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