Scott Morrison’s invitation to a state dinner hosted by Donald Trump is being lauded in the media as a “prestigious” event, an “honour” and a “big deal”; one which is “extraordinarily rare”. Well, that last comment is true — Australia has been invited to just a handful of state dinners with the US over the past few decades.
State dinners differ from regular diplomatic events. They are part of an official state visit, and the dinner is a relatively intimate affair. The guest list features diplomats and ambassadors, along with celebrities and entertainers to keep the conversation flowing. They’re expensive too, costing upwards of half a million dollars for the night. Working dinners are more common, as offered to our revolving door of prime ministers during the constant political spills of this decade.
The media swoons
These displays of extravagance were detailed in a weekend piece in The Australian Financial Review. Running at almost 2000 words long, the Fin described dishes from the handful of dinners Australian PMs have attended since the ‘60s — from “Alaska salmon in champagne jelly” and “grated Oregon truffles”, right down to the “crystal urns filled with cigarettes”.
Sky News has been running continuous coverage of the event, calling it a “rare privilege”. Ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey told Sky News the invite is the “greatest compliment” the US can pay to another country, while Senator Arthur Sinodinos said the dinner demonstrated Australia’s desire to be a “serious power with global reach”.
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph chose to focus on how the event was a personal and professional achievement for Morrison. “The state dinner is likely to be one of Morrison’s high points from his time in office,” one article noted, championing Morrison as “the focus of Washington and the world”.
All this for accepting a glass of chardonnay and a shrimp cocktail. The country is swooning over the state dinner as if Australia’s presence is truly special, when in fact our attendance at these fancy events is nothing to write home about.
Australia’s smattering of invites
The last prime minister to attend a state dinner was John Howard back in 2006. Prior to that, it was Bob Hawke in 1989. Invites were more forthcoming earlier on, with Malcolm Fraser invited in 1976, ‘77 and ’81 (clearly a favourite), and John Gorton in 1969. But the US has been hosting official state dinners for more than a century before Australia scored an invite. (Hawaiian officials were the first to attend back in 1874.)
It’s important to note that there’s been a dramatic decline in state dinners. According to the AFR, Jimmy Carter hosted 39 dinners in a single term from 1977. Barack Obama hosted six in each of his terms, while this is Trump’s second event. The first was attended by French president Emmanuel Macron. Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan have all been invited to many, many more dinners than Australia over the years.
Not so special relationship
Australia was still only invited to a smattering of state dinners even before this decline. This is despite the key alliance between Australia and the US, with constant rhetoric around the countries’ “shared values”, “bonds of friendship” and significant defence strategy.
Really, the only major difference between a state dinner and a regular visit is word “official”. That, apparently, and champagne-jelly salmon.
But if they really are so important — and if our relationship with the US is really as special as we’re led to believe — why hasn’t Australia been invited to more?
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