Sheriff Howard on the world stage

A critique of the nationalist response




The footnotes are at the end, below the bibliography

This article was provoked by reflections on the role and nature of contemporary Australian nationalism. The question about its role originates in my participation in the movement against the War in Iraq during 2003. It asks: “does Australian nationalism offer a framework for resisting the Liberal Government and Australian capitalism more generally?”


Howard, neoliberalism and the new nationalism:


Looking at the political speeches made by parliamentarians of both sides in the last decade, none has used the notion of ‘Australian values’ as much as Howard, and none has been as systematic as he is in deploying it. No one positions it at the cornerstone of a holistic political vision of Australia in the way he does. (Hage, p. 70[1]).


Several commentators have drawn attention to the high content of nationalist sentiment in Howard’s speeches[2]. Howard has deployed a set of ‘Australian values’ that suit the ideological changes he has been systematically pursuing during his leadership. While some of these ‘values’ seem to be created in particular speeches for pragmatic ends, there is a strong and consistent message throughout. Judith Brett explains:


Howard’s speeches are filled with characterisations of what he variously calls the Australian way, Australian values, the Australian identity and the Australian character. A few examples:

Our society is underpinned by those uniquely Australian concepts of a fair go and practical mateship. …  Being Australian means doing the decent thing in a pragmatic and respectable society which lives up to its creed of practical mateship … Australians are down to earth people. It is part of our virtue. Rooted deep in our psyche is a sense of fair play and a strong egalitarian streak. … Being Australian embodies real notions of decency and pragmatism in a classless society which lives up to its creed of practical mateship. … The openness and unpretentious character of Australians has given us a well-deserved reputation for tolerance and hospitality (Brett, p. 20).


The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of the era of nationalism’, so long prophesised, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time (Benedict Anderson, p. 3).


Anderson’s statement, written in 1983 is a surprisingly fitting description of nationalism in the post September 11 world. The Liberal Government’s extensive reliance on nationalism is not isolated either in the West or in the developing world. But the continuation or resurgence of nationalism in the 21st Century must have come to many theorists as a shock. The fall of the Berlin Wall was considered by many to signal a new era of transnational “globalisation” which would undermine the nationalism of the past. The prophesies of the death of nationalism which Anderson refers to have multiplied since debates about the nature of society under ‘globalisation’ have become popular[3]. During the 1990’s theorists like Nigel Harris felt sure that the internationalisation of capital was creating “some of the conditions [for] the slow decline of nationalism” (Harris, p. pviii). This conclusion came out the evidence that transnational and multinational corporations and bodies (like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) were taking power and decision-making ability out of the hands of national governments. This trend, although understood as a more complex and two-sided phenomenon, has proven to be of ongoing interest to the social sciences. But during the mid-1990s some social theorists seemed to have been swept off their feet by the intellectual wave associated with Fukyama’s famous “end of history”. Social theory became influenced by the conclusions of vitriolic right-wing think tanks who argued that market liberalism and globalisation would rid the world of poverty and war (the commonly heard saying during the mid-90s was that no two countries that had a McDonalds had ever gone to war against each other- the conclusion being that corporate globalisation would, or to the most zealous already had, ended the phenomenon of war!). So wars and conflicts occurring during the 1990s, and the ongoing escalation of nationalism (for instance in the former Soviet Union, or the Balkans) were talked about as if they represented a throw-back to the bad old days of the nation. Certainly this nationalism was seen not as a product of the new “globalised” order, but rather ‘free trade’ was understood to be the long term solution to such ills. Even the more measured voices who acknowledged that war and conflict was a significant feature of the post-USSR world, such as Michael Mann, argued that “ Capitalist transformation seems to be somewhat weakening the most advanced nation-states of the north…” (Mann, p. 494). There was a definite feeling that for leading capitalist countries in the west, war was a thing of the past.


Tom Nairn has coined the tongue in cheek term “really existing internationalism”[4] to refer to the narrow, corporate, quality of globalisation as it has been revealing itself to the western public during the last decade. As the 1990’s drew to a close, the “anti-globalisation” movement aired resentment that had built up under years of neoliberal ‘consensus’ around the world. Central to this movement is the gap which Nairn’s term refers to, between genuine internationalism and “corporate globalisation”. For example, the summit protests highlighted the escalation of horrific border protection and immigration restriction regimes by the western governments under the logic of the “war on terror” (hence the demand “Free Movement of People not Free Trade”). Also angering the movement (for instance at the recent Cancun round of the WTO) are the ‘trade protection’-tariffs and subsidies- that western farmers (in the US and the EU for example) and manufacturers have continued to receive, even whilst their governments simultaneously use the WTO to dismantle national industries in the developing world.


Then in late 2001 with the US invasion of Afghanistan, the bubble of “global citizenship” and peace-through-trade was definitively burst. Now the state, specifically the world superpower the US, was back in the middle of the equation of world affairs and social theory. Not simply the military actions themselves, but also the massive mobilisations of patriotism and racism that have underpinned the war effort in the west, have brought the question of nationalism back into public debate:


For two decades, the globe had heard about little but the decline of the dreary old nation-state: lowering borders, less state interference, just one market under God… and so on. How come then, following 11 September 2001, by far the greatest explosion of nationalism since 1945 has taken place in the United States of America- the alleged identikit for global democracy… (Nairn, 2003, p. 1)


Nairn articulates the question which is beginning to be formulated in the post-September 11 framework: “Really existing internationalism’ is a field of mounting conflict… the real question is what kinds of nationalism will arise within it” (Nairn, 2002, p. 59). It seems that though globalisation has shifted the dynamic between national governments and institutions of global capital, nevertheless the nation-state is still playing an extremely significant role. Military spending, still in the hands of nation-states rather than corporations, has shown that in many central respects national governments, if only those of the richest nations, are still wielding enormous power and control over world events. Similarly, brutal immigration regimes and the crack-downs on civil liberties under the mantra of the “war on terror” in countries like Australia and the US have rapidly undermined the more utopian associations between trade liberalisation and civil liberties.    


But though we can now see that various predictions of the social transformations that were to flow out of globalisation were hasty or erroneous, nevertheless things have changed. There is need for a balanced analysis, because many of the social changes since the 1970s which have fallen under the catch-phrase of globalisation are more relevant than ever. What is needed is an analysis of the pattern of economic and social changes in the last thirty years within which to examine the shifting role of the nation state. The best concept to use seems to be that of neoliberalism. Bob Connell examines the effects of the neoliberal paradigm on Australian politics and society since the 1970s when it began to be introduced as policy, and his work acts as a useful context in which to go on to examine the role of nationalism for the Howard Government[5].


Connell describes the way in which the transition between the Keynesian paradigm (of “class compromise”, the “social wage”, public spending and ‘welfare’) which had operated in Australia since 1940s and 1950s was dismantled in the 1970s. He puts the case that the Keynesian measures were introduced largely in response to the political strength of the working class at the time (Connell, p. 9). The dismantling of this framework, however, thirty years later, was done at the expense of the working class:


From the 1970s on, an increasing proportion of the business leadership came to reject the ‘industrial relations club’, the system of class compromise embodied in the centralised regulation of the labour market. Business opted for a higher-risk strategy in dealing with the workforce, a more confrontational logic. And it seems to have worked. There has been a redistribution of income towards capital, without a rise in working-class militancy (Connell, p. 5).


Neoliberalism has been the economic, social, and ideological shift in power away from the working class and the poor, the public sector, and towards business. But Connell also goes on to explain the conditions under which these power grabs have been successful. Connell gives several explanations for why this increased inequality and exploitation has largely been thus far unchallenged. Firstly he discusses the falling away of perceived alternatives – the collapse of the external ‘alternative’ of the USSR system, and the adoption of neoliberalism by previously social democratic parties like the ALP. He also stresses the importance of the belief that reigned in the labour movement of the 1980s that the cure and the disease were one: “The preferred solution to the threat of global competition was to embrace global competitive forces…”(Connell, p. 5, 6 and 11). But most important to our discussion here is the role that nationalism has played. In the following passage Connell indicates the way in which ‘non-economic’ ideas have been used electorally by western governments as something of a smokescreen for the introduction of fundamentally unpopular neoliberal restructuring:


With the rise of market ideology, the issue of consent takes a new form. This is a great secret about neo-liberalism, which can only be whispered, but which at some level everyone knows: neo-liberal does not have popular support… There has never been popular demand for privatisation of public institutions, for deregulation, for the run-down of public services, for indirect taxation, for globalisation, for more markets and wider commodification. New-right leaders, from Thatcher to Reagan to Howard, Kennett and Bush, have come to power because they seemed strong, or tapped into nationalism and racism or because previous governments imploded… (Connell p.11, my emphasis added)       


It seems that nationalism has found a place for itself in the approach of parties which want to create support for neoliberal policies. In this sense, rather than nationalism being a throw-back to the political framework of the ‘pre-globalisation’ world, rather it has found a new ascendancy as a cornerstone of government’s commitment to neoliberalism. This would seem to bear itself out in the ample evidence of the use of nationalism by the Liberal Government under Howard. Judith Brett argues that until Howard’s rhetoric of ‘Australian values’ was developed, the Liberals only had a strong rhetorical capacity around issues of economics, and the failures of the previous Labor Government (Brett, p. 20 and 22). When Howard came to power the Liberals’ message to voters was primarily the economic benefits of privatisation, deregulation, and the free market. However during his seven years in power Howard has seen the need to add other ideological elements to this program. This need seems to have been derived in part from a crisis in the ‘market as ideology’ equation, and from the increasing social problems caused by neoliberal policies themselves. For instance, Brett suggests that ‘volunteering’ became a key ‘Australian value’ in Howard’s set of values because it offered to rebuild a sense of social cohesion lost through the ravages of economic liberalism (Brett, p. 21).


In Against Paranoid Nationalism, Ghassan Hage also explores the relationship between neoliberalism and Australian nationalism under Howard. In his analysis Hage distinguishes between two functions of the nation state. The first includes the ways in which the state ‘nourishes’ and provides for citizens- in the form of employment and welfare, healthcare, and in the production of social hope. This ‘providing’ function he calls the “motherland”. “Fatherland”, on the other hand, is the defensive, bordered, sovereign aspect of nationhood (p.26-41) . The new nationalism, which Hage calls “paranoid nationalism”, is obsessive about this latter function of defence of the borders and “we decide who comes here” sovereignty. But Hage explains that the cause of this over-activity in the fatherland nationalism is in fact the deficiency of the motherland to provide for the needs of its citizens:


The deterioration of the motherland function is the product of the forces inherent within these societies: the nature of ‘transcendental’ capitalism and neo-liberal economic policy creates the conditions that help it flourish. Over-defensiveness comes after the deterioration of the nurturing, hope-distributing function of the motherland (Hage, p. 41).    


In this way Hage positions aggressive nationalism as a symptom of the failure of the policies of deregulation and privatisation to provide welfare, opportunity and hope for all Australian citizens[6]. Those that fall through the neoliberal net become “refugees of the interior” (Hage, p. 21). Hage describes the imagination of a society that is so entrenched in denial at the failure of the nation to provide for its citizens’ needs that it creates a constant paranoia about ‘outside’ threats and the need for defence. What is more, Hage believes that the desire to protect the ideal notion of a nurturing motherland from its harsh and opposite reality turns the national borders inward, and projects them onto every aspect of social life. The borders are everywhere and a society fueled by fear is created. Hage’s theory offers us not only an understanding of nationalism and neoliberalism, but also of the extreme ‘flag waving’ and racism that we have seen in Australia since September 11. As well as the support Howard has captured in managing to pass himself off as a dinkum ‘mate’, this side of the nationalist coin perhaps explains the psychology of the Australian electorate when they returned Howard to power in the wake of the Tampa affair and the invasion of Afghanistan.


Don Watson also draws attention to the relationship between the neoliberal policies and the nationalism of the Howard years (Watson, p.42). He sees the tension as a paradox. On the one hand the Liberals endorse the economic rationalist logic of ‘the single-minded pursuit of profit’, which to Watson signals further moves towards American individualism. On the other hand, when it comes to rhetoric, both the Liberals and the ALP rely not only on collectivist, but distinctly Australian, notions of ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’.


Watson discusses how during his years in opposition under Keating, Howard revamped two old opposing categories in Australian society- “battlers” and “elites” (p. 48). These two were very important in formulating how Howard would be presenting the actors in social conflict during his leadership, and in his successes in capturing a working class vote. These categories have a resonance with “radical nationalist” conceptions of the class nature of Australian society (as we will explore below) and for Howard and the Liberals the terms are used to subtly rework public perceptions of the logic of division in Australian society.


‘Elites’, rather than ‘monopolists’, ‘capitalists’ or ‘Brits’ as the term may have conveyed in the past, are now those who push for socially progressive policies. In Howard’s schema those angry about cuts to funding for public schools and universities, those outraged at his treatment of refugees or concerned about indigenous rights are seen as enforcing their privileged world view on the rest of us ‘ordinary Australians’. ‘Battlers’, on the other hand, who may once have seen themselves as working class, are now being wooed by Howard in his startlingly successful campaign to be their sole legitimate political representative (See Connell, p. 13). These examples begin to indicate the way in which Howard’s rhetoric has managed to shift the categories of class friction and identity in Australian society. One crucial element is his ability to distort the left/right content of the nationalist symbols. Previous to Howard’s reworking, ‘elites’ signal to the public -‘big business’, the right wing, and the Liberal Party itself. Howard’s use of ‘elites’ in fact acknowledges the resentment of ordinary people to such groups. But Howard wants to deflect this resentment away from himself, his government and the business community. So instead the Liberals campaign to produce another set of ‘elites’, one which they are happy to see as a social scapegoat, such as their critics, or the perhaps some sinister “Labor/Union bureaucracy”.


But Howard’s reworking of the ideological fabric of Australian society has been concerned with more than just nationalist phrases. Since the beginning of his time in office he has attempted to carve out a specific position on Australia’s history. He has been acutely aware of the power of history, and has actively attempted to mould the popular view of our past into one which fits with his nationalist message. In an interview about his newly co-written book, The History Wars, Stuart Macintyre says: “John Howard did not create the anxiety about Australian history, but he raised it to a higher level of national prominence” (Stephens, 31/8/03)



History Wars

The reworking of the nationalist story to fit Howard’s leadership has been achieved through his strategic approach to Australian history. When newly elected, Howard began arguing that there had been an attempt to “rewrite Australian history in the service of a partisan cause”. By the Reconciliation Convention in 1997 Howard was protesting that he rejects any attempt at portraying the history of European Australia as “little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism, exploitation and racism” (in Brett, p. 19). In its place Howard has chosen to reinvent a national myth associated with what is most accurately described as “radical nationalism” (which we look at below). What becomes clear with a glance to history, however, is that as a Liberal Party leader and conservative, Howard is unique in embracing this particular set of values.   


The sentiment that Howard taps into when he uses phrases such as ‘practical mateship’, ‘fair play’ and ‘egalitarian classless society’ may be seen as very much the territory of “radical nationalism”. The icon and hero of radical nationalism is the spirit of the “Bush Legend” as captured in the 1950’s by Russell Ward. Judith Brett describes the content of the Bush Legend as attempting to capture the attributes of nineteenth century workers as they survive on the land:


…egalitarian, practical improvisation, skepticism towards authority, larrikanism, loyalty to mates, generosity. Ward claimed that the Australian tradition was inherently radical and that ordinary Australians were naturally left-wing (p. 20). 


Neville Meaney describes Howard’s nationalism as a “… tribute to the lingering power of the radical nationalist myth…” and cites Howard’s desire to include the term ‘mateship’ in the Preamble to the Constitution in 1999(Meaney, 2001, p. 83). Meaney dismisses critics who claim that Howard is simply a man of the 1950’s, or a Menzies clone, for in whatever ways those sentiments are accurate, when it comes to his nationalism Howard identifies far more with the radical nationalist “myth” than any of his 1950’s counterparts who fought ardently to defend a notion of British race patriotism.


In observing the contemporary incessant attempts by the ALP and Liberals to ‘out-nationalism’ each other, it is easy to believe that things have always been this way between the government and their opposition. However, in order to understand the true significance of Howard’s positioning on the nature of Australia, it is important to realise the relative novelty of Howard’s formulation of nationalism for the Liberal Party. To a contemporary audience the hegemony of the “Bush Legend” version of Australian nationalism seems timeless. This appearance is partly due to the success of the currently prevalent radical nationalism. Because nationalism, by its nature, contains a certain story about national history, we must attempt to separate the history of radical nationalism itself, from the account it gives of Australian history.


For most of the 200 years since European settlement until after WWII, Australia’s identity has been constituted primarily by its membership of the British Empire, and its belonging to a race of white British nationals (see e.g. Meaney 2001, 2003). This reality must be stressed, as it has suffered something of a revision by many contemporary historians. Meaney explains that this revision issues from the unexposed teleological nature of Australian nationalism (in fact as Anderson argued, the fundamentally teleological nature of nationalism itself). This means that rather than analysing the content of national and imperial identity and sense of belonging  in Australia’s past in terms of the ideological role of the “imagined community” which Anderson describes, historians have tended to read history through the prism of the nationalist myths themselves. As Australian nationalism is centered around a teleological progression from colonialism to independence, Meaney argues that many historians have therefore looked for evidence of a constantly evolving drive towards independence and away from Britain. As Meaney illustrates, failure to counter this tendency has lead to a blindness in the current historical community towards the levels and nature of pro-British patriotism throughout Australia’s past (Meaney, 2003).


As we shall investigate in Chapter 2, the radical nationalist reading of history attempts to see Australian nationalism as the binary opposite of British race sentiment. Radical nationalism tells us that it is the true, organic culture of Australia, and that it has been locked in constant struggle with the ideology of British Imperialism since Australian settlement. James Curran explains the relationship between radical nationalism in the 1940’s and 1950’s and British race patriotism:


 … a “radical national” myth claimed to locate an ‘organic’ concept of national community, one which sprang not from the “crimson thread of kinship” but from connection with and in response to the unique Australian landscape and ‘bush’ experience (Curran p. 472).


Therefore Australian nationalism of the radical variety sees itself as the antithesis of British imperialism. It is important to notice the limits of this account of history. We will argue below that in fact not only did radical nationalism and pro-Britishness co-exist, but they were also fundamentally interdependent.


Connell is able to illustrate the main manifestation of the British-national outlook in parliamentary politics under the long running governmental ethos of “public service”. Politicians embraced this ideology for decades in conjunction with their support and administration of the welfare state:


In cultural terms [the welfare state policies] reflected an old ethos of government and public service. In the ideology of the imperial ruling class, from which Australian capitalism historically came, the right to rule flowed from the ruler’s care for the public weal, their capacity to represent the common interest of society (Connell, p. 9). 


This mixture of ‘good governance’ and British patriotism provided the ideological colouring of the parliamentary activity of governments and oppositions until the post-war period. As we shall discuss below, the actions of the British administration in pulling back from the formerly close economic and military relationship with Australia, since the Second World War, has forced the need for alternative approaches. Hence parliamentary politics has seen the British race myth become less important, and the legacy of “radical nationalism” more important.


The supposed egalitarian content of the myths have meant that radical nationalism sits comfortably with a left-wing politics. In fact the high point for organised radical nationalism was in the “Radical Nationalist School” of historians in the 1940s and 1950s who were members and ex-members of the Communist Party (we look more closely at their ideas in the next chapter). This group of radical intellectuals, who cohered around the literary journal Overland, saw their task as encouraging the development and promotion of Australian literature as a way to tap into the democratic and socialistic ethos that they felt was inherent in Australia’s past:  


The central idea of the radical nationalists was that the distinctive element of Australian culture was a democratic egalitarianism that could be traced back to the convicts and the bush workers, and was given its first major literary expression by the writers of the 1890s (McLaren, p. 193).


Neville Meaney reiterates the strength of the connection between labour and Australian nationalism in the minds of the ‘Radical National’ school of historians:


These historians have regarded the labor movement and the Labor Party as the chief agents in defining and prosecuting Australian nationalism, and some have seen in Labor since World War II the standard bearer of assertive nationalism combined- it might be thought oddly- with liberal internationalism (Meaney, 2001, p. 77).


As we shall see below, radical nationalism has always been a conflicted beast, and both its value as a tool for mobilising against the status quo, and its opposition to British imperialism (which is the subject of the next chapter) must be critically re-examined in the current political climate. But before exploring these questions, we must look at the significance of Howard’s ability to position himself as a conduit for radical nationalist sentiment that had previous been the political domain of the left.


In fact the Bush Legend has consistently been central to the program of Labor. Brett goes as far as saying that “… the Prime Minister’s  political success has been built on the appropriation of myths of nationhood that were once the property of the ALP” (Brett, p. 19). James Curran has studied the nationalist content of Australian Prime Ministerial speeches from the mid 1970s until 1996. Curran found that Whitlam was the first national leader to represent some of the radical nationalist ideas and visions in parliament. For Whitlam these visions translated into a relatively more independent foreign policy, a ‘socialist’ welfare policy and a commitment to United Nations multilateralism in international relations (Curran, p. 474-476). However it was Keating whose vision of the essential Australia was closest to the radical nationalist tradition (Curran, p. 482). Keating’s sense of Australian history was influenced by that of his mentor, Premier of NSW Jack Lang, who was convinced that:


Aggressive Australianism has been the keystone of Labor’s real appeal to the people of this country. There may have been times when it leaned towards narrow nationalism… but to me that will always be preferable to reckless internationalism or blind acceptance of some foreign policy (Lang quoted in Curran, p. 482).


Keating’s radical nationalist views led him to push for republicanism, and to firily chastise his Liberal opponents as holding the “out-dated” world views of Menzies and Casey, who were neither “aggressively Australian” nor “aggressively proud of our culture” (in Curran, p. 483). This “compromised” world-view, that Keating despised so vehemently was focussed particularly on Menzies, who Keating saw as responsible for the failure to create a distinctively Australian, rather than British, outlook on the world. Like radical nationalism generally, Keating saw Britain as having displayed a “callous indifference” to the security threat that Australia had felt from Japan, while at the same time being willing to use Australian soldiers on the other side of the world in Imperial conflicts (Curran, p. 483).


Curran’s account illustrates both the very partisan history of radical nationalist visions in parliament, and the limited part it has played there on major issues of policy. In his long essay “Rabbit Syndrome, Australia and America” Don Watson recalls the Australia that he experienced growing up. His insights show the way in which Australian nationalism has been seen as implicitly connected with the left, union struggle, and the ALP. Peter Craven’s introduction to Watson’s essay describes:


The things that Australians like to think of themselves as fighting for, the sacred story that is part of out mythology of forty-hour weeks and mighty union movements and the lowest possible gap between rich and poor… (in Watson, p. vii)


And Watson himself shows that in his schooling, the history of labour was taught as central to Australian history:


We learnt about the rise of the trade unions and the Labor parties, as if it were inseparable from the rise of democracy. It was a legitimate, even heroic, part of Australian history (Watson, p. 39)   


It is in this context that we must see the current Liberal Prime Minister, a man dedicated to the right-wing neoliberal project, who has managed to harness the radical nationalist myth, and use it create a unique and vote winning program. Remember Hage’s claim quoted earlier that no political figure in the last decade, on either side of politics, has utilised the notion of Australian values as prolifically or as systematically as Howard? Howard rejected the formulation of “public service” with which previous Liberal leaders had justified their rule. Instead Howard has chosen to rework the radical nationalist program used by Labor Leaders like Whitlam and Keating. This has created problems for the ALP, and contributes to the wider spectacle of Labor’s seeming inability to distinguish itself from the Howard Government.


But Howard has not simply adopted the radical nationalist myth. He has subtly re-worked it in order to distort its existing resonance with social conflict. Social conflict remains, thanks to Howard, now Australia’s bush legend is no longer a Labor voting anti-establishment socialist, but rather a Liberal voting ‘battler’. The nationalist component of Howard’s leadership has also allowed him to make progress with the neoliberal restructuring of Australian society. Australia under Howard is a clear example of the continuing importance of the nation and nationalism in social life. In the next chapter we revisit an important debate within left circles during the 1970s. This investigation opens up the scope for another layer of inquiry into contemporary Australian nationalism.


The New Left’s Critique of Nationalism


During the 1960s and 1970s social forces in Australia converged to create a flowering of social movements, leftwing groups and left intellectual critique. Out of the process of struggling against US imperialism in the form of the Vietnam War; inspired by waves of student and worker unrest in America and in Eastern and Western Europe, and on the backdrop of a period of industrial militancy, many young people developed a confidence in their ability to change the world. A layer of students and young workers cohered into a milieu that became known as the “New Left”. It mounted a challenge not only to mainstream conceptions of Australian society, but also to the dominant ideas of the existing left. Out of this climate emerged a critique that forged new questions and theories about Australia’s place in the world. The New Left developed an analysis of the nationalism which was prevalent in left currents from the ALP to the Communist Party at that time. As the Vietnam war dragged on, many of the activists became increasing frustrated with the inability of the ALP and parliamentary democracy to end the killing, and so were drawn to a revolutionary perspective:


“Disillusioned by the failure of parliamentary methods to end conscription and Australian involvement in the war, sections of the student left and the antiwar movement drew radical conclusions. Humphrey McQueen’s 1970 A New Britannia, a stinging historical treatment of the chauvinism and racism of early Australian nationalism and early labour movement, initiated a critique of Laborism by young academics and students who had been involved in the antiwar movement” (Kuhn, 1997, p. 157).

The Communist Party was seen as lagging behind the anti-war movement and thus a conservative force[7]. The New Left therefore drew on a sometimes contradictory mixture of Maoism, Trotskyism, Althusser, as well as the European Marxists such as Lukacs and importantly Gramsci, to create a revolutionary social theory with which to guide the movement. On the face of it many of the questions they asked do not appear sociological. The academic debate we examine below was waged primarily in university history departments and left wing journals (although the influence of these debates was soon felt within sociology, most obviously via the work of Bob Connell). Yet inadvertently the New Left opened the way for a new analysis of Australian nationalism, by attempting to insert it into the context of global power structures and international relations. They also attempted to understand nationalism in terms of a marxist analysis of Australian history.


Humphrey McQueen’s 1970 A New Britannia- “An argument concerning the social origins of Australian radicalism and nationalism” lacked theoretical coherence in several ways, but nevertheless marked a turning point in the academic and political treatment of Australian nationalism and Australian history[8]. McQueen’s work opened up an important debate which seemed to draw a line between the ideas the Old Left- the Communist Party and the ALP- and the emerging New Left. The young radicals from the Vietnam period came increasingly to see themselves in opposition to many of the left orthodoxies which preceded them including the nationalism which was common in the Old Left during the 1960s and increasingly so in the 1970s (O’Lincoln, 1985, p. 162). Within the universities a group of left historians and social commentators associated with the Communist Party[9]  had for the previous decades been developing a body of work which argued that the nationalist traditions of Australia’s past, particularly the 19th century, held the key to future socialist struggles. We introduced the ideas of these historians, who were known as the “Radical Nationalist School”, in the first chapter. The New Left developed a different approach to Australian history, and their arguments with the left historians of the previous decades became a catalyst for a more general critique of Australian nationalism.  


Ian Turner was a labour historian and part of the Radical Nationalist School alongside other left historians including Russell Ward, Robin Gollan and Brian Fitzpatrick. Turner articulates the view which united the radical nationalists- that nationalist traditions, and the culture and literature which reflect the experiences of 19th Century radicals, can form a basis for the future struggle for socialism in Australia:


Independence became a national, egalitarianism a class… demand; mateship spilled over into the solidarity of workers in their unions (Turner, quoted in McLaren, p. 196).


Here nine years after the publication of A New Britannia but in reference to it, Turner expresses the relationship the “Radical Nationalist School” saw between their historical work and the growth of a specifically Australian socialist program:


Radical nationalism- which is both a way of looking at the past and a program for the future- does seem to me to be useful. It leads towards a political strategy which is based in present realities, and to an attempt to redefine socialist means and ends in terms of a tradition which incorporates whatever is valuable in Australia’s past- including political democracy and intellectual freedom- and which carries a specific Australian resonance (Turner, 1979, p. xxviii). 


The New Left critique offered by McQueen and others came to reject the link which the radical nationalists made between nationalism and socialism. They felt, rather, that Australian nationalist ideas had impeded socialist struggle. Turner summarised McQueen’s argument like this:


… [the radical nationalism of the 19th Century] did not in fact prefigure this subsequent development [20th century industrial militancy] but inhibited it; and indeed still stands in its way. Nationalism was not a radical but a reactionary stance: it was based on ‘racism’, great-British chauvinism, and sub-imperialism (Turner 1971, p. 635).


McQueen seized on Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend as an example of what he believed were the radical nationalists’ false attribution of socialist ideals to the nationalist traditions:


The Australian Legend consists of two inextricably interwoven themes: radicalism and nationalism. In the minds of their devotees these concepts are projected into ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ (McQueen, 1970, p. 15).


As this quote suggests, the question of whether Australian nationalism could be considered anti-imperialist was at the heart of the dispute. The radical nationalists had understood Australian nationalism as a rejection of the British domination of Australia, and therefore as a partial, or perhaps potential, rejection of British imperialism itself. McQueen’s contribution was not just to argue with the extent to which this claim was true, but rather to turn it on its head. He claimed that Australian nationalism was itself fundamentally tied to British imperialism. As the following central passage of A New Britannia suggests, and as we shall explore below, McQueen’s stark conclusions about the nature of Australian nationalism derived from his introduction of international relations into the equation:


What will be shown here is that Australian nationalism is the chauvinism of British imperialism, intensified by its geographic proximity to Asia. To the extent that international relations have entered into previous discussions of Australian nationalism they have been concerned with Australia’s growing independence from Britain (McQueen, 1970, p. 21).


Glen Lewis attempted to clarify this strange sounding statement in his review of A New Britannia:


This possibly ambiguous statement [quoted directly above] is clarified by a critical reference to Brian Fitzpatrick: where Fitzpatrick presented Australia as the victim of British Imperialism, McQueen sees Australia as a junior but willing partner in the Empire (Lewis, p. 49).


At stake in this methodological debate between McQueen and the radical nationalists was the very interpretation of Australian history itself. History had been commonly read with the underlying assumption that it exhibited a gradual unfolding of Australian independence from the ‘motherland’. For those on the right, this process was seen as the natural maturing of Britain’s ‘offspring’ into a loyal ally able to assist England in ‘her’ hour of need, to spread ‘civilization’ and build the strength of the British race. Prior to McQueen’s book, the radical nationalists expressed the popular understanding of Australian history in left circles at the time. Australia’s past was understood as a cumulative series of struggles against British domination, and a rejection of the class system of the ‘old world’ of Europe in favour of a new egalitarian society (we sketched this story somewhat in Chapter 1). Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend was one such example, which charted the creation of traditions and values of mateship, larrikanism etc…, seeing in them evidence of the gradual emergence of an organically anti-British, pro-independence Australian culture.


Australia in Context


McQueen pioneered an analysis of Australian history which emphasised the interrelationship between Australian nationalism and pro-British imperialism. The interrelationship was discovered by introducing into the study of Australian history a focus on Australia’s relations with the outside world:


Instead of confining the discussion of nationalism to developments within Australia it will be beneficial to examine Australia as a frontier to white capitalism. Such an examination would combine events in Australia with Australia’s position in the world. Only by relocating Australia in the mainstream of world development will it be possible to understand the nature of our radicalism and of our nationalism (McQueen, 1970, 17). 


Kevin Rowley comments on the novelty of this approach:  


Whereas most writings on Australian history treat Australia as a self-sufficient entity, perhaps with various ‘flows’ in and out to allow for ‘external’ factors (e.g. a flow of capital from Britain), McQueen’s approach is different. He is greatly concerned with Australia’s responses to her role in world capitalism as a whole (Rowley, p. 39).


The pattern McQueen believed was emerging when he looked at the history of Australia’s relationship to its neighbours in the South Pacific and South East Asia and its relationship to Britain, was one of Australian aggression and sub-imperialism.  Rather than Australia being the victim of the British, instead McQueen argued that an Australian ruling class had emerged which was in a position to use British imperialism to further its own ambitions[10]. In a sense Australia was being used by Britain to maintain an order in South East Asia in which Britain was able to dominate imperialist rivals. But equally Britain’s naval power ensured that Australia was free to expand and compete with rival European and Asian powers in a dominant manner which far exceeded its own wealth and military capacity.


Therefore, Australian governments had always lobbied for more, not less, British involvement in its region (McQueen p. 22-24). McQueen looks at the pro-imperialist sentiment in Australia during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and argues that Australia was at the forefront, around the world, of arguing for British imperial expansion where possible. He charts Australia’s consistent and substantial contributions to British wars- the campaign in the Sudan (p.29), the Boer War (p. 31), the Boxer Rebellion (p. 34), and WWI, (p. 37-41). This underlying pattern suggested to McQueen that Australian nationalism- comprising the call for strengthening Australian independence, led naturally to support for British imperialism, and as we shall see below, hatred of Asia. McQueen revisits evidence of anti-British sentiment (McQueen, p. 27). He uncovers a history of popular attitudes to Britain which exhibit frustration with the limits to British power, and Britain’s reluctance to pour more military resources into the defence of Australia:


Most anti-British and anti-imperial feeling arose because Australia was not always treated as if she were Britain’s only responsibility (McQueen, 1970, p. 22).


This sentiment seemed to McQueen to fly in the face of the radical nationalist contention that anti-British feeling was anti-imperialist. Instead Australian nationalists seemed more imperialist (at least when it came to the Asia-Pacific) than the British government themselves.


Further, McQueen felt that the wealth of Australia was secured through Britain’s exploitation of its colonies including those in the Asia-Pacific region:


Our prosperity, [McQueen] argues, has been based on our role as the frontier of European imperialism in Asia, and on the continuing prosperity of the imperialist metropoles. He examines the ambiguities of Australia’s position as a sub-imperialist power in a world torn by imperialist rivalries (Rowley, p. 39). 


So McQueen painted a picture of our history in which Australia had a national political voice in the emerging bourgeois ruling class, economic independence, and a more or less articulated ‘national interest’. Nevertheless, McQueen showed that the Australian ruling class- business leaders and governments- on the whole believed that their interests lay with a strong British empire willing to intervene militarily in the Asia-Pacific. One important aspect of A New Britannia which must be mentioned, but which for clarity and economy we unfortunately cannot explore here, is McQueen’s argument that not only was the Australian ruling class tied to British interests, but the labour movement, and more particularly the labour leadership and the ALP were also committed to British imperialism. To summarise, McQueen argues that early Australian radicalism was based on the optimism of economic expansion (due to wool and minerals) but that this expansion was set into the context of Australia’s place as the frontier of European capitalism in Asia[11]. According to McQueen this created a fear of Asia (which we will explore below) as well as an optimism, and these two facts explain the integration and active support of the labour leadership for an aggressive Australian capitalism (McQueen, p. 17-19). It is important to our argument here that, for McQueen, the ideologies of nationalism and racism had effectively tied 19th century radicals and the later labour movement into Australian capitalism.


Evidence of aggressive imperialism, eagerly supported by nationalists and radicals alike, came from Australia’s activities in the South Pacific. In his chapter on sub-imperialism, McQueen looks at the evidence of the way in which Australian capitalists, supported by most of society, sought to ‘get in on the act’, and use their ties with the British navy to under-write their own imperialist adventures in the South Pacific. This is what is meant by sub-imperialism- the sense that Australia pursued imperialist control over the South Pacific, but its aggression was set into the larger picture of British imperialism. McQueen explains how Australia developed its own Monroe Doctrine[12] to control the South-Pacific in such a way as to prevent the presence of any other rival power (McQueen, 1970, p. 61).


In attempting to further clarify McQueen’s thesis about the nature of Australia’s place in the world, and defend his book from criticism by the Old Left, the New Left launched into a debate about the relationship between nationalism and imperialism. Most obviously this debate came out of the criticisms that historians like Ward and Gollan laid against McQueen’s critique of nationalism. Brian Fitzpatrick’s influential British Empire in Australia 1834-1939 had seen the relationship between Australia and Britain as one of exploitation in much the same way that Britain exploited other colonies such as India or Rhodesia. If this were true, how then, ask the radical nationalists, is Australian nationalism any different from the anti-imperialist national liberation struggles which the New Left had so publicly supported in China or Vietnam? Russell Ward’s review of A New Britannia raises this very criticism of McQueen:


History, from Cromwell to Mao-tse-tung, amply demonstrates that revolutions tend to prosper in proportion as their protagonists show that they, and not the conservative traditional leader, are the guardians of the nation’s true interests and honour (Ward, 1971, p. 47).


McQueen’s response to Ward’s criticism raises the issue which forced his New Left supporters into a discussion of the nature of modern imperialism, and Australia’s place in it:


I am pleased to agree with Ward that the purpose of history is political and that the Viet Cong and the Chinese have been successful by becoming the guardians of their “nations’ true interests and honour”. But to repeat this for Australia is rather to bypass- not disprove- one of my central arguments: Australia was not an exploited colony in the sense that Vietnam is; rather it was (and largely is) an outpost of empire more like a Roman colony. If this is so, is it politically advantageous to appeal to nationalism in our context? Is it counter-productive? This opens up an important question for the nature and role of nationalism for imperialist countries (McQueen, 1971, p. 22).


Whereas the radical nationalists were happy to equate the political role of Australian nationalism with that of Vietnamese resistance, the New Left came increasingly to see it as something quite different. In a remarkable interview with the ‘all Australian’ children’s character Blinky Bill in Intervention in 1977, Tim Rowse illustrated Blinky’s clarity on the difference between Australia (by this stage more attached to the US than Britain) and oppressed nations and the implications of this difference for Australian nationalism!:


I have never believed that a national bourgeoisie exists or could exist here with its own economic and political interests, clearly opposed to of the Americans and the British… Moreover, many of them are getting into the imperialist game themselves, with investments in South East Asia

The use of nationalism in Australia by some leftists is based on an incorrect analogy between the struggles for Chinese and Vietnamese liberation on the one hand and Australia’s situation on the other…

The American ‘invasion’ of Australia has been a particularly subtle one, featuring an easy integration of Australia as a junior partner into the orbit of American capital accumulation (Blinky Bill [Rowse], p. 39-40).


To the New Left it seemed that the fundamental difference between Australia other ex-colonies was to be found in Australia’s origins as a settlement. McQueen felt that Australia’s settlement did not create an oppressed colony which Britain attempted to extract endless resources from as it had in India or throughout Africa[13]. Australia was one of a handful of countries which, in many ways, had been created in the image of the ‘mother land’. Rather than creating in Australia a colony from which Britain could reap resources or steal slaves, the Australian colony was in a beneficial position in the imperialist pecking order. Evidence of this can be found in the political fact that Australians themselves didn’t need to wage a bloody independence struggle, but were handed many rights and freedoms, and eventual independence by Britain itself.


Thus Australia has been a rich, white outpost of the British Empire… This has meant that for almost the entire period of our existence as a European settlement Australia has been the privileged possession of the world’s leading capitalist nation. We have occupied a side table in a revolving restaurant on top of the world; unlike almost every other society, we have never been in the lift, let alone the scullery. So many of the things which could be said to be right with Australia have been purchased by the triumphs and sufferings of others (McQueen, 1973, p. 102). 



Bob Gollan also had criticisms of McQueen’s differentiation between Australian nationalism and the national liberation struggle of poorer nations. Gollan’s argument is quite sophisticated, as he attempts to offer a case for the way in which Australian nationalism was a populist reaction to capitalism itself[14]. Gollan likens Australian nationalism to “…a populist vision of exploitation by New York and London”(Gollan, p. 38). He argues that this embryonic understanding and resistance to exploitation and to capitalism took on a nationalist form in Australia “because it was removed from the centre of financial power” (Gollan, p. 38). But Gollan’s criticism still seems to overlook the central hypothesis in A New Britannia, that Australian nationalism was tied to British imperialism. The following comment by Gollan again likens Australian nationalism to the nationalisms of oppressed colonies:


In designating Australia as simply an extension of Britain [McQueen] has underestimated the extent to which the expression of Australian nationalism was a specific form of reaction against the fact of capitalist exploitation. The Mataungan Association and Bougainville separatism are contemporary examples of the same thing close to home (Gollan, p. 38).




As well as being sub-imperialist and pro-British, A New Britannia made waves by locating racism at the heart of Australian nationalism. By this McQueen suggested that white Australians of all classes[15] wished to secure their economic privilege by keeping out competition in the labour market from Asia. According to McQueen, what started out as an economic desire soon became a virulent racism (McQueen, p. 43). Part of the cause of Australian racism, according to McQueen, was that being ‘settled’ not ‘conquered’ had meant that the indigenous inhabitants “…were not accorded even the rights of a conquered people” (McQueen, 1970, p. 56). This fact, as born out by the pronouncement of Australia as “terra nullius”, also provided the incentive for Australian settlement itself, as it enabled Britain to create a colony which it could send its excess population to, and use for strategic purposes, without having to confront in the most obvious way the fact of the indigenous population.


Alongside the violent suppression of the Aborigines there grew an acute fear of invasion by a rival imperialist power. Sometimes this rival power was perceived as European- there were scares from the French presence in the South Pacific, and at other times the Russians were believed to be coming threateningly close. But the major fear, developing into paranoia and at times hysteria, was fear of invasion by ‘hordes’ of Asians[16]. The colonials saw themselves as “having but a fragile hold on a vast land set in an Asian sea” (Meaney, 2001, p. 81). The racist response to the region surrounding Australia drove even the radical nationalists always further into the arms of the Empire.


McQueen shows that the extreme racism of Australian policy again brought the settlement into conflict with the imperial government. These instances both go towards proving the existence of an independent, and very assertive, political voice in Australia in opposition to Britain, as well as to show how central racism has been to Australian capitalism. One example McQueen uses is the aftermath of Britain’s signing of a commercial treaty with Japan in 1894:


For the treaty to become effective in the colonies it required their individual endorsement which only Queensland, much to its regret, provided. Other colonies were not content with negative prescriptions and set about producing legislation which would positively exclude Japanese immigrants. Some of these Bills were so blatantly offensive to Japan that the Colonial Office refused them Royal Assent and eventually hammered out a formula which was acceptable to the Japanese but resented in Australia. And as Professor Yarwood has pointed out it is easy to ‘Appreciate, therefore, the later decision of the Commonwealth to conduct at least its own preliminary negotiations with Japan on Immigration questions, a move that was regarded by the British Government as a challenge to its special responsibility in the field of diplomacy.’ This was but one of the instances of Australia having a foreign policy of its own long before Dr Evatt. Significantly it occurred in the field of race relations (McQueen, 1970, p. 26-27).


McQueen’s location of racism in the heart of nationalism again brought him into conflict with the Old Left historians, who while regretting, or even denouncing Australian racism, nevertheless saw it as a blemish on the otherwise egalitarian culture. The varied response to McQueen’s analysis of the role of Australian racism is interesting. On the far end of the spectrum, Bob Watts denied that racism had been a major feature of Australian society at all, and even suggested that McQueen’s interest merely revealed a guilty liberal conscience:


The racism of Australians is only a minor part of their inherited cultural baggage. It has not informed socially significant movements of men in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It can only be important to the anguished self-analysis of the tortured liberal conscience (Watts, p. 35).


Glen Lewis was much more sympathetic to McQueen’s notion that “racism is the

most important single component of Australian nationalism” (McQueen, 1970, p. 42). “Here McQueen is on much stronger ground. He is certainly right to dismiss parts of Ward’s argument about this as spurious” (Lewis, p. 49). But perhaps the most common response by the radical nationalist historians to McQueen’s racism thesis is articulated by Ian Turner:


… to equate [nationalism] with racism enables McQueen to slide too easily away from the basis of reality which underlay the ambiguous response of Australians towards their isolation, its simultaneous promise of security and threat of vulnerability (Turner, 1971, p. 636). 


It seems though, that the security and vulnerability that Turner refers to here make little sense without the notions of racism which were held in Australia. Australia’s much commented on ‘isolation’ is precisely isolation from other whites. In fact Australia, particularly the north, is not isolated from other people- it exists in a highly populated region. It was rather the racist fear and loathing of the populations in its geographical neighbourhood that produced Australia’s ongoing sense of being isolated and vulnerable. Very few historians seem able to ask why it was that Australians saw Asians as a threat, and how this fact could have been any other way.


In his new book North of Capricorn, Henry Reynolds gives insight into how things could have been, and in fact for a while were, another way. He looks at the social and commercial integration of Asians into the Australian community in the north prior to the enforcement of the White Australia Policy from 1901:


But there were two Australias in 1901, not one. The much lauded unity was more aspiration than actuality. Southern, settled, overwhelmingly white Australia, which had participated in the federal referenda 1898-99 and the first national elections in 1900, was very different from, and particularly hostile to, the multi-racial society in the tropical north, where uncounted thousands of Aborigines occupying large tribal territories in Cape York, Arnhem Land, the Kimberleys and the Great Sandy desert had never seen Europeans and knew nothing of Federation or their putative membership of a new nation. In the small towns of the north, from Roebourne in the west to Mackay in the east, and on mining leases, canefields, banana farms and pearling luggers, there were many non-European residents – Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Malays- who had no cause to welcome the establishment of the new parliament for which they had been unable to vote (my emphasis Reynolds, vii).  


McQueen’s treatment of racism follows his general methodology for understanding nationalism. Whereas for the radical nationalists society could see Australia as egalitarian even under the White Australia regime, McQueen’s internationalism brought the wider Asian region into view. In taking this international view it is impossible to miss the regressive role Australian capitalism and the White Australia Policy was playing. This tension between the radical nationalists and McQueen was no purely academic matter either. As McQueen repeatedly addresses, it was not only the Australian bourgeoisie which supported White Australia, but the 19th Century radical movements which the radical nationalists so revered (for instance writers around the The Bulletin) were as racist and pro-White Australia as any other group at that time (and possibly ever).


Humphrey McQueen, and his comrades in the New Left, mounted an impressive case against the nationalism which had become second nature to the Old Left. They re-introduced the importance of anti-imperialism, and called into serious question the anti-imperialist potential of Australian nationalism. The common element in McQueen’s treatment of both racism, and nationalism itself, emphasises the international perspective in understanding domestic society. This is the method which we hope to take from McQueen’s work and apply to contemporary Australia in the next chapter. More accurately, the framework of imperialism, of British imperialism in the case of McQueen’s historical work, and American imperialism both in our case, and in the case of McQueen’s experience in the anti-Vietnam war movement, forms the context in which to understand domestic nationalism. This approach to nationalism is not commonly used today, but the current nationalist offensive makes revisiting this method pressing.


Australia in the “war on terror”


Out of the discussion in chapter two a method has emerged for a contextual understanding of Australian nationalism. In this chapter we will look at Australia’s role within the US-led war on terror- taking it as the contemporary manifestation of US imperialism. There is much to explore, as the events within the last year have fundamentally repositioned Australia as a more assertive and often aggressive player in regional affairs. We will examine the complex dynamic which links Australia’s relationship with the US to Australia’s increasing role as a “deputy sheriff” (or indeed “sheriff”) in the Asia Pacific:


Australia’s identity in the Asia Pacific region seems more than ever in question, given the apparent enthusiasm with which the Howard Government has embraced the role of a kind of regional commander in the U.S.’s bid to attain unprecedented global leadership (Sharpe, p. 25).


In what follows we will examine the foreign policy transformation which has accompanied Australia’s contribution to the ‘coalition of the willing’ in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rather than a purely ‘international relations’ model which focuses on the policy changes which our Government and others are implementing ,we will try to capture the ways in which these relations impact on the construction of “Australia” on the world stage. We will attempt to understand these changes within the broader historical patterns of power and imperialism which we looked at in Chapter 2.


This leads us into a further discussion of what Australia’s comparative dominance means for the quality of Australian nationalism. In conclusion we will create an overall assessment of contemporary Australian nationalism and its relationship to future movements for social change.


Why Iraq? The Limits of the Nationalist Account


An unintended[17] consequence of Australia’s involvement in the second Gulf War is that it provides an occasion to restate foreign policy. … [Howard’s] evident close relationship with George Bush gives Australia greater diplomatic clout in the Asia Pacific, especially so in view of the evident tribal nature of the Bush Administration. (Henderson, 3/6/03)


The important question which Australia’s membership in the “coalition of the willing” raises, and the one which corresponds to the historical debate about the nature of Australia introduced above, concerns the connection between Australia’s role locally in the South Pacific and South East Asia, and its relationship to the imperialist power of the US. Sharpe, quoted above in Arena Magazine, locates Australia’s relationship with US imperialism as the driving force behind Australia’s policies in the Asia Pacific region. Don Watson agrees, to the point of seeing Australia’s actions as wholly in the interests of, and directed by, the US. He claims: “These days we are in no doubt about it: we are America’s deputy and trusty as they come” (Watson, p. 5). Watson also implies that this subservience on the part of the Australian government has a long record, and issues from a deficient policy imagination:


Unable to conceive of any independent strategy in Asia after the British withdrawal, we egged on the Americans in Vietnam and sent the army in to fight for them… (Watson, p. 13).


Robert Manne shares a similar conclusion to Watson and Sharpe in his discussion in The Age of the political fallout from the 2003 war in Iraq on George Bush, and particularly Tony Blair. Manne attempts to discover why (by the 28th of July when his article was published) Howard’s leadership was not under fire for exaggerating the threat posed to Australia by Saddam Hussein. Manne points to the number of references Howard made to the demands of the Australian/US Alliance in prosecuting the argument for Australian involvement in the war. The need for Australia to ‘pay its dues’ to the Alliance is, according to Manne, justification enough for the Australian public to support involvement in the war. From this Manne draws the same conclusion as Watson, that:


What Iraq has revealed, then, is that Australia’s deepest foreign policy instincts are those not of a truly independent nation but of a former colonial dependency (Manne, p. 13).


In the view alluded to here by Watson, Sharpe and Manne, the thing lacking in the Howard government’s treatment of foreign affairs is a genuinely independent policy made solely in the Australian ‘national interest’. This view was predominant in the response of the anti-war movement to the war in Iraq. The following comment is taken from a speech by former-defence-department-analyst-turned-anti-war-campaigner Andrew Wilkie, at a recent protest against George Bush’s visit to Australia:


[Howard] has obscenely distorted the broader Australia-US alliance relationship; so much so that current Australian foreign policy is hostage to the Government’s belief in supporting the US at any cost… I’m a friend of the US and a supporter of a limited Australia-US alliance relationship. But the current relationship undermines our sovereignty by tying us too closely to the US’s strategic interests; undercuts democracy by shifting decision making from Canberra to Washington… and risks our broader interests by encouraging the US to pre-suppose Australian subservience. (Wilkie, 19/10/03)


Numerous speeches, placards and banners during the anti-war campaign explained Australia’s involvement in the war by referring to the Government’s sycophantic attitude to George Bush (not always in such measured tones!) or describing Howard as Bush’s “lap-dog”. The following comments by Mark Latham in a speech in February this year, sum up this sentiment precisely: 


I am opposed because [the Government’s strategy for war in Iraq] comes from a Prime Minister who is too weak to say no to the Americans… None of this is in the national interest… Post-Bali we do not have the luxury of blindly following the Americans into Iraq… Mr. Howard and his Government are just yes-men to the United States… The backbench sucks up to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister sucks up to George W. That is how it works for the little tories, and they have the hide to call themselves Australians. In my book they are not Australians at all, just little tory suckholes…. The truth is the Prime Minister has forgotten how to stand up for the national interest. He has forgotten how to be a good Australian, not some yes-man to a flaky and dangerous American President… (excepts of a speech by Mark Latham on Feburary 5th 2003, reproduced in Ramsay, 18-19/10/03).


Latham expresses the common perception that the invasion of Iraq was not in the “national interest”. Howard’s support for the war, then, is seen as ‘un-Australian’. The explanation given for the Government taking Australia to war is one of Howard’s “weakness”, and evidence of a gutlessness which prevents him from standing up for ‘real’ Australian interests, and therefore opposing the war.


Yet there are several fundamental problems with this explanation of Australia’s participation in the war, and with the assumptions about “national interest” and international relations, which this explanation exhibits. Firstly, while Howard and the Liberal Government do appear to be utterly enamored with George Bush and his war on terror, nevertheless in sending troops to conflict on the other side of the world they join a long list of Australian prime ministers who have done the same thing. This historical pattern, and the fact that both Labor and Liberal governments have pursued this approach, would seem to suggest that something more than the current mutual admiration between Bush and Howard is at play. In fact from its inception as a nation, and even before, Australia has had a policy of deploying troops in far away overseas conflicts:


As parades marked the birth of a new nation in 1901, Australian troops were fighting British colonial wars in South Africa and China (Fickling, 24/3/03)


This pattern of Australia’s sending troops to fight in foreign conflicts has been a result of an ongoing policy of having our defence regime intertwined with that of a “great and powerful friend”. This practice has been central to Australia’s approach to defence, diplomacy and trade throughout our history. We discussed in chapter 2 the origins of this relationship in Australia’s reliance on British naval supremacy. But since the Second World War this pattern has been replicated with the new world superpower - the US. Paul Sheehan describes the extent of Australian deployment in conflicts in support of the US:


Beyond the US, there are 188 sovereign nations… and only one of them has fought beside it in every one of the major international wars the Americans have waged over the past 100 years. In the US’s seven  wars of the past century… World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war- only Australia fought in all seven wars, and every one of them was fought far from Australia’s shores (Sheehan, 27-28/9/03).   


As we can establish that the Government’s deployment of troops in Iraq follows a long list of other such actions, we must now attempt to discover the forces behind this logic. The crux of this analysis is the perception of “national interest” by the government of the day. As we have seen, commentators associated with the current anti-war movement have argued that the national interest would be better served by a more “independent” foreign policy, as opposed to following the US into battle. In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, some Labor ministers argued that instead of going to war in the Middle East, Australia should attempt to prosecute the war on terror in South East Asia. John Roskam deconstructs the call for an “independent foreign policy” in his polemic against the recent speeches of Malcolm Fraser. While Fraser is himself a Liberal, he has in recent years, increasingly become a left (liberal) critic of the Howard Government. Roskam, writing in Quadrant, wants to defend the Howard government and prove that its approach, and not Fraser’s sentiment, is the heir to Menzies’ foreign policy doctrine. While Roskam’s article has severe limitations, it represents, possibly, the thinking of the Howard government from the point of view of someone who shares Howard’s outlook. Roskam interrogates Fraser’s suggestion that lessening the weight of the US/Australian Alliance is in the ‘national interest’:


Fraser expects his readers to agree with him that it is not in Australia’s interest for the USA to be the world’s hegemon- but he doesn’t say what is his preferred alternative… Does Australia’s future lie with China? Although Fraser implies this he is reluctant to say so (Roskam, p. 33).


Later Roskam goes on argue that when in 1958 Menzies set out a framework for Australia’s international relations, a paradigm was forged which has proved valid ever since, and is still the appropriate approach for the Howard Government:


Menzies understood, as does Howard, that through the course of most of this country’s history, and on most policy issues, Australia’s and America’s interests have coincided. (Roskam, p. 34).


What these quotes from Roskam reveal is another way to understand the dynamic of power between the US and Australia and the reasons, therefore, for Australian foreign policy. Roskam raises two issues. The first is the question of what sort of global order Australian governments have perceived as in their interests. If the perception is that US hegemony fits with the interests of Australian policy, and if Australia feels it doesn’t have the economic clout to fully pursue its strategic interests alone through military spending, then the government of the day may wish to contribute to the maintenance of a US friendly regional framework. The second issue raised by Roskam is the historic coincidence between Australian and American strategic interests. Australian governments may have found that in order to achieve their own goals of defence, trade expansion and strategic influence, they could create a mutually beneficial strategic framework for the Asia-Pacific, and divide up the spoils with the US.  


This paints a picture of the driving force behind Australian policy very  different from that alluded to by Watson, Manne, Wilkie and Latham earlier. Though subtle, the important feature is Australia’s active pursuit of its own interests. This insight turns on its head the notion of Australian sycophancy, and instead points to a calculated alliance with a global hegemon. The official government literature on Australia’s alliance with the US, would seem to bear out its clear strategic significance for Australia’s own interests:


Australia’s long standing partnership with the United States is of fundamental importance. The depth of security, economic and political ties that we have with the United States makes this a vital relationship. No other country can match the United States’ global reach in international affairs. …our flexible and technologically advanced armed forces make us a significant and recognised military power in Asia and the South Pacific (Advancing the National Interest, February 2003).


In returning to the explanatory framework encapsulated by Mark Latham and Don Watson, which understands Howard’s support for the Iraq invasion in terms of the lack of independent policy, it seems that the question of Australia’s own strategic agenda is the crucial missing ingredient. Rather than being the weak partner in the Australia/US Alliance, Australia has sometimes acted to force America’s hand. Debates around the reasons for Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s-70s raged in a similar fashion to those we have just witnessed over Iraq (Kuhn, 1997, p. 2). Again one of the key demands raised from the anti-war movement was for an independent foreign policy. But with the benefit of time and the releasing of previously top secret cabinet records from the period of the war (the 1965 papers were released at the beginning of 1996), much light can be thrown on the true role of the Menzies government in the war. Far from being dragged into a US-led war, Australia was desperate for strategic reasons to get a US military presence as close to it as possible. This led them to initiate and escalate aspects of the Vietnam War where possible under their own steam: 


On April the 6th 1965 a top secret defence report to the cabinet read:


It is vital to Australia’s strategic interest to have a strong US military presence in South-East Asia, and it is essential therefore to show a willingness to assist the US to achieve her aim in South Vietnam (in Stewart, 1/1/1996).


In War for the Asking, Michael Sexton explains:


A study of the available documents from that period [the summer of 1964-65] reveals… that the relevant parts of the Australian government desired an increased American involvement in the Vietnam conflict at every level.

The first [premise of Australian support for the Vietnam war] was that the Americans could be locked, for the foreseeable future into the South-East Asia region… [and] that in itself would be a good thing for Australia. The second premise was that the Americans could be put in a position by Australian assistance in Vietnam where they felt obliged to Australia should it be threatened (Sexton).


There is some recognition in the general public that Australia’s involvement in US waged wars is something of a “down-payment” towards our future military needs. But the nature of this “insurance policy”[18] itself leads to confusion. The ambiguity perhaps flows out of the vague use, increasingly so in the current climate, of the term “defence”. On both side of politics commentators refer to the “insurance” policy of lending troops to the US as if it were solely designed to mitigate against the possibility of Australia being invaded or attacked. This sentiment was recently aired by two of the most prominent right wing columnists- Paul Sheehan (Sheehan, 27-28/9/03) and Miranda Devine (Devine, 18-19/10/03). Both suggest that Australia’s alliance with the US is designed to protect us from invasion or attack by Indonesia. Sheehan contextualises his assertions about the threat posed by Indonesia[19] within what he sees as a general historical threat of invasion from Asia:


When Howard committed Australia to the American cause in Iraq, he did so for the same reason five of his predecessors went to war: the need to be aligned with a superpower that can stop an invasion from Asia, and did stop an invasion from Asia The Prime Minister has a very specific threat in mind when he makes more deposits in the American bank of military goodwill. He is thinking about Indonesia… (my emphasis, 27th-28th/9/03).    


A similar argument is made from the left by the British newspaper The Guardian, in David Fickling’s musing on the reasons for Australian involvement in the Iraq invasion:


It’s only when you start asking yourself who is threatening Australia that the problems start. New Zealand? Not Likely. Papua New Guinea? Pull the other one. Japan, China, North Korea? Too far away. The answer, as any Australian will know instantly, is Indonesia (Fickling, 24/3/03).


Interestingly, both Fickling and Sheehan attribute fear of Indonesian attack to Howard. Fickling depicts Howard lying awake at night worrying about Indonesian invasion, and Sheehan implies that he (Sheehan) has had the guts to say (!) what “…Howard cannot say [but] what the electorate tacitly understands”- that we live in fear of Indonesian attack. So these accounts raise two questions- Firstly, are we under serious military threat from Asian nations such as Indonesia, and secondly do our leaders think that we are? The answer, contrary to the accounts given above, is no. This position was made totally explicit by comments this year from Defence Minister Robert Hill: “Hill wants to rethink the fifteen year-old sacred orthodoxy adopted when Beazley was defence minister that says that the prime task of our military capacity is to prevent and defeat an attack on Australia” (Kelly, 28th-29th/9/02). The understanding of the government on these issues would seem to be conveyed by a long line of official defence white papers such as the following most recent, which acknowledge that there is no great threat to Australian security:


 A full scale invasion of Australia… is the least likely military contingency Australia might face. No country has either the intent  or the ability to undertake such a massive task… A major attack on Australia, aimed at seizing and holding Australian territory, or inflicting major damage on our population, infrastructure or economy, remains only a remote possibility (my emphasis, Defence 2000, p. 23)


In the case of Indonesia it is easy to discover that it doesn’t have the ability succeed in such an attack. Leaving aside the question of the military support which the US may or may not give to Australia under such hypothetical circumstances (which begs the question), Australia’s comparative military strength can be ascertained by the fact that our military expenditure per year (which is currently over US $11 billion) is greater than those of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand combined (which comes to about $5.5 billion).[20]There is also ample historical evidence to suggest that the fear of Asian invasion in the Australian population has never been based on a serious military threat[21]. The threat, presumably of possible Japanese invasion around 1942, which Sheehan pointedly refers to above, has been discredited and described as a “myth” by historians such as Peter Stanley[22] (Forbes, 1/6/02). Paul Kelly illustrates the nature of Australian “defence” activities as Hill has been positioning them recently:


… this is political and financial dynamite. Hill is really saying that when Beazley walks on Cottesloe beach these days he isn’t waiting to see Japanese ships. Or Indonesian. Or Chinese. The prospect of a state-to-state assault on Australia is close to zero. But the prospect of our forces being deployed on emergency in Papua New Guinea or the Solomons or into the Middle East as peacekeepers is real and a long way from zero (Kelly, 28th-29th/9/02).


In order to explain the military alliance between Australian and the US we have to take a broader view of what is known as “defence” than looking for any sort of credible threat to Australia’s military security. Malcolm Davis (International Security Analyst Dept. of Politics and Asian Studies University of Hull, UK) summarises:


The theme running through most documents relating to Australian defence and foreign policy since 1972 is that Australia does not face the threat of a major invasion and that this is not the basis for its continued support for ANZUS. The official documents all focus on Australia’s alliance with the US being motivated purely by national interest (my emphasis, Malcolm Davis, 26th/2/98).         


Like the ambiguity currently implicit in the term “defence”, here Davis uses “national interest” to refer to the use of the military by the Australian government in ways which are not related to preventing invasion or attack. “National interest” here refers to the related spheres of economic expansion of production and trade, and national diplomatic weight. This opens up a whole new realm of investigation, in which we find Australian military strength used to create the web of competition related dynamics which enable Australian businesses to thrive. This “national interest” is a euphemism for Australian capital being a big player in South East Asia.  It is here that we can begin to understand the dynamic whereby Australian business interests are furthered by the Australian state’s ability to “punch above its weight”[23] in regional affairs, backed up by a friendly US gun. In return Australia has wed itself to the global strategy of US capital and imperialism:


But there is more we can do to prevent attack on our territory than building armed forces, and our armed forces need to be able to do more than simply defend our coastline. We have strategic interests and objectives at the global and regional level (my emphasis Defence 2000, p. 29).


Australia’s Sheriffdom


As we have seen, the fact that even Australia does not face any serious military threat, and yet has a significant military expenditure and a significant military alliance with the globe’s superpower points us in the direction of competitive economic advantage through military power. This is a clear manifestation of an imperialist state. This imperialism necessitates seeing the above discussion of the “national interest” in a new light. If Australia’s involvement in the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq are about the nation state’s military capabilities backing up profit making, in what sense are these, or any similar foreign policies in the “national interest”? In the discussion which follows we explore Australia’s shifting role in the Asia-Pacific region, and what these indicate about the nature of Australia’s military and economic activity.


Australian governments have historically pursued a twin approach to our immediate region. Firstly there is the immediate “neighbourhood” of the South Pacific which Australia has dominated and continues to do so (Rosewarne, p 83). Australia is by far and away the largest economy, and a former colonial power in this region[24]. As we saw in Chapter 2, Australia’s historic policy in the South Pacific, from soon after settlement, has been to keep out rival powers and use the islands as a strategic barrier against enemies. Beyond the South Pacific in Asia, Australia has two combined and sometimes contradictory aims- to trade widely, and to enforce a British, then later US, compatible order in the region. This has lead to aggressive attempts to contain rival powers, be they Japanese imperialists or Communist dominoes. Although broad-brush and crude, these have historically been the strategic tendencies of governments towards their neighbours.  However, a number of factors in the last half a decade have removed old barriers to Australian policy and changed the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Firstly the East-Asian economic crash of the late 1990s precipitated a situation where Australia was left in a relatively stronger position than its ‘Asian Tiger’ competitors:


 After the economic crisis of 1997, when Australia’s economy stayed afloat a sea of struggling Asians, our contribution to regional bail-out funds was undermined by Howard’s crowing that Australia was now the ‘strong man of Asia’ (Grant, p. 31).


But as well as elevation of Australia relative to its economic rivals, the crisis also created instability in the region, which worried the Howard Government at the time. Geoffrey Barker argued that it was this very anxiety which lead the Liberals to commit 250 defence force personnel to President Clinton’s offensive in Iraq, in early 1998 (!). This episode is illustrative both of the key importance to Australia of political “stability” in the region, as it is of our argument whereby Australia’s alliance with the US underwrites the fulfillment of Australia’s desires for the Asia-Pacific region. But what does the desire for regional stability indicate for a Government which does not fear invasion? And why would the Government so desire the stability of various of the region’s regimes which they claim are authoritarian, if not despotic? These questions point us not to the interests of defending Australia’s population from violence, nor to a concern for the rights and welfare of the region’s populations, but rather towards the interests of Australian investments and trade in the region:


[Howard’s] deepest motivation [in sending troops] is, in fact, to be found in the Asia-Pacific region… Australia’s regional strategic circumstances have become even more fluid, uncertain and unstable… What is certain is that the US is the only power capable, over the next 15 years, of ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Maintaining the alliance with the US, and keeping it engaged in the region, is the highest priority of Australian foreign policy… (Barker, 14th-15th/2/98).


By 1999, in the aftermath of a successful Australian-led East Timor intervention, Howard can be seen shaking up the Australian foreign policy paradigm. His impulse is the positioning of Australia as a regional power in itself. In particular, an interview with Howard in The Bulletin in 1999 sent shock-waves through Asia: 


[Howard’s] occasional verbal stumbles on foreign policy, however, have had an ongoing international effect. Most particularly, the “Howard Doctrine, announced in the September 29, 1999, issue of The Bulletin… His office initially welcomed the Howard Doctrine piece and did not demur about the deputy sheriff reference. Then reports began coming to Canberra from Australian high commissions and embassies in Asia, pointing out the reference was damaging. Only then did Howard move to correct the deputy sheriff label with a number of statements in the house of representatives. (Henderson, 3/6/03)


However, it seems that the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and the Bali bombing a year later have allowed by far the greatest scope yet for radical change in Australia’s relations with the Asia-Pacific. As we shall discuss below, the “war on terror”, and in particular the doctrine of pre-emptive “defence” has given the Australian leadership the ideological leeway to reconfigure regional affairs in its favour:


Then, at the end of last year, Howard accepted the United States precept that pre-emptive action against terrorists, or military threats in other countries, can be justified. ‘It stands to reason’, Howard said, ‘that Australia would strike first to prevent an attack against it’… in South East Asia, where Australia has agreed on regional cooperation against any terrorist threats, and where the doctrine of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs has been elevated to policy as the ‘ASEAN way’, it was received as if it had been a lobbed grenade (Grant, p. 31). 


The effectiveness of Australia’s assertive rise as a “heavy-man” in Asia can be charted by the displeasure shown by Asian leaders to this development, which comes at their expense. In the aftermath of Howard’s comments about a possible unilateral pre-emptive strike into South East Asia many of the regional leaders were visibly angered by Australia’s “arrogance” (as the Chair of Indonesia’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee described it) (Flitton, p. 51). Malaysia’s Prime Minister “warned that any Australian infiltration into his country would constitute an ‘act of war” (Flitton, p. 51). These tensions are the underlying cause of the recent furore created by descriptions of Australia not just as a deputy sheriff in the region, but as George Bush said in a recent interview: “We don’t see [Australia] as a deputy sheriff. We see it as a sheriff. There’s a difference” (quoted, 18th-19th/10/03).      


Howard’s posturing has been accompanied by a series of policies which inject either Australian military personnel, or as is more often the case, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) into Asian countries. For instance, the crackdown on “people smuggling” associated with the Australian Government’s “border protection” campaign throughout 2001-2003, combined with the fallout from the Bali bombing, justified a significant AFP presence in Indonesia, both in an advisory and an active capacity. As well as cracking down on people-smugglers[25] and terrorists, the Australian presence in Indonesia goes towards cooperating with, and training, the troops which are used to maintain Indonesian sovereignty in the face of independence struggles in Aceh and West Papua[26]. The reason for this approach can perhaps be understood when we see the strategic importance of a friendly and stable Indonesia given that: “A sixth of all Australian trade—getting on for $30 billion—passes through Indonesian straits on the way to key trading partners in North Asia” (O’Lincoln, 2000, p. 2).


Further afield than Indonesia, Australia has set itself up as the leading hub of anti-terrorism in Asia, hosting a recent regional conference on the subject, and lobbying the US to allow Australia to play a central role in the ongoing North Korea crisis. Yet again, Australia’s anti-terror activities are dependent on the support of the US[27]. In fact, it is fair to say a division of labour is emerging between the US and Australia, as well as heavy cooperation, in the counter-terror measures that place security forces into Asian countries:


Australia [is] increasingly playing a central role in carrying out US security policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the Bali bombing, Australian and US forces help train counterterrorism troops in the Philippines, Australian Federal Police and the FBI work with Indonesian police investigators and Australian intelligence helps track terrorists cells from Thailand to Manila, working closely with the FBI and the CIA (Wilkinson, 18th-19th/10/03).    


Neoliberalism and Australian Intervention in the Pacific


Alongside Australia’s expansive ambitions in Asia, the “war on terror” has pushed further the existing Australian domination over the South Pacific. This area is seen by Australia and the world (if not by the Pacific Islands nations themselves) as Australia’s sphere of influence, “our backyard”. The ongoing policy of attempting to keep rivals out of the region in order to protect Australia’s trade routes and for defence has continued[28]. But the “war on terror” has given  the Government a chance to deal with the social and economic collapse that many of its neighbours face, in a new way:


By 11 September, 2001 Australian strategic Planners were bemoaning an “ark of instability” which ran from Aceh at the extreme northwest through Ambon and East Timor, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville the Solomons and Fiji (O’lincoln 2003, p. 1).


In order to appreciate the significance of recent policy decisions in relation to the Pacific Islands, it is first necessary to understand the conditions of life in many of these countries. Many of the Pacific Island nations were granted independence in the 1970s, after years of resource extraction and exploitation by colonial powers. Already poor, these countries were handed sovereignty in order to be immediately subject to harsh economic competition (Rosewarne, p. 80-88). They were landed with the onset of neoliberalism, which, under the instigation of Australia and other countries meant the full plethora “structural adjustment” austerity measures in order to receive funds from the IMF and World Bank (Rosewarne, p. 107- Kim). As well as being indebted to these global institutions, many of the Pacific Island nations became dependent on aid from Australia, the vast majority of which (86% in the case of PNG, according to a 2002 audit) is “tied” meaning it is paid to Australian consultancy companies and contractors and ends up in the pockets of Australian business. Alongside these policies, foreign businesses, a great deal of them Australian, have continued to mine and log in an environmental and socially destructive way, with very little of the profits going back into the local communities. This situation has led to widespread poverty, disease and unemployment as well as to governmental corruption.


Up until the “war on terror” Australia had a policy of respecting the sovereignty of the Pacific Island nations, while still wielding enormous power over major regional issues through its effective control of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). However the government’s eager response to the American-led invasion of Iraq has meant a corresponding reversal of the previous “hands-off” approach to the problems in the South Pacific (Mercer, p.1). The recent actions of Australia in the Solomon Islands changed everything. In an article that confronts the drastic implications of Australia’s involvement in the Solomon Islands head on, The Bulletin’s Tony Wright refers to the crisis as “… the events that have led to Canberra seeing itself as the Asia-Pacific’s big brother” (Wright, p. 20). The picture Wright paints of Australia’s involvement in the Solomons is embedded in the framework of strategic positioning and self-serving interventionism[29].


The logic underlying any threat the Solomons might pose to Australian security is that of the “war on terror”. That is, the financial collapse of the Solomon Islands economy puts it in the category of a “failed state”. As such, Australian defence is said to be threatened by the possibility that “transnational criminals and terrorists [could] set up camp” (Wright, p. 22). There are several important points that must be made in relation to the Howard Government’s use of this “war on terror” reasoning in the South Pacific. Firstly it represents part of the legacy of pre-emptive “defence” by invasion of a sovereign country outside the sanction of the UN, and effective unilateralism plus a “coalition of the willing” (in the case of the Solomons, containing the willing New Zealand and a list of effectively powerless Island nations). The argument which Howard and Downer make is that as a “failed state” the Solomons is a potential terrorist threat:


“Too often we have seen rogue and failed states become the base from which terrorists and transnational criminals organise their operations” the best thing we could do, Howard said, was “to take remedial action and take it now” (Howard speaking at the Sydney Institute on July 1st). 


But there is not one shred of evidence put forward by Howard or Downer that illustrates the existence of Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist group in the Solomons, or anywhere in the South Pacific. John Hinkson analyses the implications of branding the Solomons a “failed state”. “What no one is able to face here is that rather than having a failed state on our hands it is actually the neo-liberal market which has failed” (Hinkson, p. 2). There is much irony and injustice in Australia’s sweeping aside a Solomon Islands’ Government after years of Australian complicity in enforcing the neoliberal programs which have meant the down-sizing of already negligible but crucial public and health services. Australian Governments and the international neoliberal institutions which they have supported over the last few decades have been responsible for running down the natural resources and destroying infrastructure in the Pacific Island nations (Rosewarne, p. 107-114). Now that this process is creating crises in so many of the region’s countries, the Liberal Government has begun a campaign of restricting aid unless tied to “good economic management” (privatisation)” and “good governance” (forcing austerity onto populations living in dire poverty).


The implications of this policy logic are massive. “Cooperative intervention”, the title that is being given to Australia’s deployment in the Solomons, could logically be foisted on numerous other poverty stricken Pacific Island nations such as Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, and all these countries are being sent the message ‘toe the line or you’ll be next’ (Wright, p. 22). With the Solomons adventure underway, attention has been turned to PNG, with a new program of “anti-corruption” and “efficiency” measures tied to the provision of Australian aid. Michael Somare, PNG’s Prime Minister, had said that PNG must prepare itself for an “exit strategy” from Australian aid if the conditions the Australian government put on the new package were too prescriptive and interfere with PNG’s sovereignty (Davis, 3/9/03). But in the end, with Downer in PNG to “negotiate” the aid deal, Somare agreed to accept the new conditions- plus the insertion of Australian diplomats to directly manage it, plus 200 Australian Federal Police to effectively lead the PNG military[30]!


The logic of the war on terror has precipitated a break with the previously existing paradigm of Australia’s response to the problems in the Pacific Islands. It remains to be seen exactly where the new approach will take the region. What is clear already is that the war on terror activities of the US has made the Howard Government feel far more confident in intervening in its neighbours affairs and far less concerned about issues of sovereignty. There is even discussion of a united economy for the South Pacific, which Australia and New Zealand, the ‘superpowers’ of the region would dominate (Wright, p. 22). In terms of Australia’s increasing control over its immediate neighbours, and its ability to pursue its own strategic interests, it seems it is indeed as Howard himself has said: “… a world made very different by the scourge of terrorism” (in Wright, p. 22).




Throughout this thesis we have looked at two ways in which nationalism manifests itself in Australia. The first is the role that it plays for the Government, both as an accompanying ideology to neoliberalism, and as we have suggested in the final chapter, in creating support for Australian sub-imperialism. The second is the way in which nationalist assumptions distort social analysis. We have paid particular attention to the consequences of these distortions for the left, because as we have seen, nationalist sentiments can radically alter the movement’s response to the actions of the Government. In conclusion we will attempt to draw together both strands – nationalism as underpinning left analysis, and nationalism as used by the Howard Government - to give an account which suggests the overall implications of our analysis for the nature and role of Australian nationalism.


In the case of the last chapter we looked at the distortion created by nationalism in explanations of the government’s involvement in Iraq. In chapter one and two we looked at the distortions in radical nationalist history which creates a teleological reading of Australia’s past. We also followed the New Left’s critique of radical nationalist politics, which illustrated the way radical nationalism equates (what it sees as) an organic Australian tradition, with socialism, and which leads its supporters away from a class analysis, internationalism and anti-racism.


However, since the debate between McQueen and the Old Left during the 1970s, the internationalist, contextual approach which the New Left explored has faded into relative obscurity. From that point on, the study of Australian nationalism has largely been approached through the prism of domestic political and social forces. International relations in the Asia Pacific, international imperialism, and domestic nationalism, have all been treated as autonomous areas of study. But the recent activities of the Howard Government in re-writing the role of Australia on the world stage, and the subsequent changes in nationalist attitudes domestically, make urgent the sociological task of undoing the segregation between these areas of analysis.


From our discussion in the last chapter of the nationalist basis for explaining the invasion of Iraq, we can see clearly that the left since the 1970s has also failed to incorporate McQueen’s critique of Australia’s sub-imperialist nature into its understanding of events. This failure is made apparent in the nationalist framework which the anti-war movement employed in their use of the concept “the national interest”. Many public commentators, politicians, and anti-war activists, argued against Australia’s involvement in the war by attempting to assert the alternative policies that they felt were in the real national interest. We argued that in fact it is only when we interrogate this concept of “national interest”, that we can come to terms with the actions of the Australian Government around the world.


As we have seen, arguments which assert an alternative “national interest” are connected to explanations of Australia’s policies, such as Howard’s sycophantic feelings for George Bush, which are inadequate in two ways. Firstly these explanations don’t stand up to serious examination of either history or of Defence Department policy. Secondly these explanations are inadequate to a movement which wants to maximise its energies to stop a war. The movement could do well to remember the old cliché ‘know your enemy’. One consequence of the ‘sycophant’ theory in the recent anti-war movement is that it made the war harder to oppose. That is, because Australia was not seen to be pursuing a conscious, self-interested policy in Iraq, therefore opposing the war became overly focussed on the US as the sole perpetrator. Of course the US’s role in the invasion was central, but the inability of the local anti-war movement to conceive of the strategy implicit in the Liberal’s involvement meant many missed opportunities for more direct action against the Australian warmongers. The failure to attribute strategic interest to the Australian Government also has a real impact when in comes to the lack knowledge of, and opposition to, Australia’s own imperialist interventions in the Pacific Islands.


What we can draw out of the investigations above is that all the various strands of the  Howard Government’s participation in the war on terror - from Iraq to the Solomons, are part of a consistent and thoughtful strategy for furthering the “national interest”. The actions of the Government regionally are the classic embodiment of the “national interest”. However the “national interest” is not about the interests of the whole population of Australia. Rather it reflects the interests of large sections of the Australian bourgeoisie and their Government, interests which can flourish when military strength is used to advantage Australian companies in international competition.


The significance of Australia’s sub-imperial role in the Asia-Pacific is not simply that some commentators could not explain it while they saw the Government’s actions through the prism of nationalism. More important is that it was nationalism that mobilised public support for such actions. The logic of “national interest” appears to hold weight for many sections of society, it is hegemonic. Outside of periods where the Government’s version of the “national interest” is in overt crisis (for instance the period when nearly a million people around the country marched against the war earlier this year) the concept itself seems to be taken on face value. There is a void when it comes to major social voices opposing the very concept of the “national interest”. This reflects the strength of nationalism itself in contemporary Australia. If Australia is an imagined community of equals (to remember Benedict Anderson’s argument), then the Liberal Government is its imaged legitimate representative:


Finally [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship (Anderson, p. 7)


This is the fundamental thrust of nationalism- to project all Australians as having a unity of interests. We have argued that the actions of the Government are often opposed to the interests of most people. In the first chapter we saw the way in which Howard’s nationalism diverts scrutiny and resistance away from the Government’s unpopular neoliberal offensive. In the last chapter we have argued that Australia’s military strategy cannot be explained if we see it in terms of “defence”. Rather it only makes sense if we see that the major role of Australia’s military capacity is to create a regional framework in which Australian business has an advantage over its economic competitors. In a word, imperialism. As the above quote from Anderson expresses, and as I believe, the concept of ‘nation’ hides the class divisions which lie within. This means that while some Australians get rich, aided by the capacity of the Australian military in ways which we touched on in the last chapter, there is no necessary benefit for the Australian population as a whole. Australia’s international relations and foreign policy cannot therefore be seen as representing the “national interest” in a literal sense, but rather its ruling minority.


As we explored in chapters one and two, significant sections of the Australian left have argued that Australian nationalist traditions are inherently left wing, and therefore can form the basis of a left politics. However we have mounted two challenges to this position throughout. In chapter two we looked at the way in which these left nationalist positions (embodied in the Radical Nationalist School) are blind to the political implications of the public support for Australian sub-imperialism and racism. The radical nationalists were able to see Australia as an egalitarian and radical society even throughout the White Australia period, and even when Australian was subjugating the populations of the Pacific Islands to its economic will. The New Left’s internationalism, however, led it to consider the interests of the working classes and the oppressed groups throughout the region as a whole. This thesis has been able only briefly to translate this critique to contemporary left nationalism. However our investigation suggests that the role which the left’s nationalism has in creating support for fundamental aspects of Australian capitalism, is a fruitful area of possible future research.    


The second challenge we have made to the claims of radical nationalism flows from Howard’s ability to evoke nationalist traditions to mobilise support for his Government’s reactionary offensive. In this sense reality has dealt a blow to the argument that Australian nationalism is inherently left wing. Through Howard we can see that nationalist categories (for instance “elites” and “battlers”) and nationalist icons (like the “Bush Legend”) are sufficiently ambiguous and fluid as to be open to right wing re-invention. This is not to say that Howard has not had to be very sharp and strategic in order to accomplish historical revision of the politics of Australia’s past. But the fact of his success in re-working the Australian Legend for the right reflects the fundamental indeterminacy of the tradition’s political role.




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Rowse, Tim (1977), (originally published under T.R.), “’Nationalism on the Blink’ The Blinky Bill Interview”, Intervention 8, March.

Sexton, Michael (1981), War For the Asking: Australia’s Vietnam Secrets, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria.

Sharpe, Mathew, (2003), “Terminal Beach”, Arena #65, June-July.

Sheehan, Paul, (2003), “Why we’re all the way with the USA”, Sydney Morning Herald, 27th-28th,  September.

Stephens, Tony, (2003) “Swing of the Pendulum” (interview about The History Wars by Anna Clarke and Stuart Macintyre), Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd August.

Stewart, Cameron, (1996) “Troops offer tried to keep the US in Vietnam”, The Australian, 1st January.

Taylor, P., (1996), “Embedded Statism and the Social Sciences: opening up to new spaces”, Environment and Planning A, 28 (11), 1996.

Turner, Ian, (1979) Industrial Labour and Politics: the dynamics of the labour movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1st 1965.

Turner, Ian, (1971), “Review of A New Britannia”, HistoricalSstudies #56, April 1971.

Ward, Russell, (1971), “Britannia Australis”, Overland, Autumn.

Watson, Don, (2001), “Rabbit Syndrome, Australia and America, Quarterly Essay #4.

Watts, Bob, (1974), “New Directions for Australian History” Arena #34.

White, Hugh, (2003), “Not hard cop, not soft cop, but still firmly into PNG”, Sydney Morning Herald, 23rd September.

Wilkie, Andrew, (2003), “Andrew Wilkie speech at ‘Don’t Be Bush Whacked’” (Rally Sunday 19th October), Sydney Peace and Justice Coalition website,, accessed 29th October.

Wright, Tony (2003), “High Noon in the Solomons”, Bulletin, 15th July.

[1] Throughout this thesis I reference books and journal articles by citing the author and page number except in cases where I use the same author more than once in which case I include the year in each reference and in the case of newspaper articles where I use the date instead of the page.

[2] See Hage, Brett, and Watson.

[3] See Taylor, Land and Urry, and The Economist, 1995.

[4] This is a play on the term “really existing socialism”, which was used during the Cold War by conservatives to pin the problems of the USSR on the left and marxists in the west. It therefore refers to the narrow and oppressive reality of a seemingly lofty ideal.

[5] Connell’s article is a good explanation of neoliberalism. He argues that neoliberalism is the ideological paradigm which went alongside a qualitative economic shift from industrial to finance capital (p. 5). Alongside this change Connell argues that business leaders of the 70s began to reject “the system of class compromise embodied in the centralised regulation of the labour market”, the overall Keynesian settlement (which Connell describes as the “Menzies strategy for Australian conservatism”) and the notion of welfare itself (p. 5). Since then we have seen government and business efforts, not only to make the Australian economy interact with the US economy, but also to resemble it. Connell also has an sharp eye for the development of ‘market logic’ as ideology, and  the “steady expansion of the role of the commodity as a social form” (p. 6).


[6] Hage’s discussion of the failure of the “motherland” creates a problem in that it assumes that the state has the possible intention of nourishing its citizens. That is, the idea of the state which Hage alludes to is one which is at least possibly class neutral and could deliver the welfare of the whole of society. In contrast, Connell’s discussion of the implementation of the Keynesian welfare state above reflects a position I would support, whereby welfare policies are provided not because of the benevolence or neutrality of the state, but rather in  recognition of the strength of the working class.   

[7] See Kuhn 1997 p. 5, and O’Lincoln 1985.

[8] In fact his treatment of class and its relationship to ideology, which we touch on briefly below, was flawed as McQueen himself later acknowledged.

[9]  Many of the leading radical historians like Turner had recently left the Communist Party as a result of the 1956 exposure of Stalin’s crimes, as well as the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Others remained in the party.

[10] Actually McQueen fails to point out the origins of the development of capitalism in Australia, and therefore of the ruling class, but rather assumes that this independent class exists. In his 1986 Afterward in A New Britannia where McQueen looks at the underlying problems with the theory of parts of the argument in his book, he suggests: A recasting of A New Britannia would begin by considering how the introduction of wage-labour benefited or injured convicts and free labourers, as well as their respective employers. In short, it would ask why and when European Australia became capitalist” (McQueen, 1986, p.256).

[11] McQueen’s at times exaggerated reproach for the nationalism and racism of the early ALP and labour leadership leads him into various implausible and inconsistent conclusions. He tends to start from the ideology of various social forces and attempts to read from there their material position. This flawed method seems to flow from McQueen’s desire to escape a Stalinist economism and instead take seriously cultural and ideological forces in explaining the formation of Australian capitalism. For instance, McQueen’s important insight into the role of Australia as a frontier for European capitalism in Asia leads him to the conclusion that Australian standards of living and wages were underwritten by British super-exploitation around the world. He therefore concluded that the entire working population of Australia prior to WWI was so bought off by the wealth created elsewhere that it can no longer be considered a proletariat or working class, but was instead petit bourgeois! This conclusion indicates both McQueen’s method of reading from ideology (which despite his attempts to escape mechanical Stalinism McQueen seems himself guilty of in his conclusion that the lack of proletarian consciousness- which is signaled to McQueen by the lack of a revolutionary worker’s party-) to class composition, and his belief that Australia was a labour aristocracy (not his term) and hopelessly wed to capitalism. For a good discussion of the weaknesses of these conclusion, see McQueen’s 1986 Afterward to A New Britannia.

[12]Monroe Doctrine: Pronounced by President Monroe in 1823 and designed primarily to keep European powers out of the American hemisphere. Despite amendments it remained the basis of American foreign policy for over a century. In 1912 it was extended to cover non-Europeans powers, that is, Japan (McQueen, 1970, p. 61).

[13] The discussion about the difference between Australian nationalism and the ideologies of national liberation in the developing world is informed by a Marxist analysis of imperialism. Particularly pertinent here is a debate in the Second International between Rosa Luxemburg and VI Lenin (for the Marxist theories of uneven development and imperialism and nationalism  see Callinicos, Crouch and Hallas).

[14] Populism is an important concept in the debate between the New and the Old Lefts. The tension between populist ideas and an orthodox Marxist analysis is the backdrop which animates the debates about nationalism that we are following (see Irning and Berzins, for a good example). The term populist is useful in describing the sort of anti-capitalism which the Radical Nationalists aspired to. The crux of the opposition to the New Left’s argument with the radical nationalists is that the latter’s departure from an orthodox Marxist class analysis had led it to understand the nation and the state in a much more sympathetic light. Rick Kuhn expresses the implications of populism from an orthodox Marxist perspective (Kuhn and O’Lincoln, 1996, p. 146). McLaren Quotes Ian Turner’s summary of the New Left’s criticisms: “For them, the traditional radicalism, whose hopes were embodied in the mass labour movement, has failed in eighty years of endeavor, to produce any significant structural change in Australian society” Mclaren continues to summarise: “ The radical nationalists, they argue, have pursued populist rather than class analysis, and so have failed to confront the reality of the state. By working for incremental progress towards egalitarian ideals they have reinforced the existing social system.” (McLaren, p. 219).   

[15] The material “benefit” of Australia’s position in the empire, which is the heart of the ‘labour aristocracy’ argument is raised again here. There is debate in left and Marxist circles as to whether white working classes such as those in early Australia benefited from racism, or whether it was rather used against them to bring down wages. I subscribe to the latter view. McQueen is vague on the question, airing on page 42 the idea that “cheap Asian labour” would destroy Australian living standards but not seemingly committing to it.

[16] With hindsight we can examine how unjustified this fear was, which adds enormously to the importance and meaning of the racism itself. See Griffiths. 

[17] As we shall argue below,  the implications for Australia’s role in the region of participation in Iraq were not an unintended consequence, but rather were the principal factor in the Government’s reasoning to support the US.

[18] This term is attributed to the Deputy Prime Minister of the time,  Jack McEwen in his description of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

[19] Sheehan’s characterisation of the domestic political situation in Indonesia as “… a nation with 200 million Muslims, with a history of political violence, a tradition of  political corruption, an increasing level of Islamic militancy, a place where scores of Australians and hundreds of Christians have been murdered, a nation that could fall apart, or under the control of Islamic fundamentalism, or both. In short we need a great and muscular ally if the satay hits the fan…” (Sheehan, 27th-28th/9/03) is a distasteful mixture of scare-mongering and racism. 

[20] According to the CIA World Fact Book for 2003, Australia’s military expenditure is US $11.39 Billion per year, whereas Indonesia spends US $1 billion, Thailand US $1.775 billion, Malaysia US US $1.69 billion, the Philippines US $995 million, New Zealand US $605 million, PNG, US $40.21 million ( on 31/10/03). According to Luke McIlveen of the Daily Telegraph, Australian military spending this year 2002-03 has blown out to $15.8 billion (McIlveen, p. 2)    

[21]  See also Griffiths

[22] “Japan never seriously intended to invade Australia, a fact known to the Australian Government by mid-1942 and confirmed by intelligence reports…’I’m sick of the myth; it’s time to knock it on the head’ said principle historian to the Australian War Memorial, Peter Stanley, ‘The invasion myth helps justify the parochial view Australians took of their war effort. I’m arguing that there was in fact no invasion plan, that the Curtin government exaggerated the threat’” (Forbes, 1/6/2002).


[23] This term was used recently by Miranda Devine and others (Devine, 18th-19th/10/03), but also see Barker.

[24] For an thorough and useful account of Australia’s recent history is the South Pacific see Rosewarne.

[25] There is growing evidence that AFP officers or employees have been embroiled in activities such as sabotaging boats leaving Indonesia for Australia, like the SIEVX that sunk in Australian waters killing 253 refugees in October 2001 see

[26]  Australian activity to create a stable, unified and compliant Indonesia is no new phenomenon. As Anthony Balmain shows, secret government files have revealed Australia’s role in colluding with the Dutch, the US and the UN to ensure that Indonesia would take-over control of  Irian Jaya (West Papua) “…in the so called Act of Free Choice in 1969” (Balmain, 26th/8/99). As Balmain points out, this revelation shows and “uncanny similarity” with Australia’s reaction to the Indonesian take-over of East Timor in 1975.

[27] “We will wish to increase our counter-terrorism capability. That means a bigger military capacity. Can we secure the changes needed with our own resources? No matter how much money we spend, the size of our economy places a limit on how much influence we can exert but the US can create an environment where Australian actions to counter terrorism can have greater effect” (Alan Oxley, Chair of APEC study Centre in the wake of the Bali bombings).


[28] “Our second strategic objective is to help foster the stability, integrity and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood, which we share with Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and the island countries of the Southwest Pacific…” (Defence 2000, p. 30). For a really good marxist analysis of Australia’s sub-imperialism in the South Pacific see Glanz.


[29]However Howard is undoubtedly keen to prove, both to Australia’s closest Allies and to its own citizens, that his country is willing to act as a power in its own neighbourhood” (Wright, p. 21). See also Kim, Hinkson, Marshall, Wright


30 Hugh White, the face of  the defence department think tank behind the Government’s South Pacific policy revolution (The Australian Strategic Policy Initiative), describes the AFP deployment in PNG as  the “firm power” approach (soft -being aid, hard- being military and firm- being police) (White, 23/9/03).

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