Address to Parliament in honour of the visit by Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, House of Representatives, Parliament House
Posted on Thursday, 17 November 2011
Mr Speaker, it was once said that’s what’s good for General Motors is good for America. With rather more confidence it could be said that what’s good for America is likely to be good for the wider world because the United States is the most benign, the least self-interested superpower the world has ever seen. America is great, said de Tocqueville, because America is good and if America ever ceased to be good she would also cease to be great.
America was the first and so far the greatest nation to be founded on the dream of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all its citizens. One of our prime ministers, Ben Chifley, had something like this in mind when he said that government’s “light on the hill” should be “working for the betterment of mankind, not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand”.
No country on earth has done more for the world: first, in being that “shining City on a hill” that President Reagan so often spoke of; second through the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, the Gates Foundation and so many other humanitarian and high-minded ventures in every corner of the globe; third, and most crucially, in its readiness to defend the universal decencies where they are gratuitously threatened.
In the last century, it was the United States that saw off the totalitarian threat. In the present century, it is the United States that will see off the terrorist threat. Others will shoulder some of the burden but it’s America, inevitably, that will do the heaviest lifting.
Now, not for nothing, Mr Speaker, did Graham Greene say of his Quiet American that he had never met a man with such good intentions for all the trouble he caused. Still, Reagan was onto something when he described America as the last, best hope for mankind. Freedom under the law, representative government, and the right to the greatest possible liberty consistent with like liberty for others were not invented in America but have been improved there. Liberal pluralism’s spread from England to America and thence to the wider world shows that these are not just our values but, potentially at least, everyone’s values.
The US, Britain, Australia and our other allies did not wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan merely to remove a threat to peace but in the confidence that, given a chance, almost everyone would prefer a life in which you “treated others as you would have them treat you”. The US has led the first army ever to enter Afghanistan to liberate rather than to conquer. Given the history it’s a monumental task but it’s vital for the welfare of the Afghan people, the stability of a dangerous region and the safety of the wider world.
I know, sir, that the Australian forces serving in Afghanistan are grateful for the American logistical assistance that sustains our commitment. They are proud to be fighting and building alongside their US comrades in the Uruzgan Provincial Reconstruction Team. As well, they hope that their mission is continued until their task is done: the establishment of a stable, effective and humane government, at least by Afghan standards, backed by reliable security forces. They know that victory in Afghanistan won’t resemble the unequivocal resolution of World War II. It will be more like success in Northern Ireland. It will involve a process as much as an outcome. Our soldiers in Afghanistan also understand that giving up prematurely would be a defeat and no less disastrous for not being sustained on the battlefield.
Mr Speaker, to the Liberal National coalition, the American alliance is the cornerstone of Australian security, as it has been since we first “looked to America”, in anticipation of the fall of Singapore, and Prime Minister Menzies and President Truman subsequently concluded the ANZUS Treaty. The Coalition welcomes the presence of up to 2,500 US marines in Darwin and would be happy to see the establishment of another joint facility so that these arrangements could become more permanent.
But Mr Speaker, the US alliance exists to promote values, not to threaten other countries. As Prime Minister Howard demonstrated, it’s possible to deepen Australia’s military alliance with America and simultaneously to build our trade and cultural links with other countries such as China.
As John Howard also demonstrated, it was possible to establish a quadrilateral security dialogue involving India and to sell uranium to India without prejudicing other relationships. On selling uranium to India, President Obama had the good sense never to change President Bush’s policy. In this country, on this policy, the transition from the former government to the current one has been – how shall I say, Mr Speaker – less seamless but I welcome the Government’s conversion on this subject.
Mr Speaker, as Britain discovered in 1940 and again in 1956, military strength is illusory if it is not founded on economic strength. A country that borrows from foreigners, even from friendly ones, to fight its wars is at risk of the debt being called in at the worst possible time.
The lesson of the Eurozone crisis is that a terrible judgment is eventually pronounced against countries whose governments have spent and borrowed beyond their means. But Mr Speaker, the underlying economic position of both Australia and America is strong. Australia’s danger is complacency: the feeling that the world has no choice but to buy our minerals so new taxes can painlessly fix our fiscal problems. America’s could be political gridlock: with Congress a permanent “hung parliament” where everyone accepts the need for lower spending, except on their favourite project. If, Mr Speaker, as many predict, this turns out to be the “Pacific Century” it will be the entrepreneurial spirit and the superior willingness to face facts of the Pacific’s peoples rather than anything in the water that naturally makes it so.
Mr Speaker, both Australia and America are determined to be good international citizens on the environment no less than on security. Differences are less about the seriousness of the challenge than about the best means of tackling it because all of us want to give the planet the benefit of the doubt.
Mr Speaker, American world leadership may only truly be appreciated after it’s gone. None of us should want to find out the hard way what a shrunken America might be.
So, Mr President, everyone in this parliament is a friend of the United States. For all the political differences between us on so many points, we are all willing you and your country to succeed because a strong America means a safer world. I hope in this visit to Australia that you are buoyed by our support because no leader on Earth has heavier responsibilities.
May God bless you. May God bless all of us as we rise to the challenges of these times.