Saturday 25 June 2011

'Dialogue' for Perth in August: time for the Greens to get off the fence

Perth in August, and who’s that who’ll be sneaking into town? Why the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the annual secret gathering of politicians (former and current) public servants, business leaders, academics, journalists and other worthies that has become one of the most significant “private” foreign policy bodies, providing a discursive and cultural underpinning for the US-Australia Alliance.

The Dialogue will be meeting at the Stirling naval base south of Perth and in Perth itself (at a venue not yet publicised) in the second week of August. It tries to operate out of the limelight and you will find no details of this upcoming meeting on its website where past meetings are only recorded by brief notation. The organisations founder, former business and NGO entrepreneur, Phil Scanlan, has proudly boasted about the ability of the Dialogue to keep its deliberations secret in accordance with the “Chatham House Rules” format.

Scanlan, appointed by the Rudd Labor government to the plum post of Australian Consul-General in New York, in 2009, initiated the Dialogue after conversations with US President George H W Bush during his 1992 visit to Australia. It alternates its annual meetings between the US and Australia. There is also a related West Coast Leadership Dialogue, providing a Pacific focus and sponsored by Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, as well as a Young Leadership Dialogue which also meets annually in the US and Australia by turn. The last Young Leadership Dialogue was held in Canberra in May. It was addressed by both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot, with Abbott’s comments about refugees seeking out Australia’s “Anglo” values leaked, apparently breaching the Dialogue’s impregnable wall of silence.

To understand the significance of the Dialogue in Australia’s diplomatic and security set-up we can turn to the recent comments of one of its participants and boosters, The Australian’s Paul Kelly.

The 9/11 decade has seen a truly dramatic deepening of the Australian-American alliance and personal concord. The furious domestic splits over the Iraq war and public rage towards George W. Bush are washed away with little cultural or strategic downside while Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard compete to be as pro-American as John Howard. Who would have believed?

At home, the Left was the big political loser from this decade. With Barack Obama in the White House, Labor has rarely been more pro-American as Gillard helps with Obama's war in Afghanistan and tells America it can still be great. The once notorious anti-American Labor Left is broken and silent. Through the decade, Australia's institutional bonds with the US surged with a free trade agreement, closer intelligence links, tighter military ties and stronger private networks typified by the US Studies Centre, the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and the Lowy Institute, let alone Rudd's addiction to kissing Hillary Clinton.

The worry in Australian politics is that the Greens may also be drawn into this post-9/11 silence when it comes to confronting the truths of the US-Australia Alliance. The ambivalence of Greens policies in this regard, and the remarkable refusal of its federal parliamentarians to criticize the Alliance during last-year’s Afghan War debate, are disturbing signs. Indeed it is not inconceivable that Green politicians have been, or may be, invited to participate in the Dialogue. They should certainly tell the Green membership if this is the case. If any have been approached, one can only hope they said no.

Kelly’s defence of the Dialogue points to one of its most alarming aspects, its duchessing of the Australian media. Dialogue critics Antony Loewenstein and Scott Burchill have highlighted the effects of participation of journalists in these meetings as part of their critiques of the wider failures of the media when it comes to critical reporting on the relationships between Australia and the US, and Israel. Foreign editors of the Murdoch and Fairfax press and former ABC journalist and MP Maxine McKew, have been participants in the Dialogue and last year, Chris Uhlmann, now co-host of the 7.30 Report, travelled to Israel with Fairfax and News journalists, and politicians from the major parties, at the invitation of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, a pro-Israel body modelled the Dialogue. The ABC apparently relaxed its rules to allow Uhlmann to attend and It would be interesting to know if ABC journalists are going to attend the Perth gathering, Key Fairfax and News journalists will no doubt line up again.

This unprofessional and unethical behaviour is something that the journalism profession, and their union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, needs to take up. This issue also needs to be confronted by academics, and the National Tertiary Education Union. Some academics are also Dialogue participants and the event has been hosted at universities. Secretive forums such as this is are in contravention of the openness of research and debate that is supposed to be at the heart of a university’s function.

But the Dialogue needs to be opposed on a more fundamental level as re-enforcing a relationship with the US that is essentially aimed at tying Australia to US military, economic and cultural imperialism. The Perth meeting may present opportunities for protest by antiwar activists and Western Australia has a good history in this regard. It is also an opportunity for protests by BDS campaigners given the close relationship between the Australia-US Alliance and support by both countries for Israel.

Hopefully the WA Greens would be to the fore in this. Nationally the Greens have an important role here and need to overcome their ambiguities over the US-Australia Alliance. As mentioned, these ambiguities are reflected in their policies, which are, in some ways, implicitly hostile to the Alliance, without explicitly saying so. They were also reflected in the parliamentary Afghan War debate where the Australian and US assumptions justifying military operations were challenged, but the Alliance itself not criticised.

With new Green Senators coming into office, the national parliamentary group needs to start probing the relationship between the major parties and the Dialogue, and the expenditure of public money involved in supporting this “:private” diplomatic initiative (hosting it at a naval base for example). The privacy of these types of initiatives is a furphy. The Dialogue is part a back-door means of carrying on diplomatic and security business beyond the normal scope of public accountability (difficult enough through official institutions, as the recent Wikileaks debate has shown). There is a parallel between “private” institutions like the Dialogue and the growth or private security and para-military organisations like Xe (Blackwater).

But over and above this the Greens to get off the fence, and come out clearly and publicly in opposition to the US-Australia Alliance. Confronting and criticising the role of Australian American Leadership Dialogue, and its secretive Perth deliberations, is a good starting point.

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