In my last Online Opinion column I assessed the Government’s record on defence and security issues. This column is about the Labor Opposition.
Assessing an Opposition that has been out of office for eleven years is difficult because there is no recent practical record. Nevertheless some broad generalisations about long-term characteristics or behaviours are possible: it was on this basis that, writing about the Government, I referred to the historical tendency of our conservatives to involve us in ill-advised wars: Indochina and then the 2003 attack on Iraq.
The Labor record, both in office and more recently in Opposition, suggests that they are much less likely to do such things. They famously opposed Indochina, at heavy initial political cost, but stuck to their guns and were finally vindicated. In office in 1990-91, they agreed (rightly, in my view now and at the time) to join the massive UN-supported coalition formed to forcibly eject Saddam’s Iraq from Kuwait. But they opposed the 2003 invasion which Howard joined, and events have again vindicated their judgement.
In general, the Labor attitude to the American alliance has been one of strong support for the relationship, but tempered by a greater attention to the Australian national interest than the conservatives. For example they have always supported the various US installations in Australia (notably at Pine Gap and North West Cape) but have demanded a greater Australian presence: in office, they secured the conversion of some facilities to some form of "joint", rather than exclusively US, status.
There has always been a minority in the Labor Party that actively dislikes the US alliance, and a more significant force that accepts it but is disinclined to be over-enthusiastic. These elements usually exert sufficient influence to keep Labor Governments from being seen as slavish puppets in the Howard mode. The most pro-American Labor leader in recent history was Hawke, but even he was brought up short by a backbench rebellion in 1985 when he tried to covertly support Reagan’s insanely dangerous “nuclear war-fighting” philosophies by allowing secret American testing of a nuclear missile (minus warhead) into the Tasman Sea.
Though both share a core commitment to alliance, the Labor Party generally supports a narrower range of US policy positions than the Coalition. Labor has been sceptical of the American infatuation with “missile defense” from its beginnings in 1983 up till now [http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6123], and unwilling to risk Australian assets or interests by getting involved. I would expect a Rudd Government to behave in a broadly similar manner. One pertinent decision will be whether to allow the Air Warfare Destroyer, to which we are now legally bound (courtesy of John Howard), to be fitted-out with the requisite expensive American paraphernalia to turn it into a component of the US “missile defense” program.
Labor in office would most likely counsel Washington urgently against attacking, say, Iran or North Korea. It would be reluctant to risk joining a putative US-Chinese conflict over Taiwanese independence, should one occur. It would doubtless remember the glaring lesson of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and demand high standards of proof before accepting the claimed nature and extent of a threat said to justify war, especially a so-called “pre-emptive” war.
Labor would not be averse to joining a UN-supported US-led coalition in some emergency, or to overseas deployments of our forces, but in general would prefer these to be in support of regional interests rather than in places like Iraq. It will, however, maintain and probably increase our deployment to Afghanistan as part of the western effort to shut down the terrorist production lines still operating there and in neighbouring Pakistan. Any increase, however, will likely be delayed until Rudd can get our forces extricated from the Iraqi quagmire.
In short, Rudd Labor will strongly support a continued close alliance and relationship with the United States, but would most likely behave more like an ally and less like a satellite than Howard’s conservatives have done. It would be unlikely to support some of the more extreme initiatives that might come out of Washington as the lame-duck Bush administration fumbles and bumbles its way through its terminal year of power. Labor might find that year uncomfortable, but once rid of the Bush encumbrance its relations with Washington should be stable.
It is important to understand that Rudd himself is a product of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). As he famously showed at APEC in Sydney recently, he served at our Beijing embassy and speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. A good grounding in international relations is undoubtedly an asset for a Prime Minister: possibly, Howard’s lack of experience or training in this area prior to becoming PM helps explain some of his security policy errors.
The downside to Rudd’s background is most likely to show up in a Labor Government’s relations with Indonesia and China. I do not entirely trust Rudd in these areas. He is a DFAT animal, which almost certainly means that he has been subverted by the “Jakarta lobby” mentality which pervades the Department like a venomous gas. Whitlam Labor acquiesced in the 1975 invasion of East Timor, Hawke and Keating raised grovelling to an art form and shamelessly supported the Indonesian occupation throughout Labor’s 1983-1996 term of office.
Don’t expect much significant movement either on issues such as China’s continuing human rights abuses. Rudd’s hesitations [http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/slim-pickings-for-the-political-dalai-lama/2007/06/12/1181414305877.html] before agreeing to meet the Dalai Lama earlier this year were as eloquent as his Mandarin at APEC, and the odds are that international “realism”, rather than any strong condemnation of human rights abuses, will characterise Rudd Labor on China. Attacks on such abuses in less important countries (eg, Burma, Zimbabwe) may, however, even be stepped up.