Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 06:24 | SYDNEY
Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 06:24 | SYDNEY

The United States and the cockatoo chorus


Graeme Dobell

15 January 2009 11:09

In 1978, the US Vice-President visited Canberra and confronted a cockatoo chorus. Walter Mondale was standing on the terrace of the US embassy, facing the row of television cameras to discuss his full and frank talks with the Fraser Government. Behind the cameras stood a row of trees, holding dozens of cockatoos.

Midway through the Veep’s presser, something set off the cockies. Wave after wave of squawks rolled through the chill May air. A couple of the TV cameras swung off Mondale to focus on the trees to get a shot of the screeching white birds. 

The Vice President showed the smarts of a US professional polly, well trained in the black arts of television. He didn’t smile, nor blink, nor glance at the offending birds. Even at the end, as he turned and headed back inside the embassy, Mondale gave no hint that he was enveloped by the sound of raucous cockatoos. Maybe Mondale was unmoved because the cockies merely reminded him of the ear bashing he’d received the day before from the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. 

The image of Mondale and the cockatoo chorus came to mind as I ploughed through the recently released 1978 Cabinet papers. A cascade of documents had been prepared for Fraser to deal with Mondale – a 20-page Cabinet submission, plus 19 pages of talking points, plus another 35 pages of background briefing. If Fraser got through only a fraction his talking points (Submission 2174), those cockatoos must have seemed to Mondale one of the milder forms of Canberra political discourse.

The Mondale trip to Canberra was part of an Australian policy panic – about what was happening inside the polity of Australia’s great and powerful ally. The world shifts when administrations change in Washington. Obviously that will be part of the Obama message when he takes office. For Australia, there are a couple of useful lessons to be disinterred from the Cabinet discussions of 30 years ago as the Fraser Government grappled with another surprising Democrat president, Jimmy Carter.

The US defeat in the  Vietnam war changed many Canberra perspectives. One response from Peacock was to take to Cabinet regular reports giving an overview of US foreign policy and American developments that could affect Australian interests.

The way Vietnam had shaken Australian verities was shown in the ultimate recommendation of Peacock’s submission (Submission 2828) to Cabinet in December 1978 on ‘US foreign policy and its implications for the bilateral relationship’. Peacock and his department felt the need to  call for ‘a sustained effort toward maintaining  access to and contract with the Administration and Congress, with a view to ensuring that Australia’s interests are properly presented and given due consideration by the Americans.’ Isn’t that merely the first law of Foreign Policy for Dummies?

The formal consideration of US policy was a product of the post-Vietnam era, but also the genuine sense of puzzlement that Malcolm Fraser had about Jimmy Carter and his administration. It is going too far to say that Fraser viewed Carter as coming from a different planet. But Carter had certainly forced Fraser to question some of his deeply engrained assumptions about the US and the value of the alliance. This period planted the seeds for the scepticism Fraser later displayed – as an ex-Prime Minister – about the real value of the US alliance.

As Peacock told Cabinet in December, 1978:

We need to remember that some of the issues on which we hold different views are serious and that further differences are likely to emerge in the present world economic climate. We need to keep our relations with the US under constant review to ensure that our individual differences do not damage the relationship as a whole.

Running through the Cabinet discussion of the US in 1978 is a sense of shock (and affront at not being consulted) at Carter's approach to the Soviet Union seeking an agreement for mutual arms limitations in the Indian Ocean. Australia’s alarm was set out in a letter to the US Secretary of State in November, 1977, seeking assurances that any Indian Ocean agreement with the Soviet Union...

  1. Would not ‘in any way qualify or derogate from the US commitment to Australia-US freedom to act under the ANZUS treaty’
  2. US-Australia defence cooperation would not be affected
  3. US naval vessels would continue to visit Western Australian ports and exercise with the Australian Defence Force off WA.

Canberra decided in May, 1978, that it wouldn’t just press Washington – Australia would try to enlist NATO in sounding the alarm at Carter’s gentle approach to the Russian bear. By September, though, Cabinet stepped back from pressing the alarm button for the whole of NATO. Instead, Australia would merely seek British and French views ‘in the course of normal diplomatic intercourse.’ Ah, the joys of diplomatic intercourse.

The Russians solved the Indian Ocean problem most effectively. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put an end to any Carter arms limitation overtures. The abiding message from 30 years ago, though, is the simple insight that a big ally can cause big surprises. And new presidents bring new administrations that try new things. The shock can cause the cockies to cry in far away capitals like Canberra.

Photo by Flickr user Laura Grace, used under a Creative Commons license.