government to impose an air exclusion zone and send three naval ships to the scene to round up the hapless refugees and send them packing amid a lather of defiant declarations about defending Australia's border. While there was a large measure of political calculation in the Government's action, it would not have worked if the fears did not resonate around the leafy streets of suburbia.

Instead of stoking such fears, it's time for a fundamental rethink. The natural defensive advantages that Australia enjoyed in 1942 remain in place today. Our relative isolation was an advantage back then and it remains one today. Our occupation of an island continent, with a greatly boosted population, has made our position even more secure, as have our friendly and mutually beneficial relations with the United States, Japan and China.

It's time that our Government, our defence forces and the growing breed of defence analysts concede this basic reality. Then again, it might just put them out of a job.

The Age, 3 February 2004

What a real mate would tell Bush

Australians have long celebrated mateship as something unique to our society, although it is never clear what precisely is being celebrated. When John Howard tried to enshrine mateship in his proposed preamble to the constitution, we can presume he was not enshrining the mateship found on union picket lines or on the factory floor. He was probably thinking more of the mateship that was in evidence in the prisoner of war camps in Thailand, and which reportedly helped Australian prisoners to cope with the ordeal better than their British counterparts. Or the mateship that has been seen in bushfire-devastated Canberra this week.

At its best, mateship is about the sustaining comradeship that helps people through difficult times. Or that sees people risking their lives in a hopeless attempt to rescue a friend. It happened at Gallipoli; it happened after the Bali bombing; it is happening in the national capital; and it happens practically every week around Australia, although such concern for the welfare of others is not particularly Australian. Rather, it's what makes us human. Nevertheless, the notion of mateship retains a powerful hold on our sense of national identity.

At its worst, mateship is about blindly sticking by your mates regardless of what they have done, or what they are proposing to do. And it was to this sense of mateship that American Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was appealing when, during his recent visit to Australia, he presumed that Washington could count on our troops going forward with the Americans into Iraq. Australians stand by their mates, said Armitage, and we Americans will stand by our Australian mates as we have so many times in the past.

Of course, the Americans hardly stood by Australians in World War II. They waited until they were attacked at Pearl Harbor, when the war against Germany had been going for more than two years. And then it was made clear by General Douglas MacArthur that American forces were coming to Australia only because of its usefulness as a base from which to attack the Japanese, rather than to defend it for its own sake.

Later, Australia was left hanging when it sought American assistance to prevent the Indonesian takeover of West Irian and more recently when it sought American military assistance on the ground in East Timor.

Each time, the US made a careful calculation and concluded that its national interest lay more in staying on the sidelines in the war against Hitler and on good terms with Indonesia, rather than sticking by Australia.

Mateship did not figure in the American calculations. And neither should we expect it to do so. Nations are not akin to mates, and international relations are not conducted in such terms. Yet Armitage clearly considered that an appeal to mateship would help to ensure Australians stayed aboard the US military juggernaut as it trundles on towards the oilfields of Iraq. Although it is not clear whether he was pitching his simplistic appeal to Howard, or to Australians generally.

Sometimes, though, a mate should refuse to go into battle, and not only for the sake of protecting its own interests. Sometimes, a great power needs lesser powers to restrain it from making a costly mistake.

In 1941, Australian prime minister Robert Menzies should have stood up to his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, and refused to allow Australian troops to be diverted to Greece in a hopeless attempt to prevent the expected German invasion. That mad exercise cost thousands of Australian and other Allied lives, and nearly cost Britain its hold on the Mediterranean. Indeed, the military setback it caused probably lengthened the war by a year and led to the loss of millions more lives.

In his second incarnation as prime minister, Menzies supported the British escapade over Suez in 1956, which caused Britain to be humiliated and effectively signalled the end of its pretensions to great power status. Strong and timely words by Menzies to British prime minister Anthony Eden might have averted that debacle.

Menzies later encouraged the Americans into Vietnam, while Britain and all other European countries sensibly held back. Had Australia refused to lend its flag and its token forces to that adventure, it might have helped to restrain the Americans from sliding into that bloody abyss. But Menzies stayed mute.

The Australian people have not been privy to the discussions between Howard and the Americans concerning an Australian contribution to a US-led invasion of Iraq. However, it is clear from his language that Howard is ready to send our forces off as soon as he gets the call. That would be a shame.

Australia is not an important nation in world affairs. But there have been times when we have had the opportunity to exercise influence out of all proportion to our size, whether for good or ill. This is another one of those times when we can serve our own interests, as well as those of our great-power protector, by counselling caution rather than urging Washington on to war.

That's what real mates should be for.

The Age, 22 January 2003