Inside Story

How mateship made way for freedom, democracy and rule of law

Australia’s diplomatic language has evolved during a period of instability and risk, but is practice following?

John Fitzgerald 5 July 2019 3519 words

Values are not “some kind of stalking horse,” says Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong. David Mariuz/AAP Image

A year ago, on 4 July 2018, that flagship of Australian values diplomacy, mateship, went down with all hands in the Potomac River in Washington, DC. That day had been set aside to commemorate a centenary of allied combat involving Australian and United States forces in foreign fields. Sadly, the launch turned into a scuttling.

Around six months earlier, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, had initiated a cultural diplomacy campaign in Washington under the title “Celebrating a Centenary of Mateship.” The embassy launched a dedicated website and announced a calendar of events, including a military tattoo, a religious service in Washington National Cathedral, and centenary commemorations involving prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and president Donald Trump.

The occasion being marked was certainly deserving of commemoration. One hundred years earlier, on 4 July 1918, Australian and American troops under the command of General Sir John Monash conducted a successful offensive against German forces in the French town of Hamel, helping to turn the tide against German forces on the Western Front. This was the first time American and Australian troops had fought side by side, and the first occasion on which American troops fought offensively under a non-American commander. General Monash had chosen 4 July as the date of the battle.

And so, the embassy website continues, “Since that day, Australian and American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women have served alongside one another in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. Our military alliance endures today, as our armed forces work together in Iraq and Syria to combat the threat of terrorism.”

No sooner was the schedule of centenary events under way than an Australian journalist, Meggie Palmer, detonated a digital depth charge, pointing out in her online newsletter that all fifteen Centenary of Mateship ambassadors were male and white. That may not have concerned Ambassador Hockey, who had long been engaged, alongside former prime minister Tony Abbott, in a domestic culture war celebrating national values such as mateship and treating concerns about gender equity and cultural diversity as self-indulgent identity politics. But the Australians had misread their mates, even in Donald Trump’s America-first America. An apology was issued — Hockey accepted the blame — and nothing more was heard of the Centenary of Mateship.

To be fair, men on both sides of Australian politics are prone to nostalgia about old-fashioned Australian values and tempted to translate their homespun folklore into diplomacy. Labor may be less inclined than the Coalition parties to trumpet “national values” in its foreign policy statements, or enact them in bilateral relations in office, but it has a similar weakness for working men’s values.

In July 2012, for example, speaking in Beijing on the fortieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the People’s Republic of China, deputy Labor prime minister Wayne Swan evoked a powerful image of mateship among working men to stamp Labor’s brand on the Australia–China relationship. He drew a graphic mental picture of his mentor, Mick Young, accompanying then opposition leader Gough Whitlam on his breakthrough visit to China in 1971. A lot happened on that visit but Swan chose to recall one episode in particular involving Mick Young:

Mick was a sheep shearer — a good one, too — before he become a union official and then a political leader. He had the big hands of a professional shearer. It would have given him great pleasure to firmly shake the hand of Zhou Enlai when the premier greeted the Australian delegation.

There is no doubting that it was a privilege to shake the hand of Premier Zhou Enlai (Chinese premier 1949–76). And yet this nostalgic evocation of mateship among the workers of the world — an Australian shearer shaking hands with a leader of proletarian China — was not reciprocated on the Chinese side. Premier Zhou hailed from one of the elite imperial families that successfully migrated, after the fall of the empire, to the peak of the Communist Party hierarchy. He could trace a pedigree of successful imperial examination candidates and imperial magistrates through both his maternal and paternal lines.

Nor is the Communist Party a working men’s party. It was and remains a closed and self-appointed post-imperial elite, whose historical mission is to keep common people out of public life and politics in China. It’s a privilege to shake the hand of Zhou Enlai because Zhou’s is the hand of privilege.

Enough of stories. My point in resorting to metaphors of scuttled fleets and shorn fleeces is to highlight a shift in the place of values in Australian public diplomacy today. Even before mateship went down in DC, a new suite of values had been commissioned by the Turnbull government. They appeared in its 2017 foreign policy white paper, which repositioned Australian values diplomacy from the old and familiar territory of white Australian male folklore to the global commons of liberal values. Mateship and the fair go made way for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

How did it come to this? And where do we go from here?

The place of values in foreign and defence policy has been thrown into sharp relief by the disruptive times in which we live. Shifting power relations in the region, challenges to the postwar international order, and the rise of populist nationalism around the globe all present ethical challenges as well as policy ones.

At the popular level, movements targeting religious and ethnic difference test the commitment of all immigrant countries to inclusion, equality and diversity. Among state actors, a dynamic and increasingly powerful China is driving structural and strategic changes in the region while showing little sympathy for the values underpinning democracy, the rule of law, or the liberal rules-based order on which regional stability and prosperity have been based since the second world war. The Trump administration’s response to the China challenge brings the long-term viability of that order into question.

For Australia, the question arises of whether the values by which Australians live their lives can help governments to negotiate safe passage through these complex ethical and policy issues.

Recent Australian governments appear to think so. Comparing the place of values across foreign policy white papers published in 1997, 2003 and 2017 is a reasonably reliable measure of continuity and change: each was produced by a Coalition government and through a single department, Foreign Affairs and Trade. Given these shared sources, the difference between the earliest and latest white papers is revealing.

The first two white papers, issued under John Howard (prime minister 1996–2007) made a number of unequivocal statements about values but also reflected that government’s preference for describing values in colloquial folkloric terms, such as mateship and the fair go. Values so described were subordinated to the pursuit of jobs and security as the 1997 white paper’s “basic test” of the national interest. In practice, the effect was often to exclude values diplomacy altogether from the Australian foreign policy toolbox — as was reflected in the convention governing bilateral relations with China, under which the two sides agreed to leave their values at the door in meetings and negotiations.

This subordination of values to interests (and specifically to prosperity and security) was facilitated by the Howard government’s ethnocultural approach to national identity and values. The first of the white papers projected a national identity rooted in a distinctively European, if not British, social and cultural heritage. “The values which Australia brings to its foreign policy,” the paper stated, “… reflect a predominantly European intellectual and cultural heritage.” The second identified Australia as a cultural outlier, again with a “predominantly European heritage,” in an otherwise alien region. Translated into diplomacy, this approach implied that Australia had one set of values, Asians another, and all parties should respect the values associated with the others’ ethnocultural traditions by remaining silent on values altogether

China was quite comfortable with this arrangement. It confirmed the view in Beijing that Australia was still at heart White Australia, which isolated it from other major countries in the region. Australia’s stance precluded values advocacy (Australia was certainly not proposing to insert mateship into a UN convention) and, by implying that all values were based on national cultures and traditions rather than universal principles, effectively endorsed the authoritarian values of the communist government as authentic expressions of China’s national culture. For Beijing, what was not to like about that?

In Australia, however, these foreign policy statements reflected highly partisan political positions on identity and values, and were consequently unsustainable. National values, as they were known at the time, featured in a wide-ranging public debate in the 1990s on the “Asianisation” of Australia associated with Paul Keating’s term as prime minister — a debate that merged into a wider series of discursive battles that came to be known as the culture wars and the history wars. Conservatives who favoured the idea that values were rooted in cultural traditions — whether defined as anglophone, Western civilisation or Judaeo-Christian — swore they would never surrender Australia’s identity or values to the imperatives of Asian engagement. Progressives, including Keating and the Labor side of politics, who favoured a culturally agnostic mix of identity and values saw little risk to Australian identity or values in closer engagement with Asia.

These domestic tensions played out in the two strategic foreign policy statements produced under the direction of Howard’s government in the wake of Keating’s electoral defeat in 1996. In particular, the second white paper’s choice of “tolerance, perseverance and mateship” as distinctively Australian values can be traced to divisive domestic policy debates taking place around education, culture and immigration. In an Australia Day address in 1998, almost two years into his first term, Howard made a pointed reference to the “values that are particularly important to all of us as Australians,” listing tolerance, perseverance and mateship among them. Later, marking the centenary of Federation, he identified “four distinct and enduring Australian values,” which he termed “self-reliance, a fair go, pulling together, and having a go.”

The Howard government consistently framed values in foreign policy documents in a language that precluded international values advocacy and alienated the Labor side of politics, which perhaps explains why so very little attention was paid to values in the Labor government’s major policy statement of the period, Australia in the Asian Century (2012). There, the reason for Labor’s silence on values can be found in a revealing reference to the “values” of an earlier generation of Australians who were “oriented mainly towards the British Empire and Europe” and whose conduct and beliefs reflected “the values and attitudes of a time when many Australians defined themselves as distant and separate from Asia.” But the paper’s authors opted not to update the values of an earlier time, instead treading lightly around the issue. Better, in their judgement, to ignore values altogether than risk stirring the old beast in the basement.

In time, the lack of bipartisan support for the values statements in the first two white papers presented problems for managing Australia’s most important relationship in the region — with China — which called for a new commitment to values diplomacy on both sides of the house.

The 2017 white paper issued under prime minister Malcolm Turnbull sidestepped the ethnocultural approach by describing values in terms of universal liberal principles. “Australia does not define its national identity by race or religion,” it asserted, elevating values in foreign policy by shifting the locus of national identity from one based on ethnocultural heritage to one grounded in values themselves.

The folksy colloquialism of earlier statements gave way to the universal language of democratic liberalism in describing such values as “political, economic and religious freedom, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality and mutual respect.” Values were elevated in Australian foreign policy thinking from secondary attributes of a particular ethnic heritage to primary markers of national identity expressed in universal terms.

But what of Labor? In government it has never produced a foreign policy white paper, although it has published two defence white papers, one in 2009 and the other in 2013. Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2009 defence white paper was the first formal statement by an Australian government to take account of the impact of China’s growing wealth and power on Australia’s shifting strategic environment (for which it earned a stern rebuke from Beijing). Australia in the Asian Century, Labor’s all-encompassing statement on Australia’s place in the region, largely ignored the changing strategic environment attendant on the rise of China, which had informed the same government’s defence white paper. Little effort was made to reconcile security concerns on the one side with diplomatic and trade issues on the other within the framework of a single strategy document.

And yet, consistent with the tone of the Turnbull government’s white paper, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson senator Penny Wong gave a hard-hitting talk on the place of values in Labor foreign policy at the Griffith Asia Institute in August 2017 that was no less important for the progressive side of politics than the 2017 white paper was for the conservatives. Senator Wong shunted aside earlier Labor concerns about values in foreign policy: “There are, of course, those who dismiss values as a ‘trap’ that only encourages contention and conflict.” She was presumably addressing those on her own side of politics who felt intimidated by the terms of a debate designed to ensnare unwary critics of homegrown values, such as “mateship” and the “fair go,” in a series of traps laid out by their conservative opponents.

Senator Wong was emboldened to break the Labor mould for reasons similar to those that compelled Turnbull’s government to break with conservative tradition on national values. Those reasons include growing threats to the “rules-based order,” signs of growing racial and national intolerance, and evidence that countries such as China were acting to undermine the postwar security regime.

Senator Wong began with a personal anecdote and ended with a clear affirmation of the place of values in Australian foreign policy, dismissing both the “Asian values” and “Western values” schools of thought along the way, and positing in their place an international order founded on the principle of equal human dignity and secured by the rule of law. “One can be born lucky,” she said:

It was my good fortune to have been born into a family having two “values” traditions — those of China and what we loosely term “the West.” So it will not surprise you that I do not accept the view that some former Asian leaders have propounded that “values” are an artefact of Western imperialism. Values are not some kind of stalking horse behind which “the West” — and many people see that as code for the US — seeks to assert and defend a form of political dominance. Nor are they simply the legacy of what some describe as the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Senator Wong highlighted the rule of law as a foundation both for democratic societies and for an international rules-based order, and she concluded her discussion of the rule of law with the observation that “values, as a core element in the construction of a foreign policy, are not just desirable but necessary.”

Whether the recent affirmation of liberal universal values on both sides of politics will translate into effective foreign policy practice is a question on which foreign policy experts are divided. Some see the shift, from particular national values to common or universal ones, as signalling closer alignment with the United States and greater distancing from China. Writing in this vein, Deakin University’s Pan Chengxin argues that the emphasis on universal values in the 2017 white paper was a misguided attempt to differentiate Australia from China and align it more closely with the US-led “rules-based order.”

Other analysts see very different risks in values diplomacy, including possible challenges to the US alliance, which is based on realpolitik no less than values. Former diplomat Alan Dupont of the Cognoscenti Group argues that a values-based foreign policy could “see the end of bipartisanship on the [US] alliance” and, on the Labor side, put an end to what Keating has called a “tag-along foreign policy” that allegedly subordinates Australian national interests to policies laid down in Washington. To be sure, Senator Wong did initially respond to Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 with a statement about values that suggested Trump’s victory placed the American alliance on Labor’s watchlist. Dupont described her comments at that time as “virtue signalling disguised as foreign policy.” And yet, speaking of the United States in her later Griffith Asia Institute address, Senator Wong referred not to the present incumbent in the White House but to “that extraordinary enterprise which is the USA,” which “has, as its wellspring, a sense of human value… that underpins what we term ‘the rule of law.’”

In my judgement, to suggest that the 2017 white paper’s assertion of universal values and a values-based identity inevitably pits values against realpolitik is misleading. Together, the 2017 white paper and Labor’s support for its basic principles mark a shift, not from a realist to a values-based diplomacy, but from one set of values to another in Australia’s generally pragmatic foreign policy culture — a shift from a partisan, folkloric suite of values, unique to Australia, to a code of universal values that enjoys bipartisan support and is universally understood beyond Australia. That this shift was long overdue was indicated by the fate of mateship in Washington a year ago; and it is especially timely in a period of heightened uncertainty and risk in relation to China.

Further, the earlier approach to national values left Australia disarmed in dealing with foreign interference on Australian soil — primarily interference by China in our mainstream media, in community media and community organisations, in Australian higher education, and in relation to our parliamentary sovereignty. Well might we say to Beijing, “Fair go, mate!” But mateship does not translate readily across cultures — and it was not intended to. As a national value, mateship offers little guidance for dealing with foreign interference from any country, which involves matters of high principle that underpin the integrity of our institutions and the sovereignty of our parliaments.

Finally, we misled our friends in China by signalling in earlier foreign policy statements that Australians care less for human dignity, freedom and the rule of law than we do for jobs and growth. Leaving values at the door was always a values statement in itself — it falsely signalled that Australians don’t value values. This is how it was read by China’s leading Australia-watchers, one of whom told me during John Howard’s term in office that he was reporting to authorities in Beijing that Australia, unlike the United States, was highly pragmatic and placed little store in principles or values.

Historically, Australian foreign policy does tend towards the pragmatic, but this does not imply that Australians are willing to sacrifice core values and principles. A useful historical example of Australian principled pragmatism is former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans’s take on liberal internationalism — in his case termed “constructive internationalism” — which was motivated by high principle and yet was applied to specific cases, such as Cambodia, where it could make a real difference.

For Australia–China relations we have comparable models of principled and pragmatic foreign policy already under development. Macquarie University professor Bates Gill offers one model, which he terms bounded engagement, that affirms liberal humanist values while preserving much that is mutually beneficial in the relationship. Australia has every reason to continue engaging closely with China across as many fronts as possible, partly to sustain trade, investment and people-to-people ties but also to keep lines of communication open so as to signal positive engagement and to facilitate pushback when China’s actions impinge on Australian values and interests.

Many areas of Australia–China interaction could become more constrained, but not all need be constrained to the same degree. Some areas of cooperation, like philanthropy and law-enforcement cooperation, could well expand. While pushing forward in new areas of cooperation, Australian relations with China would nevertheless be attuned to deflecting the challenges that China may present to Australian security, prosperity and social cohesion.

For all that, the question “where to form here?” remains an open one. Whatever the answers may be, placing the fundamental principles that Australians value and share onto the national foreign policy agenda, in a language that all sides can embrace and other countries can understand, brings greater clarity to differences between Australia and China that are patently in need of protection in President Xi Jinping’s new era. If values matter, then getting them right is a sound foundation for a pragmatic and principled foreign policy. •

This is an edited version of a lecture given by John Fitzgerald at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art last night. He wishes to thank Caitlin Byrne of the Griffith Asia Institute and Gilbert Rozman of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies for their comments and assistance, and the Griffith Asia Institute and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art for hosting the presentation.