Sorry Boris Johnson, Little Britain has little to offer Australia
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has reminded us of why Australians like the Brits so much. By audience acclaim, his dinner speech to Australia’s business and political elites last week was the funniest delivered on any serious occasion in living memory.
He showcased the easy familiarity between Aussies and Poms, the shared cultural reference points, the common sense of humour. The laughter started at the very outset when he launched into a recollection of his 19-year-old self at the end of a year’s sojourn in Australia. He had become a firm convert to Aussie pop culture who returned to Britain as “a kind of unconscious Les Patterson – a self-appointed and unwanted cultural ambassador” for Australia. “My conversation was studded with words like ‘bonzer, mate’ or ‘you little ripper’,” he told the audience of 600 in the cavernous Sydney Town Hall. “And on the streets of London in broad daylight I insisted on wearing the same Stubbies daks – shorts of appalling brevity – that I had worn in the bush until my then-girlfriend said that it was her or the stubbies daks. I am not sure how the contest was resolved.”
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At the same time, Johnson gave Australians a timely reminder of why we need to forge our own way in the world. Australia never wanted to be separated from the “Mother Country”. Although Australia federated in 1901, it still thought and acted as a British colony. When the US, Japan and China each approached Australia about the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations in the 1930s, Canberra said no, as Allan Gyngell records in his book Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942.
Australia’s relationships with the world were all conducted through London. Eventually, when prime minister Joseph Lyons decided in 1939 that Australia might actually need its own ambassadors abroad with another world war looming, his attorney-general, Robert Menzies, denounced the idea as a threat to British unity that would “lead to nothing but chaos and disaster”.
Australia’s separation from Britain was was slow, reluctant and painful. London disappointed, even betrayed, Australia, repeatedly, yet we clung to mother’s skirts. Mother forced Australia to independence in three big shocks. First was World War Two. Australia, under threat of Japanese invasion, put its full trust in Britain and its invincible Far East fortress, Singapore. But the invincible was vanquished in just a week as a result of British military stupidity.
This was the moment that snapped Australian prime minister John Curtin out of the national delusion that Britain would protect Australia. He asked Winston Churchill to release Australian troops so that they could return to defend their country. Churchill refused. Curtin ultimately overruled him.
Second was the Suez crisis of 1956. This revealed Britain to be a second-rate power, politically, militarily, economically. This ultimately forced Britain to withdraw all its military forces from Asia. But, again, Canberra resisted reality, hoping against hope that Britain would keep the peace in South East Asia. There was still a substantial UK force in Singapore, including two aircraft carriers. When Britain formally announced in 1967 the withdrawal of its last forces from Malaysia and Singapore, Australia’s Harold Holt was angry and bitter: “We must rethink our whole situation.”
Third was Britain’s decision to sever its special commercial ties with Australia. London first decided to join the European Economic Community’s common market, later the European Union, in 1961, though it wasn’t formally a member till 1973. “It wasn’t just the economic and defence structures of the past that were being dismantled,” Gyngell writes. London imposed new restrictions on Aussie immigration. “More Australians asked themselves, if you couldn’t go there, how could the UK be home?” Gropingly, reluctantly, Australia made its own way, found its new livelihood and security in Asia, its hand held by its new ally, America.
Boris Johnson, 34 years after his first Aussie adventure, wandered back last week. And discovered that we’ve done a pretty good job without Britain. “I think we can look at Australia today and after 26 years of continuous growth, and with per capita GDP 25 per cent higher than in the UK, I think we can say that it was not absolutely necessary for Australia to join the [European] Common Market,” as Britain did.
In fact, said Johnson, Britain made a terrible mistake. It left Asia to join Europe. But now, with Brexit, it is divorcing Europe and wants to return to Asia. Mother was wrong. Britain now wants to partner with ASEAN, Johnson said, intensify its friendships in Asia. It will send its two new aircraft carriers through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca “because we believe in upholding the rule of law”.
Britain and Australia “are building greater global security together, and now we look forward to intensifying the trading and commercial relationships that greater security makes possible”.
And he dangled the promise that “after we leave the EU I am confident that Australia will be at, or near, the front of the queue for a new Free Trade Agreement with Britain.”
How very exciting, Boris. Thank you so much. Australia is built on some foundations laid by its British colonisers and we are historically indebted to the wisdom of the Westminster traditions of democracy. But Australia did forge its own post-colonial way. We are still tidying up some leftovers, such as when and how to declare ourselves a republic. And we have many other problems. Yet, overall, Australia is one of the most successful societies the world has seen. No country has better living conditions.
Australia confronts new choices in a changing world. We’ll do it in friendship with the Poms, of course. We like them. Yet it’s way too late for Johnson’s nostalgic notions. Allan Gyngell, who was in the audience for the foreign secretary’s speech, says: “He harkened back to empire and imperial preferences, but, for both of us, that world has gone. “We can talk to each other as we can with no one else, but you can’t revert to a world that’s now disappeared.”
Tested, Johnson’s promise of the glorious return of two British aircraft carriers to defend the rule of law is a phony one. The first of the carriers won’t be in service for another three years. And when his host at the Sydney Town Hall, the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, probed him on Britain’s stance on China’s territorial assertiveness, he went wobbly. Britain is now little and, for Australia, it is littler than ever. Like Les Patterson, Boris Johnson is entertaining in an absurd kind of way, but they both offer us a nostalgic chuckle over a time we’ve moved on from, and we’re better for that.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.