When the Australian delegation received a standing ovation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, it was primarily an acknowledgement that at last after six long years, the world’s greatest per capita polluter had agree to ratify the Kyoto protocol.

This was indeed a cause for celebration. But underlying it was an even more important change: Australia, after a long absence, was ready to rejoin the planet. The prodigal had returned to the family of nations.

There had been a time, some twelve years ago, when Australia’s status as a good international citizen was taken for granted. We were a willing partner to United Nations conventions and an eager participant in the processes of the world body. We had, in our small way, taken a leading role in the disarmament process, particularly with regard to nuclear and chemical warfare. We had pressed for genuine free trade on a world-wide basis, rather than making special deals with individual countries.

By and large we would side with what was broadly called the West when it came to voting in the General Assembly, but we certainly could not be taken for granted; we had not been afraid to break with our great and powerful friends when our own interests, whether material or moral, were at stake.

We were, in other words, a small to medium player, but an enthusiastic and sometimes very effective one; in international affairs, it could truly be said that we frequently punched above our weight. Not that we said it; we didn’t need to. We had nothing to prove to our critics.

But in 1996 all that changed. John Howard’s government effectively abandoned both internationalism and multilateralism. Well before September 11, 2001 Australia had become bound hand and foot to the United States, slavishly supporting Washington’s every whim. And of course, after George Bush proclaimed the War on Terror, any remaining pretence of independence vanished.

The low point came when we joined the United States and a handful of its client states to vote against a motion outlawing torture. Given that Howard was perfectly prepared to surrender Australian citizens to torture, this may have been realistic. But this hardly made it less horrible.

The Americans were prepared to reward our subservience, at least according to their lights. We were given precedence in negotiating a bilateral trade agreement, which was called “free” but actually involved a large price; and funnily enough, it turned out to be far more favourable to the American side than to the Australian, but that’s how the cookie crumbles. When you have lap dog, you don’t have to treat it as an equal, just as long as you tickle its tummy occasionally.

And the Americans certainly did that. A constant stream of seemingly important persons were shipped out, each more grateful than the last. We were very, very, good little allies, they gushed; no one was rated higher in the White House. It was at this stage that Howard and his even more absurd foreign minister, Alexander Downer, started talking defiantly about Australia’s exalted status in the world.

And the phrase “punching above our weight” gained currency. What they meant was that when they went to Washington, they were treated very politely indeed. And it wasn’t only them: scores of opinion leaders, including a large number of News Ltd journalists, joined the junkets and were heavily duchessed in the process. They returned starry eyed, to write recited articles about how much Australians were loved.

They seldom acknowledged that the love did not spread far beyond the sphere of influence of the United States – admittedly a decent chunk of the globe, but by no means all of it, and in particular not the bit where we happen to live.

Howard insisted that this was fine because we also got on really well with Asia; what he actually meant was that Asia, and especially China and Japan, really enjoyed buying Australian goods at bargain prices, especially coal and iron ore. This was lucky, because Australia had lots of coal and iron ore, and the commercial relationship blossomed.

But with Australian politics tied so closely to the United States, it could never be much more than a commercial relationship, and all the worst fears of our neighbours were confirmed when Bush, apparently trying to help, described Howard as his deputy sheriff in the region. Then Howard, not to be outdone, embraced Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against countries suspected of harbouring terrorists and the pattern of invariably voting with Washington in the UN (and usually against our Asian neighbours) became established.

It was clear to anyone able to listen that Australia saw its own interests as utterly subservient to those of the United States – the word “puppet” was hardly an exaggeration. In global political terms, Australia had simply become irrelevant.

For this reason alone, the change of government has been of immense interest in the region, and just how Australia sees its role in the next few months will be watched very closely. Rudd’s affinity for America is well attested; on the other hand his association with China goes well beyond just flogging them stuff and his general affection for Asia is obvious. There is a genuine opportunity for Australia to resume its rile as an intermediary, an honest broker who is a friend of both sides and a servant of neither.

Bali was a good start; it can be argued that the US would never have given so much ground if Australia had not already shifted. In the days to come, it might again become possible to travel overseas without having to apologise for our government.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey