Richard Glover is an Australian writer and broadcaster.
How did Australia react to the belligerent, belittling way in which the White House dealt with our prime minister? After all, not only did President Trump berate our leader on the phone; his spokesman couldn’t even get his name right.
To understand why, it’s helpful to know a little Australian history.
There was a moment during the Second World War when Australia felt abandoned by Britain, which, admittedly, was a little busy with matters of its own. The Japanese military machine was moving inexorably south. It was our darkest day. And it was American soldiers and sailors who came to our rescue.
Almost 75 years on, we still think all Americans are good looking.
If there’s a sore point, it’s this: Trump’s belligerence implies that we are one of those freeloading American allies – relying on American protection while failing to contribute.
On this score, we are a little offended. As a former Australian ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, put it this week: “If you’re going to pick on somebody who freeloads, you wouldn’t pick on Australia.”
Australian troops have fought, and died, next to American troops in every major war for a century. The British have been good friends to America, but they didn’t go to Vietnam. The Canadians have been good friends to America, but they drew the line at the Iraq War.
Whenever I’m a tourist in America, I try to point out the unique nature of our bond. I aim to dispel ignorance, one American at a time.
“Over 500 Australian soldiers died in Vietnam,” I’ll say to the American bloke standing next to me in the queue for the breakfast buffet.
“Really?” the answer will always come. “I didn’t know Australia was involved.”
Secretly, they must think: “Who is this strange foreigner supplying me with tidbits of military history when all I want is a couple of fried eggs?” Outwardly – Americans being unfailingly polite and friendly — they express surprise and interest.
You’ll be glad to know that I exercise some restraint. I talk about the two world wars, and then about Vietnam and Korea. If the poor man’s toast doesn’t pop out too quickly, I’ll move on to Afghanistan and the two wars in Iraq.
I rarely get the chance to do the full list. The full list would mention the American spy stations built on Australian soil at places such as Pine Gap, our willingness to host what amounts to an American military base in our northernmost city and our purchase – at eye-popping expense – of defense equipment compatible with America’s.
The man in the breakfast queue might not know all of this, but at least those in Washington have understood it. Until now.
The refugee swap negotiated between Australia and the Obama administration is a strange piece of politics. We’ll take some South American refugees; America, in turn, will help our politicians resolve their biggest political problem – what to do with a group of asylum seekers dumped in offshore island gulags in Papua New Guinea or Nauru in an attempt to dissuade others from trying to enter Australia.
Trump has his Mexican wall. We have a wailing wall: Do not come to Australia, or we’ll dump you with these people on another island.
While both our major political parties support what is called “the Pacific solution” to asylum seekers, many individual Australians believe our nation’s actions are inhumane. They are angry at successive governments for forcing these people into eternal limbo.
In this, Trump may have a point: Why should America provide a solution to what has become a running sore in Australian politics?
There’s no easy answer, other than to say: It’s what friends do.
Australians still have enormous affection for Americans and for American culture. As I write this, my son is playing banjo in the next room: picking out a tune, I believe, composed in the Appalachian mountain range.
Like most of us, he knows the name of Trump’s press secretary, his choice for secretary of state, perhaps even the name of the judge he’s slotting into the Supreme Court.
We’re more interested than Americans are in American politics.
Partly that’s due to our military alliance. The person America chooses as its leader has, if past history is a guide, the ability to cost Australian lives.
Support for the alliance has long been the price of success in Australian politics. In the ’60s, an Australian prime minister named Harold Holt greeted a certain American president by coining the phrase “All the way with LBJ.”
More recently, such obsequious attitudes are being questioned. Voices are raised: not that Australia should abandon the alliance with America, but that we should be more questioning.
Professor James Curran, an Australian historian of the alliance, this week expressed an increasingly common view: With President Trump in the White House, it’s time for “greater Australian self-reliance within the alliance.”
In that sense, Trump – via that phone call – may prove an important figure in Australia’s growing sense of its own independence. And that may be a good thing.