Richard Woolcott will tonight launch an attack on the Howard government when his latest book is launched in Melbourne by former premier Steve Bracks. He says the decision to join the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy decision made by any Australian government since the end of World War II.

“We are only really pillion riders (but) the tragic outcomes including numerous civilian casualties and the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure has greatly increased terrorist activities.”

“And the growth of Iranian influence and the international erosion of the prestige of the American Presidency are no laughing matters”, he said.

Woolcott, a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ambassador to the UN and Australia’s last representative on the Security Council, has advised all prime ministers since Robert Menzies.

Bracks will launch his latest book Undiplomatic Activities, a collection of witty reminiscences outlining some of the absurdities in the world of diplomacy. But the last chapter is reserved for his criticism of the Howard government and he doesn’t pull any punches. He says truth and honesty in government have been eroded by a growing army of spin doctors whose task it is to justify political decisions, however misguided they might be.

“Attempts to exploit latent racism and religious intolerance in sections of the community in order to gain domestic support remain a persistent cancer afflicting our political culture”, he said.

He says he had hoped that the four fundamental issues that had faced Australia for decades would be resolved or clearly on the road to resolution by the end of the twentieth century.

“Sadly they were not”, he said.

He points out the four issues, or objectives as being:

  1. The achievement of genuine reconciliation between immigrant Australians and indigenous people they dispossessed.
  2. The successful consolidation of a fair, tolerant, multi-ethnic Australian democracy.
  3. The creation of a proud, distinctly Australian republic that had severed anachronistic ties with the English monarchy.
  4. The full emergence of an Australia comfortably and constructively engaged with – and accepted as a partner by – the countries of our region.

Woolcott said the perception was quite widespread in our neighbourhood that the Australian government was, despite rhetoric to the contrary, more comfortable with the Anglosphere than with a more comprehensive engagement with Asia. Describing himself as an “optimist” Woolcott says he believes that Australia will achieve the goals relatively early in this century.

“But we need to keep them in focus – it is for a new generation of forward-looking men and women to carry the torch in the true Australian national interest,” Woolcott said.

One of  the more humouress anecdotes in the book concerns a onetime Australian high commissioner to South Africa at a formal reception for the prince of the Netherlands. Our diplomat, a crusty and wounded survivor of wartime combat, found himself displaced in the queue to shake the royal hand by his Swedish colleague who was wearing full regalia.

Disturbed by the ordinariness of his grey flannel suit and fuelled by a few pre-reception drinks, he lunged at the Swede’s dangling scabbard demanding:

“What did you get this sword for, defending your bloody neutrality?”

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Peter Fray
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