Australia's Security: A Consistent Approach: Gerard Henderson Reviews the Basis of Australia's Foreign Policy since Federation

By Henderson, Gerard | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Australia's Security: A Consistent Approach: Gerard Henderson Reviews the Basis of Australia's Foreign Policy since Federation


Henderson, Gerard, New Zealand International Review


At one of my first meetings during my visit to New Zealand, it was mentioned to me, in passing, that there was a clear difference between New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand, I was told, is a multilateral country, whereas Australia has become a unilateral nation.

I cannot speak for New Zealand. However, any proper evaluation of Australian foreign policy should record that since Federation in 1901 Australian foreign policy has always had a multilateral focus. This remains the case today. It is just that Australian multilateralism has expressed itself in support for alliances.

Throughout the twentieth century a majority of Australians were convinced of the need for alliances. Certainly, from 1901 this involved Britain. Indeed, it was not until around the early 1940s that Australia developed a foreign policy that was separate from that of Britain. But this did not mean that Australia focused only on what was once referred to by many as the 'mother country'. Witness, for example, the enormous popularity of the United States Fleet when it sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1908.

It is easy to present such a sentiment as a manifestation of paranoia. Indeed in his popular--and populist--history A Secret Country (Vintage, 1992), expatriate journalist John Pilger runs the line that it is 'the Australian tradition to fight other people's wars' in the service of 'an imperial master'. However, this is not how a majority of Australians viewed Australian foreign policy at any one time. In the early twentieth century Australian politicians erred in turning the country in on itself in so far as economic issues were concerned. No such policy was instituted with respect to foreign policy. Rather, Australia has remained involved in the world since the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia at Federation.

This made sense for an isolated, immigrant, trading nation--of relatively small population on a continental land mass about the size of the United States--situated in the Asian region. From time to time, some Australians feared invasion--unrealistically so. But, from the time of European settlement, Australians had a vested interest in secure sea-lanes. Later the same consideration applied to air-lanes. A clear majority of Australians recognised that Australian trade--to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas--could only adequately be protected by those whom former Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies once called 'our great and powerful friends', initially, Britain and, later, the United States.

Vested interest

Viewed in this light, all Australian military involvements--in association with traditional allies--can be both explained and justified. None were other people's wars and none were undertaken at the direction of an imperial master. Australia had a vested interest in the outcome of the First World War. Not only did Australia trade with the Middle East and, more particularly, Europe. But Germany had possessions in the Pacific, most notably in New Guinea. A victory for German militarism in 1918 would have had adverse consequences, of a serious kind, for Australian democracy. The First World War was in no sense someone else's war. That could only be legitimately said if Germany had not been an imperial--and Pacific--power. it was both.

It was much the same on 3 September 1939 when Robert Menzies, following Germany's invasion of Poland, announced that Britain had declared war on Germany 'and that, as a result, Australia is also at war'. Once again a majority of Australians regarded it as in the national interest that Australia should support its traditional ally. And, once again, the Australian Imperial Force (consisting of volunteers) was despatched to Europe and the Middle East.

Labor--led by John Curtin--came into government in October 1941, not long before Pearl Harbor and the rail of Singapore. In early 1943 Curtin negotiated with his Labor colleagues a form of compulsory national service for a designated area of the South-west Pacific. …

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