Malcolm Turnbull

This week’s fairly straightforward comments from Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong on the US alliance and the need for “defining an independent foreign policy within an alliance framework” might have struck some as an interesting contrast with Julia Gillard’s enthusiastic relationship with Barack Obama and her agreement for a US marine training facility in the Northern Territory — not to mention Stephen Conroy’s and Richard “WikiLeaks” Marles’ enthusiasm for confronting China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea this year.

But her views — described even by The Australian’s neocon hack Greg Sheridan as “perfectly reasonable” — prompted an immediate rebuke from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “This is a case of Labor being hopelessly divided on national security,” he thundered. “The left of the Labor Party which is where Penny Wong comes from has never been comfortable with the US alliance. They want an excuse to move away from the United States,” he said.

For comment on that, let’s ask another senior Liberal … Malcolm Turnbull. In a speech back in 2011, Turnbull attacked then-prime minister Gillard for being too close to the United States.

“But an Australian government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us truly (and not just rhetorically) to maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing.”

“Extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States strike a somewhat awkward note for many Australian ears. How do we imagine they sound in the capitals of our neighbours?” he inquired, adding, cynically, “great powers regard deference as no more than their due”.

Note that Turnbull was shadow communications minister at the time. Quite what his deputy leader, Julie Bishop, and then-leader, Tony Abbott, thought of Malcolm’s foreign policy adventures isn’t clear.

“The main challenges for Australian political leaders in responding to the rise of China (and in due course India),” Turnbull concluded magisterially, “are to combat complacency. Complacency in assuming the current resources windfall will persist forever; or that the strategic and diplomatic posture that served us in the past can and will serve us unchanged in the future …”

Which seems to be disturbingly almost exactly what Wong said. “The government should be asking itself the questions that matter right now — how best to maintain our relations with the US and Australia’s place in Asia, and how to adapt to the changing world order.”

Or maybe Turnbull just has a problem with Labor being close to Democratic presidents, whereas he prefers to truckle to Republicans — even if, in the case of Donald Trump, he’s GOP in name only.

Peter Fray

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