As baby diplomats we learned always to vote in good company. Countries, we understood, were judged by the company they kept. Not any more. The countries Australia rubs shoulders with now, and the hips we are joined at, make people who used to represent Australia overseas wonder how much worse it can get. Other Australians who come back after a decade abroad say they can’t believe what we have become.
The downward trend started in 1996 when the American neo-cons began planning for the US hegemony that would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union. The times suited John Howard, who was aware of their plans long before we joined their invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and who wanted Australia to be part of the action. He would have known the US had a list of Middle Eastern countries it wanted to “reform” — all with oil and gas capacity — in its own interests, which almost invariably matched the interests of Israel.
The only one now left on the list of seven is Iran. In 2014 Howard told a public meeting in Sydney Iran would be next. Trump and Rouhani came to verbal blows at the UNGA in September, and the US media have been speculating about where that may lead.
Don’t say we weren’t warned.
For more than 15 years Australia has been fighting illegal wars, in shrinking coalitions of allies, with precious little to show for them except deaths, disabilities, and debts. We have voted with a handful of other satrapies against the aspirations of Palestinians. We have received damning reports from the UN Human Rights Council about our treatment of Indigenous people and refugees, and for that have been admired by far-right Europeans. We are backsliding rapidly from our Paris commitments on climate change and from our responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef. We excluded ourselves from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Law of the Sea Tribunal in order to pressure fledgling Timor Leste to sign a treaty that favoured Australia and in particular, Woodside Petroleum. We continue to accept US nuclear “protection” of Australia, and Israel’s undisclosed nuclear weapons, while strenuously objecting to other states acquiring them. We refuse to sign the treaty banning nuclear weapons for which Australians won a Nobel Prize.
Now Australia proposes to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to withdraw our support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
At least some of the other policies that marked Australia’s descent into bad company were carefully considered by one major party or the other, and debated in parliament. Not this time. All the Liberal candidate for Wentworth had to do, it seems, was come up with these two radical proposals to have Prime Minister Morrison adopt them, literally overnight. Suddenly, decisions that had nothing to do with advancing Australia’s interests were taken, and became no longer radical. So whose company are we in? For Jerusalem: the US and Israel of course, and Guatemala. For Iran: the US and Israel. No parties other than the US, not even Britain, have abandoned the JCPOA.
The Trump administration moved in May 2018 to establish America’s embassy in Jerusalem, whether to demonstrate its disregard for the UN, the International Court of Justice, or the efforts of the Palestinians to gain recognition of their statehood. For Australia to isolate itself along with the US puts important interests of ours at risk: our relations with Indonesia and Malaysia in particular, our reputation in all other nations which support the Palestinians’ campaign for justice, and our dealings with the multilateral system that seeks negotiation rather than military solutions to international disputes.
The symbolic move of our embassy in Israel for the government’s short-term political advantage in Wentworth is one thing. It will take time. Much more urgent is the need to change the war powers. To avoid further disasters, we must ensure that Australia enters no new war, particularly not with Iran, without a debate and a vote in both houses of parliament, followed by regular reviews, and by a full independent inquiry afterwards.
To the surprise of many Australians, this is not how we do wars. The prime minister can decide, virtually alone, and the troops are dispatched. There may be a debate in the house, but no vote.
Australian leaders repeat the “international rules-based order” mantra as if we uphold it. We want other countries to do so, but whenever it is inconvenient, Australia doesn’t. A potential invasion of Iran would not have a resolution of the UN Security Council to authorise it, and Australia is not threatened by Iran: so Australian forces, should we go to war, would be committing the war crime of aggression. So would the prime minister. Perhaps former diplomat Dave Sharma will remind him of that.
Alison Broinowski is a former diplomat, academic at the Australian National University and Vice-President for Australians for War Powers Reform. besureonwar.org.au.