Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Bob Carr addresses the Evatt Foundation with a couple of big ideas for our times.


Bob Carr launching 'The Task Ahead', Wednesday 24th August 2022


By Evan Hughes


At the end of August, the Evatt Foundation hosted Bob Carr and 40 guests for a members’ reception at the The University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum. The event launched our most recent journal The Task Ahead, and announced the Evatt Soft Power Forum, providing an opportunity to hear the former Australian Foreign Minister and Premier of NSW speak about Australia in the world today. In my remarks to thank Bob after his speech, I noted that across Sydney that night, John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisor was addressing the Centre for Independent Studies. Our full house suggested that our two institutions clearly maintain separate enough mailing lists.


Two Big Challenges, Two Big Ideas


Australia is a vast land confronted by two existential strategic vulnerabilities, both of geographic circumstance. First, we are an arid, warming continent whose agricultural sector is severely challenged by climate change caused by the output of our important resources economy; one key Australian commodity is burned to generate the heat to turn another into steel, much of it in China.

Second, the real threat of a 21st century war, characterised by early 20th century barbarism looms. A violent invasion visited upon a sovereign neighbour by a nuclear superpower with unresolved historic claims upon it, has already occurred once this year.


Idea One


Carr wants us to talk about extracting a rent from the rent-seekers who control the gasses and minerals drawn from beneath the land and sea we inhabit and control.


Idea Two


He warned, in quite serious terms, that it’s time to put the megaphones away and for our diplomats, securocrats, their Ministers and the cabinet as a whole to take a deep breath and proceed with caution regarding the unfolding dilemma in the South China Sea and how we respond to the instincts of our powerful friends.


On the first point, Carr claimed that the national debt already accrued and still to accumulate is concerning; Australia faces a major revenue challenge to service, let alone reduce that debt. He implied that the impact of any form of regional conflict on our export trade in the commodities mentioned above would devastate any hopes for such economic harmony on Federal balance sheets. He boldly floated the idea of imposing a windfall levy upon big resources producers. Other nations, especially in the EU and UK, have already begun to move in this direction, largely in response to the steep rise in prices caused by a slower flow of Russian energy supplies. In his discussion of the notion, revenue would be centred on the gas sector, with incentivisation of sovereign energy security as component to the levy. This is not a wildly revolutionary concept in Australia, though one with some uncomfortable history.


On the 29th of September, the Sydney Morning herald reported that the Albanese Government was threatening gas exporters with penalties to shore up supply.


Since Carr’s address, Ross Garnaut has already publicly floated the concept at the Jobs Summit; a reconsideration of a similar revenue measure to that which he has bravely championed for some decades now. In the circumstances of what was underway in the Senate, and not to detract from negotiation on the Climate Change bill, the Prime Minister poured cold water on this divisive issue. PTSD from the anti-Mining Tax campaign persists deep in the soul of currently serving veterans of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Cabinets, of which Carr is a retired member.


It is fitting that attention to this matter should be raised at the Evatt Foundation. Australia’s action on climate change and the role it plays in our international relations forms a significant part of the work currently in development. For instance, the Foundation actively supports the notion that, within the architecture of Australian soft power, a sound and stable market for enviro-economics is one of the three pillars of a cohesive Australian voice to the world; the others being our culture and educational platforms.


Carr actively challenged our organisation to take a hard look at models of innovative energy revenue streams, citing the work done by Tim Buckley of Climate Energy Finance Australasia. The nation’s banking and institutional investment sectors long for a cohesive government vision and definition of a fair and consistent climate-conscious regime for emitters. They need to plan for the next two decades at least. Having to respond to the three-yearly electoral political spin cycle is not helpful. It is time for a mature government to commission a serious independent review of the issue. Within the personnel of newcomers to the 47th Parliament, representatives whose electors from the Gap to Point Piper, From Canberra to Toorak, are clamouring for a non-partisan and purely economically rational policy regarding climate-conscious energy and resources revenue.


Returning to the geo-strategic question, Carr called upon Australia to adopt the most disciplined strain of quiet diplomacy it can muster. Australia is set to sail through particularly choppy waters between two increasingly erratic foreign policies developing (or unravelling) in the capitals of the two pre-eminent Great Powers; one our strategic ally and the other our most significant trading partner.


As James Curran, whose article in the Task Ahead foreshadowed this current dilemma some nine months ago, and who was present at the event, recently wrote in the Australian Financial Review, of the very real danger faced by diplomats in all three countries; the possibility of the status of Taiwan becoming a hot-button domestic political tactic of the Republican Party to make Biden look ‘soft on China’. As Curran points out, Mike Pompeo a likely future Republican presidential primary candidate, is already actively shaping this narrative alongside other potential contenders with form, such as Marco Rubio. This may only manifest after Trump’s possible indictment and potential incarceration for violation of the Espionage Act, but the suboptimal strategy of goading China on Taiwan seems to be firming in the United States.


The last few star-spangled adventures, most notably into the jungles of south East-Asia or the hills of the Middle East, were unedifying failures; enormous wastes of human life, global US (and ally) prestige and treasure. If guerrilla militants with unreliable AK-47s can match the might of the US military-industrial complex, even the most fervent MAGA voters must be thinking it is more important for their representatives on Capitol Hill to be focused on fighting a war against inflation than posturing to take part in an almost certainly unwinnable Nuclear one over Taiwan. The good news on this front is that a safe distance away from the political skirmishes that are fought out by foreign policy dilettantes on Capitol Hill, is one of the most professional and well-equipped foreign offices in global diplomacy. Whilst Task Ahead contributor Geoff Raby, former Australian Ambassador to China has referred to the notion that China is a ‘Prometheus Bound’ regarding its geographic constraints and resource reliance, one cannot help but observe another tidy analogy. The mighty US State Department seemed, for much of the Trump era, to be the mythical figure from Aeschylus chained to the rock by a vengeful erratic Zeus. Ironically, the wrong he had committed against Zeus was giving fire to man: in past years, badly directed US Foreign Policy has brought devastation.


Now is the time for diplomacy to prevail. Since the assumption of office by Biden, the positive signs from Foggy Bottom are manifested in the measured approaches of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; the return of adults ‘to the room where it happened’. American diplomats in foreign missions are some of the most professional, hard-working, thoughtful and innovative. The extraordinary work of consular officials in resettling Afghans in the wake of the problematic military exit is testament to State Department prowess.


At the same time, some credit must be given to Beijing for an apparent curtailing of the bizarrely ham-fisted and ultimately ugly ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in East Asia. The loud hailers seem to be stored under lock and key in all quarters, for now.


Whilst there is cause for optimism in the current administration, there is an undeniably unpleasant prospect for the securocrats and DFAT mandarins already fretting about divisions in the United States ­­– a return of isolationist populism at best and warmongering Imperialism at worst (themes evidently concurrent under former President Trump). ANZUS is a safety blanket, not a nuclear umbrella. Though conceptually a very important piece of Australian diplomatic history and very much a part of the nation’s future, it is uncomfortably vague. There is barely a cigarette paper between Australia and the United States on declared regional security policies but an enormous gulf between the sensibilities of our citizenry and soul of our polity as relates to militarism. Australian involvement in the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars remains a stain on our national psyche notwithstanding the relative realpolitik necessities and merits of participation in them at their moments.


The ANZAC legend is far more complex in its historiography than is accepted by much of the commentariat and political class. It must not become a mere glorification of fallen heroes on the shores of Gallipoli employed to spark patriotic zeal for service; it must guard against ever again being sent like lambs to the slaughter in pursuit of imperial favour. Even the authors of the legend such as Charles Bean, who had to fight in the press for the British even to acknowledge Australian troops were on some of the battlefields in the Great War, knew this factor. The spirit of ANZAC must commemorate also the lives destroyed by wars – veterans left desolate and broken, civilians dead and maimed and also recognise the lives of refugees saved by our national spirit of welcoming generosity. Especially when their displacement has been caused by wars in which we have participated.


The refrain of gormless parliamentarians who demand that the Australian history curriculum is making our students unwilling to serve and die for our country, fundamentally miss the point that has been true since Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian war. History is a flashing red light warning ‘DO NOT REPEAT’, urging future generations not to engage in arms race mentalities and march blindly to conflict.


Australia still feels uncomfortable about its proximity to Asia. Too much time has been wasted since the Hawke-Keating era of engagement playing catch up in our own region with neighbours whose trust and respect we have lost on matters fundamental to our mutual existence let alone prosperity. Again, as we should be, we are focused squarely on the blue waters of the Pacific and its island inhabitants, of whom we make up 26 million. Australia was federated in part to ensure the practical resources of the Colonies could be combined to build a resilient local naval force (we’re still working on that). We are vulnerable only to major naval incursion and since WW2, the tactical nuclear threat associated with military and communications installations such as Pine Gap has intensified, with or without our participation in any war in the region. Dangerous waters indeed.


Prior to the 2022 Federal Election, then opposition leader Anthony Albanese made these remarks as part of his foreign policy election position:


“Today I want to take the opportunity to share my vision for an Australia that is stronger, safer and more resilient…more prepared to meet the challenges and threats of a less certain world.’


Almost 80 years ago, on 14 March 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin gave a speech for broadcast on American radio. He began: ‘On the great waters of the Pacific Ocean war now breathes its bloody steam. From the skies of the Pacific pours down a deathly hail. In the countless islands of the Pacific the tide of war flows madly. For you in America, for us in Australia, it is flowing badly.’


Curtin was not one for doomsaying, or hyperbole. Truly, they were the most fearful days our nation has known. Eight decades later, Labor still looks to Curtin. Not just to salute his strength of character, or his sacrifice, but because Curtin’s famous 1941 declaration that Australia ‘looked to America’ was deeper than a statement of wartime necessity.”


The Task Ahead, published in December 2021 on the 80th anniversary of Curtin's Melbourne Herald article which first made that appeal, hopes to open the discourse about what the next eighty years might look like. With the election of the Labor Government, there is new hope. By the quiet, determined pace of activity in the region by Penny Wong, it is clear that the Albanese government understands the challenges. Marles’ relatively muted and even-handed commentary displays diligent determination, unperturbed by the sniping fearmongers in Opposition. Labor has so far been disciplined in its language on China. No roguish hawks have risen in the ranks to the bait of editorialists and op-editors, showing a maturity that has been absent in Canberra for some time.


However, it is clear our ship of State is no longer merely at anchor in the shallows, riding the lazy intellectual swell of conflict between the pro-Business China lobby in Australia squaring off against the security service minded hawks in op-ed volleys. Such binary short-sightedness is now far to the stern. Ahead lies the very real prospect of winding up in another major naval theatre with consequences for national survival. Only sensible determination, reasonable diplomacy and resolved, organised preparation can prevent such misadventure.

In the chapter ‘Euphoric realism’ of his latest book, Australia’s China Odyssey, James Curran makes reference to the Homeric allusion figured by Whitlam in his charter letter to Australia’s first Ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, which Curran calls ‘the foundational document to the modern Australia-China relationship’. Whitlam urged Fitzgerald to ‘steer a course between the Scylla of unnecessary suspicion, on the one hand, and the Charybdis of apparent carelessness, on the other’. What scholars of this conceit must always remember, as Whitlam probably did whilst assuming the mantle of the Goddess Circes, is that while one course leads to loss, the other is certain death. Odysseus’ passage through the perilous strait between two monstrous fates puts him literally between a rock and a hard place.


To reach those dangerous straits with “Scylla to the starboard, dreaded Charybdis off to port”, Odysseus only had to resist the Siren’s song. Today we must lash ourselves to the mast and plug our ears with wax against the blare of the right wing nationalist media, ‘who spellbind any man alive… whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air – no sailing home for him”. Incidentally, Peter Hartcher’s introduction to Red Zone, likens the China Lobby to the Lotus Eaters who play a similar trick on Odysseus’ crew.


Homer placed many monsters in his hero’s path, but none as destructive as the nuclear weapons created by mortals some millennia later. Countenancing regional conflict is no option, the confrontation in Asia of which Curtin spoke, ended in nuclear devastation and it’s unfathomable that any other eventuality would ensue today. Now is the time to turn from Homer the poet and heed Thucydides the historian. When you’re the Corinthians, between Sparta and Athens and you suddenly become aware of an escalating arms race, it’s probably too late.