July 09, 2004 | Graham

Armitage’s comments were “dumb” – but it’s his right to be dumb.

The reaction to Richard Armitage’s comment that the Australian Labor Party is split on its policy of withdrawing troops from Iraq by Christmas seems a bit hysterical. If anything, his comments will probably help the ALP vote.
I cannot see any rational objection to anyone anywhere commenting on the internal state of the ALP, be they a humble blogger like me, or the US Deputy Secretary of State. We live in a democratic world where neither poverty nor great influence ought to stop a person from speaking their mind if they so choose. Whether it is wise for them to do that is another matter.
What wrong has Armitage committed? What he says is certainly likely to be true, if perhaps over-stated. Unlike him I haven’t had the advantage of intimate conversations with leading ALP figures lately, but I don’t need to. Yesterday, Mark Latham was hosing down comments from Anita Phillips, ALP candidate in Herbert, that suggested he would change his mind on the troop recall if elected. Naïve candidates often cause trouble (ask me about Pauline Hanson), but naïve candidates generally aren’t preselected for the most winnable seats. Latham won’t become Prime Minister unless Anita Phillips becomes the Member for Herbert, so we can give her comments a reasonable degree of weight.
I think the anger in Australian reactions comes from four sources. The first is that, while Armitage is probably correct, he appears to have breached confidences. Those associated with the Labor members who briefed him have a vested interest in a diversion and would be justifiably upset.
The second is that the ALP is in trouble with the electorate for changing its mind on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and being in two-minds on the Free Trade Agreement. The ALP lost the last election because, while voters liked its promises, they didn’t trust it to deliver. The reason they didn’t trust it to deliver was because they saw it as being split on the refugee issue. It was the internal division, not the issue itself that caused them the problems.
Howard’s strategy this election appears to be to build up a library of issues on which the ALP is split, to which he can now add a volume on withdrawing troops from Iraq. So the reaction is diversionary, and Labor Party driven.
Both these themes are represented in this opinion piece by ex-Beazley staffer (and distinguished public servant) Michael Costello.
A third strand is the anti-americanism of the left, and of many journalists. I doubt whether critical comments by a senior bureaucrat from any other country would have raised the same furore, even though it would have carried the same menace for the Australian democratic system, which is to say none. There is a knee-jerk reaction to US comments that no other country attracts, particularly from the ALP where there is a tradition in some quarters that ascribes even the defeat of the Whitlam government to US intermeddling.
The fourth strand is the Australian chip on the shoulder. This is what I think principally motivates Paul Keating’s criticisms . Australians seem obsessed by what others overseas think of us. At the same time we deny that it matters. So, overseas opinion becomes on the one hand a whip to promote particular causes, like the Republic, Human Rights or engagement with Asia, while on the other we aggressively assert our national character. It’s a sign of a weak and uncertain national character that if someone like Armitage from a more powerful country says something we react violently against it, while if someone like Mahathir, from a less powerful country, criticizes us we start soul-searching.
Of course there is another possibility. Anti-Americanism is common amongst Australian voters, particularly with George Bush as president. It crosses party lines. It is my view that the George Bush, Colin Powell and now Richard Armitage comments help the ALP because they challenge Australians’ sense of themselves as an independent nation. By kicking up a storm the ALP taps into this psychology and increases their chances of winning. They also inoculate the public against John Howard possibly using the comments to play up ALP division as part of his strategy to show that they are incapable of running the country.
None of which explains Malcolm Fraser’s intervention . Unfortunately, I think that can only be explained by his dislike for John Howard. Malcolm’s never been backward in intervening where he shouldn’t have – such as in the Queensland State elections in 1983. He’s always been an ends rather than means type of person.
Richard Armitage has every right to say what he wants, but Paul Keating did get at least one thing right – he’s “dumb” to do it like this.

Posted by Graham at 10:21 am | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. I try and read both murdoch and fairfax, watch both abc or sbs and 9 or 7, i’m not sure where the anti-US media comes in, you must read too much Margo Kingston, because if anything there is a pro US media, there are elements that have become more vocal since Bush took over, but a vast majority of criticism is aimed at his administration not the US itself.
    Although i agree with you when you say we were too quick to pander to criticisms made by Dr. Mahatir.

    Comment by matt byrne — July 9, 2004 @ 3:07 pm

  2. Not sure about a pro-US bias, and I actually normally avoid Margo. My comments to a large extent derive from research we did into the FTA, which you can read at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/2003/Jul03/Havachat_FTA_Report.doc. The argument that everyone, irrespective of political alignment, found the strongest against the FTA, was some version of concern about US dominance. Latham could marshall a really strong campaign around that to do with other issues, but he isn’t.
    I don’t buy the argument that the concern stems just from Bush’s administration. It’s deeper than that, but Bush does exacerbate it. I remember in the 60s when my deeply conservative parents were concerned about all the US dominance of Australian commerce. It was a theme in Whitlam’s campaigns, and didn’t disappear until the Japanese started investing in Australia.

    Comment by Graham Young — July 9, 2004 @ 11:17 pm

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