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Can Australia’s neighbours become good friends?

By Peter West - posted Friday, 30 August 2019

I haven't ever watched "Neighbours" much. But I recall the slogan "that's when neighbours become good friends"

The question nags at me. Is Australia isolated like a shag on a rock? Who are our loyal and trustworthy friends, and what threat do we need them to support us against?

In so many ways, we live in the past. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana is believed to have said. Our past was British. As late as 1956, Prime Minister Menzies said we were "British people", though that view was dated even then. In 1941 Prime Minister Curtin had said "Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links with the United Kingdom". Australia has marched with the USA into many struggles since, some of them - like Iraq - fairly questionable. With the USA riven as it is with massive debates about trade wars, climate change and racial and economic equality, Australia could use some other, more reliable allies. But where should it look?


There are some reliable neighbours. New Zealand seems to be much admired under Jacinda Adern. Unfortunately, it's still a small country and realistically, with not much clout. In our region, Papua New Guinea might support us, though there's always suspicion of corruption at high levels, and it has recently been waving the threat of Chinese money, possibly in an attempt to get more Australian aid.

Indonesia is another close neighbour. It is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and it calls itself a democracy. It proclaims tolerance of other religions - Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist included - though it seems to be 85% Muslim. There are racial inequalities and problems evident from time to time. For example, the power of Chinese business interests in Indonesia is considerable, and might well be resented by the less powerful. Most of the hotels in Bali are owned by Chinese living in Jakarta, I was told when holidaying there.

Indonesia has its problems, as you would expect with governance stretching over thousands of islands. Parts of Indonesia are unstable, Aceh notably so. Some of the issues around extremism were discussed byLindsey more than a year ago. And recent riots and persistent demands for independence show that all is not well in West Papua. The latest we've heard is that there has been a media blackout there, and around a thousand members of paramilitary forces have been sent in to 'restore order'. Indonesia's army is of course, massively important in the way the country is run. In the face of such persistent problems, Australia has been strangely silent. Are we afraid to mention human rights in discussions with Indonesia and countries like this? Are we too scared to upset this neighbour?

Then there all the Pacific nations like Samoa, Vanuatu and Tahiti. Most have remnants of their colonial past, and struggle to educate, house and provide for their people. Financial problems make them vulnerable to any country seeking to extend its sway in the Pacific, notably China. Scott Morrison, Australia's Prime Minister, unfortunately got many of them off-side when he refused to support arguments for climate change. Australia's coal exports apparently carry more weight with Morrison than the climate change problems of Pacific nations. Some sources expect coal to be Australia's most valuable export this year. This may be true, though that might not be taking education into account. More about that later.

Thus far we have looked at countries which are possibly good neighbours. Is there a bad neighbour?

China is much talked about as a threat. When recently there were joint defence exercises held off the coast of Queensland, it was clear that the imagined enemy was China. Hardly a day goes by that Chinese influence is not discussed. Some see it as a threat. Others say the threat is being overplayed.


One recent debate in the pages of the Sydney papers had Sydney University's vice chancellor Michael Spence saying that fears expressed of excessive Chinese influence were like the rebirth of the White Australia policy. For Spence to say such things was silly, and he was inviting a thoughtful rebuttal. As at least one person said, Spence's arguments would be trounced in a high school debate. In a spirited attack , Chris Uhlmann of Channel Nine said it was laughable that every attempt to criticise Chinese influence could be dismissed as racism. Indeed, accusing your opponents of racism has become the last defence of a scoundrel.

And the relevance of all this to foreign policy? Many of us wonder: can Australia defend itself against China if Chinese influence is embedded in our schools, our universities and our property market? Chinese students make up one in ten of our university students, Barbone says. They are also part of the schools and college systems. Just this month, the New South Wales Department of Education decided to phase out Confucius Institute programs in Mandarin because of 'perceptions' that there was undue influence over programs from Beijing. What would happen if China's masters decided to stop these 'rivers of gold' to Australian education, if only to demonstrate their power? Our education system needs to be more diverse. We should be searching for quality students, not vast masses with questionable command of English. Of course, hardly anyone asks how students can pass at university masters and doctoral level if they can't speak and write English. Please, don't mention that awful wordFAIL. Perish the thought.

Critics might wonder why the Labor Party has been strangely silent on Chinese influence. There was of course, the 'Shanghai Sam' affair around Sam Dastyari. But ICAC investigations currently under way are looking at something far more all-encompassing. It's wisest not to say too much at this stage. I have enormous sympathy for the Labor Party. But one has to ask: where on earth is the patriotism of a political party that has given so much to us, but appears to be in thrall to a foreign power? Forget all the hoo-ha about racism and White Australia and all the rest of it. Do these people look after the interests of Australians? I'm afraid to hear the answer.

It pains me to write "we need Uncle Sam". I have many reservations about the USA under the unpredictable leadership of Donald Trump. Colleagues and allies like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell are scarcely better, let alone the wily, gun-toting figures from the NRA. But how can Australia withstand the brute force of China, without US help? Britain is a lost cause, and nobody else is around to help.

We may not love all our neighbours. Many of them don't share our majority values, our hopes and our fears. But we are in need of steadfast friends. I hope we can find them.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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