Australia’s best post war strategic policy decisions
9 Jul 2014|

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the Echo/Whispering Wall at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China, during his visit in October/November 1973.  Prime Minister Whitlam's decision to open diplomatic relations with China defined a 40-year path to stability and prosperity.Following the interest in recent Strategist posts on top five fighter aircraft and battleships, I offer another top five list (actually top six) of Australia’s best post-war strategic policy decisions.  Three selection criteria were applied: first, the decision must reflect a real choice open to governments and the possibility that outcomes could’ve been different.  Second, the decision must have had a lasting positive outcome for Australia. Finally, strategic policy decisions must relate to Australia’s national security interests.  On that third measure many economic decisions—say, the foundation of APEC—don’t make the cut.

In the 1950s, the best strategic policy decision was surely the Menzies Government’s pursuit of the ANZUS Treaty with the United States.  America emerged from the Second World War disinclined to buy into collective security arrangements outside of NATO.  Britain no longer offered Australia a credible security guarantee. Menzies felt vulnerable to the political changes of decolonisation and to the rise of communism.  The ANZUS Treaty, signed in September 1950, was the result of adroit diplomacy by External Affairs Minister Percy Spender. He played on the US’ desire for Australian support in Korea in return for a treaty commitment to act together to meet a common danger if US, Australian or New Zealand forces in the Pacific were attacked.

More than 60 years later ANZUS continues to shape Australian strategic thinking.  It’s doubtful that any US administration after Harry Truman’s would’ve been prepared to sign it. Without it, Australian defence policy would’ve been much more costly and our international role less effective.  The only other strategic policy decision in the 1950s that comes close in value was the 1957 trade agreement with Japan, on which much of Australia’s post war prosperity was built and which helped cement Japan’s position as a stable, trade-oriented democracy.

The decision in 1963 to buy the F-111 strike bomber aircraft is my choice for best strategic policy decision in the 1960s. Plagued with cost overruns and delays, the F-111 nonetheless set Australia’s aspiration to be a consequential middle power, bolstered by operating a bomber aircraft of unparalleled range and unmatched by any Asia-Pacific country.  The F-111 defined the ADF’s self-image as a first-rank military, its swept-back wings and coiled menace telling the world what kind of defence force Australia wanted.  The aircraft’s deterrent effect lasted for almost a half century. Runner-up choice for the best strategic decision in the 1960s: the Colombo Plan.

In the 1970s, Gough Whitlam’s decision to open diplomatic relations with China defined a 40-year path to stability and prosperity.  It might be argued that any Australian government would’ve followed Richard Nixon’s recognition in the 1970s, but Whitlam’s initiative paralleled, not followed, Nixon’s. Australia’s early-mover advantage was parent to the booming economic relationship of the last 20 years and to defence ties with Beijing closer than those between the US and China.  Runner-up decision: the 1976 Defence White Paper’s early articulation of defence self-reliance.

The 1980s presented a serious challenge to Australian strategic policy after New Zealand’s anti-nuclear defection from ANZUS and the rise of similar sentiment in Australia. The best strategic policy decision of the decade was Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley’s repositioning of Labor policy on the US alliance, which kept ANZUS bipartisan and created support on the left for the Joint Facilities (by articulating the Full Knowledge and Concurrence policy) and for a defence policy built around a ‘defence of Australia’ doctrine. Labor might have chosen the New Zealand path of equivocation over the alliance, but a largely bipartisan policy approach was maintained. Anyone who doubts the value of that should compare the defence policy gyrations of the UK, New Zealand and Canada.  A good policy runner-up: Malcolm Fraser’s 1982 decision not to replace the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne—an expensive indulgence.

John Howard’s 1998 proposal to President B J Habbie for a referendum in East Timor over independence or incorporation with Indonesia is the stand-out strategic policy decision of the 1990s, because of its audacity and (happily) its positive outcome.  No-one could’ve anticipated Habbie’s quixotic reaction to hold a vote in August 1999. The Australian-led intervention redefined what the ADF could do in a leadership role.  More importantly, it freed Indonesia from a costly and unwinnable counterinsurgency and opened the way to a better Canberra-Jakarta relationship.   

I can’t separate two strategic decisions as the best of the first decade of 2000.  John Howard’s invoking the ANZUS treaty after 9/11 bought, and continues to buy Australia huge credit with the United States. Standing by the US in its most dire moment since Pearl Harbour defined a modern alliance relationship that’ll sustain ties with Washington for decades.  Howard’s second defining moment was to offer a billion-dollar aid package to Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami.  Australia might have opted for sympathy and a business-as-usual relationship.  That Howard did more reset the relationship after the unhappiness of Timor and paved the way to highly effective counter-terrorism cooperation with its large neighbour. An honourable mention for good policy should go to Howard’s decision in 2005 to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity, (much to the region’s surprise) which opened Australia’s way to membership of the East Asia Summit.  

An early candidate for this decade’s best strategic policy decision may be Julia Gillard’s visit to Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor breach in March 2011.  The visit opened the door to closer Australia-Japan cooperation.

All the decisions discussed here involved departures from the policy norms of the day, called on the personal effort of senior politicians, and involved taking risks. Strikingly absent are decisions to deploy forces, although in the case of the ANZUS treaty, Timor and 9/11 those decisions closely followed.  Decisions to go to war are seldom good, although occasionally unavoidable.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.