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March 30th 2009 print

David Flint

Treading the world stage

Is the Prime Minister’s wish to strut the world stage damaging to our national interest? Is Australia paying too high a price for Prime Minister’s thespian ambitions?

No sooner was the election won than Kevin Rudd revealed his deep seated ambition to tread the world stage. Now it is true that on some occasions an Australian Prime Minister can play an important role. John Howard’s support for the US intervention in Iraq, however unpopular, was important to the Americans who were bereft of allies. Howard’s decision was also important to Australia: the American alliance is crucial. Frankly, we must pay our insurance premiums.

The fact that a leader may at times think himself more important than he actually is will not matter much unless of course it affects his judgement on other matters such as, for example, investment proposals. Unfortunately this delusion of grandeur is too often complemented by another. This is the belief that he is endowed with some sort of special knowledge and understanding not available to the common herd. Perhaps the best recent example of our leaders not being so endowed was their belief on taking government and for months thereafter that the principal economic problem was inflationary. They were blind to that tsunami, the global financial crisis, which was bearing down on them.

The desire of politicians to role play on the world stage is not always an innocuous affectation. A leading example was that of the British politicians led by Ted Heath who   claimed that on joining Britain and her politicians would be in the cockpit leading the EEC. It wasn’t. Europe was run as it always was, by the same old Franco-German axis.
The only privilege accorded to the British taxpayer was to join the Germans as the paymasters of Europe. As the Norwegians have, the British could have had all the access to the common market they needed without massively subsidising the Common Agricultural Policy, ruining their own countryside and shooting themselves in the foot by denying themselves the advantage of Commonwealth trade including that with Australia.  If even some of these disastrous consequences had been explained in advance to the British people, they would have resoundingly rejected entry.

Kevin Rudd obviously sees himself treading the world stage. A fortune will be spent to buy a temporary seat on the Security Council; the EU will easily outbid us on that. He seems to believe he can be an intermediary between the Chinese and the Americans, as if the Americans are not big enough, sophisticated and powerful enough to run their own diplomacy. Of course it is in the interests of those masterful Chinese diplomats to encourage this belief. They would see it as harmless, but a way to increase leverage over the Australian government.

Only this can explain the curious way relations with the Peoples’ Republic are being conducted. The most recent example is what Greg Sheridan in the Australian on 26 March described as the Prime Minister’s “semi-secret meeting” with Li Changchun, the Chinese politburo member in charge of propaganda, media and ideology. Indeed, he labelled this as “ one of the most bizarre episodes of his prime ministership”.  

Sheridan points out that Li is important. He is  No.5 in China’s nine-member ruling politburo standing committee. Although the Prime Minister welcomed Li and the accompanying Chinese media to the Lodge, he refrained from telling the Australian people about it. The next day, Sheridan says the Prime Minister “… went out of his way on TV to call for reform of the global financial system so that China gets more influence.”

Apparently Li has engaged in a major round of meetings to stress the Chinese line to business and government, all very proper activities for a foreign emissary.

China, presumably because it is an important client for our minerals, has long been treated differently from most other countries. The Prime Minister would never dare insult the Chinese leaders as he did President Bush, which was the talk of the Canberra diplomatic circuit. Nor would he dare insult China as Paul Keating once did the UK.

We have long waged the most ostentatious international human right policy, which is applied at megaphone strength to such countries as Fiji where we are as hard as nails and as strong as steel. Needless to say, criticism of China, if at all, is delivered sotto voce. Who do we think we are fooling with these double standards?

Another difference is in relation to the local Chinese community, and this is extraordinary. From the facts as Sheridan presents them, it seems the government have conceded to the Chinese Ambassador a pro-consular role in which the local Chinese community is to be placed under his guidance and tutelage. In the heyday of imperialism, the consuls of the great powers and their citizens enjoyed extra-territorial jurisdiction in China under the hated unequal treaties; is the Australian government in the process of according similar rights here to the Middle Kingdom?   Is the local Chinese community now to act at the direction of the embassy, as Sheridan suggests in their participation in streets demonstrations? Will this tutelage extend in the future to the exercise of other rights, such as writing to the press, going on talk back, and even voting?

Yet another exception is in relation to the principles of free trade and investment. These principles have been endorsed by Australian politicians and the commentariat with the zeal of a religious convert. No other government or media seem to take free trade seriously if it conflicts with their national interest, even short term. The state of agricultural trade, the very area where we do have a natural advantage, demonstrates this. Yet our treatment of Chinese government investment will probably be treated differently from investments by those close to other foreign governments.

Some of these aspects of a growing special relationship with China were already emerging under former governments. Are they being exacerbated under the present? Are they going further than is in our national interest?

To what extent is political thespianism on the world stage a contributing or dominating factor in this?