THE normal acceleration of the Australian political pace in an election year has been given jetlike impetus this year by the retirement of Sir Robert G. Menzies. After a record sixteen unbroken years in office, he stepped down in January, and Harold E. Holt, an urbane fifty-eight-year-old lawyer long ago turned professional politician, took over as leader of the Liberal-Country Party coalition. Septuagenarian Arthur A. Calwell, who leads the opposition Australian Labor Party, is well aware that Holt, for all his journeyman qualities, lacks the eloquence, the brilliance, and the charisma of Menzies. Calwell also knows that this is his own last chance of moving from the opposition benches to lead the government.
Although no date for an election has been set, Calwell has already mounted what promises to be the bitterest campaign on record. At the same time, he has found himself strongly challenged by his more personable but by no means less ambitious deputy, E. Gough Whitlam, like Holt a lawyer who set aside his more lucrative legal practice to make a career of politics. In a showdown within the Australian Labor Party, Calwell won the right to lead his party into the election; but his victory did nothing to bridge the divisions within the Labor ranks or to persuade Calwell that his assault on the government should be anything but full-scale, all-out, and hang the consequences.
In a country traditionally much more concerned with the parish pump than with international affairs, the most burning issue is not, as one might expect, the lethargic state of the economy, or even public weariness with an excess of conservative and never very inspired government. Calwell has chosen to couple current public uneasiness about the Vietnam war with traditional opposition to conscription for overseas service.
Troops to Vietnam
According to the polls, most Australians favor the government’s decision to send troops to Vietnam. But most also oppose sending the twentyyear-old conscripts, who now account for about a third of the 4500-man Australian task force.
These contradictions have deep roots in Australian political history. In World War I, Australian volunteers flocked to Europe and the Middle East, and more than 60,000 lost their lives, heavy casualties for a country with a population then of less than 6 million. Maintaining the flow of reinforcements for the inexhaustible demands of the Western front by voluntary enlistment was too uncertain for safe military planning, and the government of the day appealed by referendum for approval to introduce conscription for foreign service. Though the appeal was supported by the opposition, the people rejected conscription, and the country was split as it had never been split before.
Calwell, who comes from the ranks of Irish Catholic emigrants among whom opposition to conscription was strongest, is seeking to draw on the same well of emotionalism to unseat the government at the election. The important difference today is that whereas the anticonscription campaign in 1914-1918 crossed political lines and was officially supported by no major party, Calwell seeks to translate inflamed public sentiment into party votes.
Heavy casualties among the conscripts in Vietnam during the critical month preceding the election might well tip the scales. But at this stage a combination of long-term Australian security fears and short-term lack of confidence in Labor’s capacity to manage its own affairs in a responsible way seems likely to prevail over moral considerations of whether conscripts or volunteers should be sent to Vietnam.
For most Australians, the Vietnam issue is much simpler than it is for Americans. Vietnam may or may not be vital to the interests of the United States; very few Australians indeed doubt that the American military presence in Southeast Asia is vital to Australia. With keen political judgment, Holt decided to pay an early visit to Vietnam. His visit was intended to persuade the Australian public of the enormous value to the country of its U.S. alliance.
The Australian contribution to the Vietnam effort of a two-battalion task force, plus auxiliary services, a hundred military advisers, a squadron of transport aircraft, several medical teams, and economic aid under both the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization and the Colombo Plan, is small in comparison with the American commitment. On a per capita basis, however, it is substantial. The fact that Australia honored its moral obligations under the ANZUS treaty (Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) to help its senior partner in resisting aggression anywhere in the Pacific is understood both in Canberra and in Washington. Thus, as Australians see it, their participation in the Vietnam war is an essential contribution to a life insurance policy.
By industrialization and the rapid development of its own extensive resources, Australia may one day reach the stage where it will be able prudently to pursue a much more independent foreign policy. For a long time to come, however, its security will depend on its alliance with the United States. Just how this alliance should best be maintained is, naturally enough, the subject of argument; but even the extreme left wing of the Labor Party accepts the fact that the premiums to maintain this policy must be paid in one form or another.
Ties with America
Sir Robert Menzies was a Queen’s man and an Empire man, but during his long term of office Australia greatly strengthened its American ties. The process shows no signs of tapering off. Although Australia has agreed to pick up a greater share of Britain’s defense burden in the Southeast Asia area and will eventually provide Britain with an alternative to its military base in Singapore, the reality of international life is that Britain sooner or later will join the European community, and its influence in the Asian and Australasian region can only continue to decline. To understand this is also to understand why Holt in his first critical months in office showed such determination to push ahead with conscription.
A quarter of a century ago Australia knew little and cared less about the United States. With the fall of the “impregnable bastion” of Singapore to the Japanese came the sudden shocked appreciation that the United States, and not Britain, was alone capable of coming to Australia’s defense in its hour of greatest need. The arrival of the American forces to fill the gaps left by the Australian commitment serving in the Middle East and elsewhere began an association with the United States that has spread far beyond the formalities of an expedient military alliance.
In a very real sense, the United States and Australia have discovered each other. There are new frontiers of development to be explored in Australia, and the Americans are foremost among the explorers. An American geologist’s advice recently led to the discovery of a vast oil field under Bass Strait, separating Australia from the island of Tasmania, and is expected to net him hundreds of millions of dollars on his percentage of the gross. General Motors pioneered the Australian automobile industry, and in the process, built itself into the most lucrative of all Australian companies. Kaiser Steel, American Metals, and Utah Construction and Mining are some of the American companies with major holdings in Australia’s iron ore industry. Discoveries since 1960 have increased known reserves of ore fortyfold to 15 billion long tons. Outback, in the dry plains of the west and north of the Tropic of Capricorn, Americans have found Texassized space for cattle ranching and wheat farming, and investment from the United States continues at a rate not noticeably affected by Washington’s administrative controls on capital outflow.
Almost nonexistent before World War II, this sort of investment has grown by leaps and bounds since. In the six-year period from the end of 1949 through 1955, investment more than trebled, rising from $161 million to $494 million. A year ago it passed the $165 billion mark.
Understandably, the volume of this capital inflow is controversial. Eventually, some economists fear, the flight of canaries out through the open door of the cage will exceed those coming in to roost. This, in Holt’s view, is a calculated risk. The government has rejected the advice of an expert committee that the capital inflow should be restricted to a level of about $330 million a year, and that there should be selective controls on foreign investment; nor is the government prepared to do more than encourage foreign investors to grant Australians a share in the equity.
While Holt concedes privately that there are risks in this policy, he is dedicated to rapid development and will not let anything stand in its way. He is determined to prevent Australian defense expenditure from rising to levels which would undermine economic growth and divert manpower excessively into nonproductive activities, and he also wants to maintain a political climate in which the foreign investor will always be welcome.
Welcome, also, are the skill, know-how, and experience that go with the capital. During his long years of preparation for the prime ministership, Holt fought in the Cabinet for a consistent developmental program based on two essential prerequisites: new capital and new manpower. He believed that the effective promotion of both depended on long-term planning and confidence — that the flow of immigrants should not be curtailed, for instance, because of an economic recession. As a result, more than 2 million migrants, most of them from Europe, have come to Australia in the past twenty years.
Until Holt took office, the government had steadfastly held out against Asian immigration. A few distinguished Asians were allowed to enter Australia for permanent residence, but though there was no apparent racial prejudice, and though thousands of Asian students attended Australian schools and universities, the basic principle was that immigrants should be white. The “White Australia” policy, as these restrictions were habitually referred to in Asia, weighed heavily against Australian efforts to promote trade and friendship with its neighbors.
Under Holt’s new laws, Asians and non-Asians admitted for permanent residence are both entitled to apply for citizenship after five years (the qualifying period used to be fifteen for Asians). A more significant change is that the qualification for Asian entry has been changed from “distinguished” to “useful.” Applications for citizenship by Asians resident in Australia and qualified under the new rules have been surprisingly few, but Australian embassies in Asia report heavily increased inquiries.
How the government plans to cope with the hurdle of Negro immigration from the United States remains to be spelled out. Only 1400 Americans migrated to Australia in 1963-1964. Another 1800 followed in 1964-1965. If the increase continues, and predictably it will with the gold-rush momentum of new mineral discoveries in the north and west, the problem of Negro migration can no longer be dodged without the ultimate risk of damage to Australia’s relations with the United States.
To Americans paying a brief visit to Australia there is much to remind them of home. The Texas analogy comes easily to mind. Yet most Americans resident in Australia do not share these impressions. The superficialities are all there — much of the architecture, television, the automobiles, the Bar-B-Q’s, the jukeboxes, and the teen-agers. Yet Australian society lacks the community-mindedness of American society.
Australians are, in fact, as unlike the British, who gave them birth, as they are different from the Americans, on whom most believe they are dependent for a future. A common language helps immensely, of course, but in the long run, mutual considerations of defense are likely to play the most significant part in determining relationships between Australia and the United States.