Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:32 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:32 | SYDNEY

The shallow roots of our diplomacy


Graeme Dobell

7 January 2011 13:50

The organised habit of attempting independent foreign policy is hardly 60 years old in Australia — although the moment Bert Evatt got his hands on the levers, that policy became robust in its language. Evatt established a diplomatic tradition that means Australian ambassadors are wattle-proud emissaries, happy to call a spade a bloody shovel.

The robust yet raw template was set by Billy Hughes (pictured) banging the table at the Versailles negotiations after World War I. Hughes was proclaiming Australia's independent interests, even though he was only present as part of the British delegation.

When provoked, our ambassadors can follow the standard set during the Ashes Bodyline series, when the English captain Douglas Jardine went to the Australian dressing room to complain about the swearing of the Australian team. There are various versions of what the Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, said to his team, but this is my preferred version: 'Which one of you bastards called this Pommy bastard a bastard'' Obviously, our diplomats have much to live up to.

The expression of Australian international interests is weighted by realpolitik and an addiction to great and powerful friends, along with regular bursts of aspiration and vision. The tension in all this was encapsulated in Paul Hasluck's acid judgement that, at the creation of the UN, Evatt seemed 'to lose sight of the rocks of power politics under the full flood of internationalism.' The mixture of influences means Australia is usually assertive but not necessarily effective. 

The tension between a distinct Oz foreign policy and loyalty to the great-and-powerful ally is a recurring motif. During the first 50 years of federation, Australia regularly argued the need for an Imperial Secretariat in London to guide a single foreign policy for the British Empire. Australian advocacy of a combined Empire policy ran from Deakin in the first decade through to Labor's Curtin in 1944. The last such call from Canberra was by Menzies in 1950, who wanted a 'common Empire foreign policy' to be coordinated by an Imperial Foreign Policy committee in London.  

The longing for an Imperial rather than an Australian foreign policy – by all sides of Australian politics – is more than an historical curiosity. Perhaps it is the part of Canberra's DNA that explains why Australia is reluctant to spend what it should on diplomacy. The strong language of much Australian diplomacy should not conceal the relatively shallow historical roots of an independent diplomatic service in the Australian polity.

For the first half of the 20th century, Britain and then the Empire were the windows through which Australia viewed the rest of the world. The British perspective meant Australia did not feel the need to create its own External Affairs Department until 35 years after it became a nation. And even then, dealing with Britain was an 'internal' matter for the Prime Minister's Department; the rest of the world was for External Affairs. Australia had no embassy apart from London until World War II — Australia finally established its own formal diplomatic relations with the US in 1940.

The habits of this history may be one part of the explanation for Australia's aversion to paying for a diplomatic service to match the ambition of our utterances.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.