The Party that “dug the well”


posted | in Feature Article

In one of the most ground-breaking moments in Australian foreign affairs, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam broke with Western tradition to normalise Australian relations with Beijing in 1972. The benefits for Australia today are plain to see. Our country has benefited immensely from the China-driven mining boom and no one can underplay the role that China played in Australia’s persistence during the Global Financial Crisis. Whitlam once referred to an old Chinese saying to make his claim to this lasting legacy – “when you go to draw water, remember who dug the well”. Indeed, the economic treasures have come our way, and in many ways we have Labor and Whitlam to thank.

Whitlam’s legacy is indicative of the ALP’s foreign policy approach since the Party’s founding: where the Coalition has proved reluctant to embrace multilateral institutions and to follow Whitlam’s “less adulatory” conception of Australia’s Anglo-American sponsorship, the ALP has pursued Australian interests by both multilateral and bilateral means, and has done so without shying away from pragmatic and constructive engagement with Asia.

In this way, the ALP is best conceived as the key architect of Australia’s active ‘middle power’ diplomacy on the international stage, and a worthy inheritor of Whitlam’s moniker; we are, and must always be, ‘the party that dug the well’.

Labor’s ‘Middle Power’ Diplomacy

The Labor party’s ‘middle power’ approach is strongly associated with Gareth Evans, who served as Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 under Hawke and Keating, and articulated the doctrine in the following terms:

“The characteristic method of middle power diplomacy is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ countries. It usually involves ‘niche diplomacy’, which means concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having.”

Labor’s ‘middle power’ approach is grounded firmly in Labor traditions, extending as far back as the Curtin and Chifley governments from 1941 to 1949. During that period, Foreign Minister Evatt established the three defining characteristics of the middle power tradition: nationalism, internationalism, and activism.

The ALP is best conceived as the key architect of Australia’s active ‘middle power’ diplomacy on the international stage

The nationalistic component of Labor’s middle-powerism was derived from Evatt’s clear objective to construct a more independent foreign policy from Great Britain after the Second World War. More than at any other time since Federation, Evatt’s term as Foreign Minister ushered in a truly Australian variant of diplomacy, with the then Department of External Affairs formally establishing its first graduate intake programme. At the 1945 UN Conference on International Organisation in San Francisco, Evatt successfully championed Australia as the largest Allied power in the Southwest Pacific area, delivering for Australia a more prominent seat at the table, including Evatt’s own participation in several important sub-committees.Evatt

The second element, internationalism, came hand in hand with Evatt’s recognition that Australia’s interests were best pursued through the cunning exercise of ‘soft’ or ‘persuasive power’ through both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. In the interest of ensuring regional stability, for instance, Evatt played a crucial mediatory role in the Indonesian independence negotiations with the Dutch through the UN Good Offices Commission from 1947 to 1949.

The third element, activism, found its origins in Evatt’s emphasis on an active and well-resourced Australian diplomatic corps, with the Chifley government expanding the number of Australian embassies or high commissions in India (1945), China (1948) and Indonesia (1950).

Since Evatt’s term, Labor’s middle-power approach has evolved under each Labor government, developing alongside the shifts in global power relations to embody three essential themes: (1) Australia as a mediatory power in the inter-bloc system (between the superpowers); (2) Australia as a bridge between North and South, East and West; and (3) Australia as a key actor in multilateral coalitions.

The Liberal-National Approach

The Liberal-National Coalition’s foreign policy approach largely finds its origins in the Menzies era.

Menzies believed that the central themes of Australian foreign policy should be unqualified support and loyalty to Australia’s “great and powerful friends”, being the United States and the United Kingdom. Liberal leader Richard Casey went so far as to declare that “as a government our foreign policy being moulded on that of Great Britain and arrived at in consultation with her, is the best we can achieve.”

The Howard government came to be defined by its emphasis on bilateral relationships and the ANZUS alliance.

From 1996 to 2007, the government of John Howard openly opposed Labor’s middle-powerism, with Alexander Downer calling Australia a “pivotal power” and actively mocking Labor’s willingness to engage in multilateral diplomacy.  Though Downer never properly explicated the Coalition’s choice of “pivotal power”, the Howard government came to be defined by its emphasis on bilateral relationships and the ANZUS alliance. Despite its rhetoric, not only did unprecedented cuts to the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ accompany Downer’s so-called “pivotal power” thesis, but Howard’s major foreign policy successes relied quite clearly on middle power coalition-building: these include Australian peace-keeping in East Timor, and international cooperation on Islamist terrorism.

Rudd-Gillard and the Way Forward

The rise of China and relative decline of the United States has rendered Australia’s middle power role increasingly crucial to the world’s political and economic stability. Under Rudd and Gillard, Australia managed to play the middle power role between the USA, its security guarantor, and China, the source of its economic prosperity, with extraordinary dexterity, to the benefit of both the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole. The emergence of the G20, the ratification of Kyoto, a strong bilateral relationship with Indonesia, and a seat on the UN Security Council represent only a few of these achievements.

In order to further our legacy in opposition, Labor must remain alive to three destructive Coalition tendencies: misplaced jingoism against our Asian neighbours, misguided budgetary cuts to the Foreign Affairs portfolio in a world of significant transnational challenges, and the neglect of multilateral opportunities for Australian leadership. As the United States and China increasingly come to blows, Labor’s brand of middle-powerism has never been more important.