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Gillard and Obama's mutual exploitation


Parliamentary Dinner at Parliament House in CanberraThis was the most historically significant visit ever by a US President to Australia. It was serendipitously bookended by a preceding APEC meeting in Hawaii and a subsequent East Asia Summit in Indonesia.

Obama used his address to Australia's Parliament to set out a comprehensive strategic vision for a reinvigorated US presence in the India-Pacific region, in every sense: politico-military, economic, and on human rights. He spoke from Canberra to the whole region. His carefully nuanced words will be pondered closely in Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Jakarta.

His firm messages to China were: The US will stay a major Pacific power. He can be very tough when challenged (Obama used North Korea as proxy example). Our global military pullback will not affect our great power in the Pacific. We are legitimately involved in issues of freedom of international commerce and navigation in the South China Sea. But we are not trying to contain China's growth as a major world power. We welcome China as a partner and friend, but we insist China must play by international rules — in foreign relations, trade relations, and even (with noteworthy boldness here) in observance of universal human rights.

All these messages would have broad bipartisan support in Australia, and the President's reception in Parliament House was warm and exuberant.  

For Julia Gillard, the visit marks a turning point: she now has a better chance of leading Labor to re-election in 2013. The Obama visit could be a circuit-breaker from some of the infernal dead-weights besetting Labor as a party, and Gillard as leader.

These two somewhat embattled leaders at home were clearly very comfortable with one another. It is electorally good for Gillard to draw strength and dignity from their close contacts over many days. Not good for Tony Abbott, or for Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd (students of political symbolism will have noted Obama's short courtesy greeting with Rudd, followed immediately by his longish chat with Tanya Plibersek.)

Both leaders would have been glad to forget the European sovereign debt imbroglio. The EU is out of either leader's control, as the unproductive G20 meeting showed. The good news is all in the India-Pacific region now.

More important in the longer term is the visit's impact on Australia's search for our correct balance in the crucial US-China relationship, and, indeed, the impact on the region's perception of Australia. The visit locks in Australia and the US as best allies, partners and friends. It inevitably complicates Australia's delicate engagement with China, and even with Indonesia and India.

The Darwin US basing decision (2500 Marines rotating permanently by 2017), carefully wrapped as it was, will cement regional views of Australia as an utterly accommodating US junior military partner in Asia.

With a large ADF and border protection presence garrisoned there, Darwin had already become Australia's militarised northern frontier outpost, our Pearl Harbor. This permanent US presence will make it more so.

Hillary Clinton, Rudd, and Kim Beazley — hawks all — desired and designed this outcome. A standing US military presence in Darwin and the NT marks a quantum escalation in ANZUS for good or ill. It is not important which government first pressed for this: it suits both governments' present strategic and domestic agendas.

Australia is now indelibly associated with Obama's strong messages to China in Canberra. The US will continue to promote other Asian powers — especially India, also Japan and the ASEAN countries (almost all of which Obama politely referenced by name) — as balancing factors to Chinese power, in an envisioned multilateral concert of powers on the C19 European model.

This will take much finesse if it is not to be seen by China as hostile containment. It is too early to say if Obama's efforts here will succeed.

Was Australia used by the US? Yes, we were, and pushed on uranium sales to India also. But our government wanted this, because it will all be popular with the middle-ground, former Labor voters Gillard is trying to win back from Abbott and the Greens.

Uranium sales to India, and enhanced Australia-India relations, is a third big plus for Labor. Indian pride was rightly outraged by Australia's mishandling of the student security issue. Now, uranium sales to India will be approved by Labor after robust conference debate. They will build slowly in dollar value but, both with India and domestically, the political benefit to Labor is immediate, especially in resources-based electorates.

Both the Darwin and uranium policy announcements dramatically demarcate Labor from the Greens. Labor wants this, now that the carbon tax is in. It is a planned move to the Right. And Gillard hopes Labor's long-running purgatory of minority government might thereby end in 2013.

On the new proposed Trans Pacific Partnership regional free trade initiative, not much will happen soon. Australia will make no headway on beef or sugar access into protected US markets. But we will come under harsh US pharmaceuticals lobby pressure to raise prices of generic national health medicines, to harmonise with US intellectual property rules. I doubt whether any TPP the US could accept would be a good deal for Australia.

For all Obama's inspiring oratory about human rights in Asia — and he truly has a magic way with words — spare a final thought for brave whistle-blowers Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. Finding a way for our two governments to deal justly and humanely with them is part of the job of cleaning up the mess Bush, Blair and Howard left. Protection of their human rights tests the decency of our ANZUS alliance's common values.

Their present abusive treatment ought to have been privately discussed by the leaders — but probably wasn't. 

Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of
Crunch Time, a book exploring Australia's inadequate policy responses to the climate change crisis. 

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Barack Obama, Gillard, Abbott, Greens



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Existing comments

Boy, what a perceptivce eye and ear. What a superb political columnist -- cuts right to it. It's interesting to me as an American to watch Howard and now Gillard balance Australian independence and Pacific relations with a quiet fear of agressive Asia; Howard, as I recall, was hammered for surfing the American coattail, but I suspect he was just, as Gillard is, making sure of a large friend in case of turmoil.

brian doyle | 18 November 2011  

Agree with this article. But here is one person who will not be 'won back' from the Greens, because of the human rights issues - especially the way we treat asylum seekers, and our presence in Afghanistan.Once these are fixed..... I'm waiting.....

rosemary | 18 November 2011  

This is a very good article but let's not get carried away with some human rights angle concerning Mr Assange. He is wanted for questioning and is taking every step possible to avoid that. He is represented by some if the finest legal minds in the UK. Most facing the system have no such luck.

What I found interesting was an interview of his former lead counsel, Geoffrey Robertson QC on the ABC (Lateline?) where he clearly stated that the whole response from Mr Assange to the extradition application was a stalling tactic with little merit. In fact, I would think his comments revealed something close to an abuse of the court's process is happening here. Mr Robertson then made it clear that the Australian government must help Mr Assange because US politicians want him dealt with in the USA. It was clear from the interview that Mr Robertson turned to scare mongering rather than proper legal analysis when he made that statement.

The whole absurd notion that the extradition is a step towards the electric chair for Me Assange is completely legally flawed and mere hype. It just cannot happen. Me Assange will be questioned and if there is sufficient evidence that he is guilty of some kind of sexual misconduct, he will be charged. Otherwise, he will be released. Mr Assange's protests about the process and hyping of his position are similar to the hype being put up by certain companies in Australia about the carbon tax. Please don't adopt the spin without scrutinising what is really going on.

Assange? | 18 November 2011  

We don't want the US here. We never have. And we don't want to sell yellow cake to India, an unstable nuclear power with Pakistan constantly at war with them.

Meanwhile we have thousands of innocent people still being deliberately driven insane in our refugee prisons, are helping to slaughter thousands of Afghans, jailing innocent Indonesian kids.

Yet it is all brought down to who Obama spoke to for the longest.

Truly pathetic grovel from an otherwise sensible person.

Marilyn Shepherd | 18 November 2011  

In today's Al Jazeera is an important article by NAJ Taylor "US to stockpile cluster bombs in Australia?" about the sitting of a bill in the senate with loopholes that compromise Australia's ratification of the criminalising of stockpiling cluster bombs. The permanent deployment of US marines in Australia announced by Gillard and Obama can't be a coincidence. Join the dots.

Vacy Vlazna | 18 November 2011  

Yes< i agree with you. To add to this - Obama and Gillard are both socialists, that is why they get on so well! Gillard is also a popularist. Obama has suggested something and without any further thought, she is on to it - hence pink batts, solar heating, education revolution and carbon tax and now yellow cake to India. If there was ever a country you wouldn't trust, it would be India. God help Australia and please put Julia on a boat and send her off to Indonesia. She will take up any loony idea if she thinks she will get popularity from it and lots of publicity.

shirley McHugh | 18 November 2011  

Very insightful and eloquent as ever. Thank you, Tony.

Roger Horton | 18 November 2011  

I don't know why Julia didn't just give Australia to the Yanks and be done with it.

Australia will now end up friendless in this region thanks to our mindless politicians.

I'm disgusted!


David Grayling | 21 November 2011  

Why would an otherwise perceptive and fair minded man look so benignly upon another instance of cultural cringe on our part. Why indeed do we feel so servile?

graham patison | 01 December 2011  

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